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Josh Gordon changes the Browns fantasy landscape

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In a rather stunning turn of events, the NFL reinstated Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon on Monday per NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport. Gordon will have to serve a four-game suspension to start the year but is finally set to take field for the first time since 2014.

There's a reason fantasy owners, especially those who play dynasty, have been patiently pining for this day the last year and a half. Josh Gordon is the prototype; the carved-from-stone model of a wide receiver. Standing at 6-foot-3 and over 220 pounds, Gordon can outrun just about anyone on the field, boasting a 17.1 yards per reception average. He's also undersold on his ability to smoothly separate on intermediate routes.

Josh Gordon's immense talent came together in full during the 2013 season. Despite missing the first two games of the year to yet another suspension, Gordon led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,646. He was the WR2 overall in fantasy that year, despite playing with a Jason Campbell/Brandon Weeden-led carousel of quarterbacks and being just 22 years old.

Frankly, at his peak Gordon is one of the best receivers in the NFL, a quarterback-proof fantasy superstar and a lethal threat in every phase of playing the position. Therein lies the rub: will we see Josh Gordon at his peak when he returns in Week 5 of the 2016 season?

When Gordon returned from, you guessed it, another suspension in 2014 he was a tick off the level of dominance he established in the previous season. He caught just 51.1 percent of his targets, averaged 60.6 yards-per-game and never found the end zone in the five games he played. Reports surfaced that he was both out of shape and struggling to pick up the offense.

It's important to factor those rough moments into your evaluation of Gordon in light of this news and not just get swept up in memories of 2013. It's especially pertinent to meditate on those struggles because many of those hurdles still remain. Since he last took the field for the Browns, the team has experienced even more turnover behind center and went through yet another change in their coaching staff. In regards to his conditioning and commitment, Gordon didn't always show the best judgment this offseason, including being linked to also-troubled former teammate Johnny Manziel multiple times.

With those factors considered and the fact it will be 22 months since Gordon's played football by the time he returns this season, it's foolish to pencil him into WR1 status immediately upon his return. However, he's such a rare and gifted talent that we cannot deny that it's within his range of outcomes.

The key to Gordon even approaching his 2013 output will be owed most heavily to his target workload. Gordon maintained a 27 percent share of the Browns targets in the 14 games he played during his elite season. The mercurial Jordan Cameron and deficient Greg Little checked in well behind him at 17 and 13 percent, respectively. Somehow, Cleveland has superior competition for targets in Gary Barnidge coming off a breakout season and exciting first-round pick Corey Coleman. With those two in tow, and ready to establish themselves in the first four games while Gordon is absent, it might be hard for the 25-year old wideout to even push for a 25 percent share. The questions at quarterback also make for minor concerns, but both Gordon in 2013 and Barnidge in 2015 showed they can succeed even with shaky play behind center.

With Gordon officially back on the scene in a tremendously real way, everything changes when projecting the Cleveland offense. Corey Coleman was a mid-round pick despite being a rookie simply on the assumption he would immediately assume the No. 1 receiver job on a depleted depth chart. Gordon's return doesn't take Coleman's value, but he likely falls to the double-digit rounds across all formats now and will mostly be a volatile big-play threat when Gordon returns in Week 5. Gary Barnidge looked like a safe floor play and the favorite to lead the Browns in targets for the second straight season. That's less of a secure projection now. Even Duke Johnson's slowly climbing PPR value should come to a small halt as he likely becomes the clear fourth option in a less than high-flying pass offense. Potential deep sleepers like Andrew Hawkins and Reception Perception favorite Rashard Higgins are likely off the redraft radar.

As for Josh Gordon himself, he is squarely on the mid-round radar across fantasy formats in light of his reinstatement. Depending on the aggressive mindset of your league mates, you could see him go as high as the fifth round and he likely won't slip any lower than the seventh. There is plenty of risk and downside to the selection, but Gordon has all the potential to be a league-winning pick.

Even if he doesn't produce near the pace of his wild 2013 season, he's too individually talented and comes with too secure of a target share too be anything worse than a high-upside WR3 in fantasy. For me personally, I'll start considering him after the receivers from Tier 4 in my rankings go off the board and will be more inclined to aggressively pursue him when drafting a WR-heavy team so that I'm insulated from his downside.

One thing is for sure, if Josh Gordon returns as currently scheduled to the Browns in Week 5, is in great condition with full focus and is even close to his peak form, this Browns offense is quite interesting. Gordon and Coleman form an exciting one-two punch with plenty of big-play ability, Barnidge's breakout was legitimate and there is talent in the backfield and youth at the end of the receiving depth chart. Hue Jackson is well-known for maximizing his offensive talent and his toolbox suddenly looks more stocked than what even he could have hoped for. If he can work with Robert Griffin III to get back to form, this Cleveland offense could offer surprising fantasy value.

Matt Harmon is an associate fantasy writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB or like on Facebook.

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