Rashard Higgins was part of the 1-15 and 0-16 seasons. He was cut in 2017 before being brought back on the practice squad. He spent most of last year in coach Freddie Kitchens’ doghouse.
“Year 5,” Higgins said Monday. “It has been a long five, let’s just say that.”
Yet after becoming a free agent after last season and having the opportunity to sign elsewhere, he chose to come back to Cleveland and made the roster.
“This is where I want to be,” the receiver said. “I put my best foot forward, continued to grind and continue to work hard like I always do. Let the tables turn how they turn. Here I am, Year 5.
“It means the world. Like I have been saying to a lot of people, I have been through here 0-16 and 1-15. To see everything turn around, us start winning and the things that we are promised, I want to be a part of that. I love everything about Cleveland. This is where I have been, this is where I was drafted and this is where I want to be. There is no place like Cleveland.”
The Browns didn’t rush to bring back Higgins when free agency started March 18. He finally agreed to a one-year deal for the $910,000 veteran minimum April 28.
Only after conferring with quarterback and friend Baker Mayfield, with whom he developed a bond on and off the field during the 2018 preseason.
“It meant a lot to me. He basically said, ‘Why would you try to second guess? This is where you belong,’” Higgins said, adding he had other offers. “There was no second guessing. Let’s do this thing.”
Higgins wasn’t guaranteed a roster spot but emerged from the crowded competition as the expected No. 3 receiver behind Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. KhaDarel Hodge, JoJo Natson and rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones are the other wideouts, with Hodge and Natson mostly special teamers in their careers.
“Rashard did a nice job,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “He grinded. He earned that role.
“I think you saw at practice he had some moments that were very impressive. There is obviously a rapport with the quarterback. They have thrown a lot of balls to each other. Excited for Rashard and then just looking forward to him being in that room and competing with the rest of the guys.”
Higgins hadn’t made a ton of plays in camp when he was praised by new coordinator Alex Van Pelt. Then the catches started to accumulate.
With Stefanski’s penchant for using multiple tight ends, and a pair of excellent running backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the No. 3 receiver likely won’t see a lot of action in some games.
“I would say everything is based on the matchup week to week, and that is for every one of our personnel,” Stefanski said. “We feel strongly about our depth at those positions, and we just want to utilize all of our guys to the best of their ability.”
Higgins believes he’ll get enough snaps to make an impact.
“Wherever I can be utilized in the offense, I am here for it,” he said. “Wherever I can be, even on special teams, just use me. That is what I told the coaches — just use me. I am here, so why not?”
Kitchens didn’t buy that message last year. They clashed over when Higgins was ready to return after a knee injury, and he caught only four passes in 10 games for 55 yards and a touchdown. He caught the winning touchdown against the Bills in Week 10 then was banished to the bench and didn’t catch another pass.
“Listen, I am out there for a reason,” Higgins said. “You guys know I can make the plays. There are people that believe in me and, most importantly, I believe in myself. When the ball comes to me, it is my job to make the play.”
Higgins began his career in 2016 as a fifth-round pick out of Colorado State. He has six starts in 54 games, totaling 76 catches for 1,016 yards, a 13.4 average and seven touchdowns. His best year was Mayfield’s rookie season of 2018 with 39 catches for 572 yards, a 14.7 average and four touchdowns.
“I can name on my fingers how many players have been here since I have been here,” said Higgins, whose tenure is only exceeded by those of left guard Joel Bitonio and long snapper Charley Hughlett. “Joel Bitonio was talking about the 0-16 a couple of days ago. I was like, ‘Dang, I was a part of that.’
“For us to be with different coaches and different staffs, we want to see change. If you were a part of that 0-16 team, that is the only thing in mind that you want — you just want to win.”
Despite all the adversity and the four long years, Higgins is thankful for the fresh start with the only organization he’s known. He thanked general manager Andrew Berry, Stefanski and pass game coordinator/receivers coach Chad O’Shea for believing in him and giving him another chance.
“I am very grateful,” Higgins said. “That just goes to let you know that I am valued. They know what I am capable of and they know I can make the plays, and that is my job at the end of the day.
“If somebody else believes in you, why not believe in yourself, as well? That only gives me motivation to keep going out and working even harder, just knowing that somebody else believes in you.”