Now that The Big Show Mike Holmgren has shored up his front office roster, it’s time for him–and for us–to look at the team’s roster. We’ve borrowed from the Department of Homeland Security and will be looking at each position group day by day, finishing with a roster upgrade ranking based on need. Check back each day this week for a new position group.
Today, I get the extreme honor to kick off WFNY’s Holmgren Report series with a look at the running back stable. Running back was a position that appeared to be of dire need at one point in the season, and then once Jerome Harrison exploded on the (lower end of the) NFL over the last three weeks of the season, it caused us to wonder if maybe things weren’t as dire as we might have once thought.
In looking at the running backs for 2010, there is one giant x-factor: Jamal Lewis, and Eric Mangini’s apparent love of him as the starting running back. It’s fairly ironic (to me, at least) that had Lewis not gone on IR late in the year, Mangini perhaps wouldn’t have given Harrison the nod in the last three games, we wouldn’t have seen a showcase of Harrison’s ability, and Mangini might not have won those last three games which most likely allowed him to keep his job. And most importantly, Harrison—who is a restricted free agent this off-season—might not have been kept in the team’s longer-term plans at all.
The 2009 Season
Starters – Jamal Lewis (HB), Lawrence Vickers (FB); Also seeing significant time – Jerome Harrison, Chris Jennings, James Davis*, and Josh Cribbs**
*missed most of the year due to injury, but saw a lot of playing time in the pre-season
**I’m including him here because the majority of his Wildcat snaps were running plays
It’s hard to get an accurate reading on what the Browns actually have at RB just looking at the 2009 numbers, but let’s give it a go, shall we?
Jerome Harrison – 194 carries, 862 yards (4.4), 5 TD; 34 catches, 220 yards (6.5), 2 TD
Jamal Lewis – 143 carries, 500 yards (3.5), 0 TD; 8 catches, 88 yards (11.0), 0 TD
Josh Cribbs – 55 carries, 381 yards (6.9), 1 TD; 20 catches, 135 yards (6.8), 1 TD
Chris Jennings – 63 carries, 220 yards (3.5), 1 TD; 9 catches, 56 yards (6.2), 0 TD
James Davis – 9 carries, 15 yards (1.5), 0 TD; 4 catches, 5 yards (1.3), 0 TD
Lawrence Vickers – 0 carries, 0 yards (0.0) 0 TD; 8 catches, 27 yards, 1 TD
It’s pretty easy to say that Jerome Harrison was easily the best player on offense (with apologies to Cribbs, who was probably the best all-around player). Harrison earned 1082 yards on just 228 touches (4.75 yards/touch) and scored 5 TDs, and truthfully was really only a big factor in five or six games (double-digit carries in six games). It’s hard to say that if Harrison had been the featured-back all season that he would have somehow come up with 1700 yards or something, as the defenses he faced the last three weeks when he did the bulk of his damage were clearly toward the bottom of the league. But, it stands to reason that Harrison definitely deserved to be a bigger part of the offense all season, and should be given the chance to build on his last three games into next year.
Jamal Lewis looked finished almost from the outset. He never managed a run longer than 18 yards, and his longest pass reception was for 19 yards. He lacked any kind of burst of speed, and his body is clearly showing the signs of a full career of using it as a battering ram on opposing defenses. I can’t fault Lewis for trying, but Eric Mangini’s insistence on starting him up until his season-ending injury prior to the San Diego game was misguided at least. I understand that Lewis carries a lot of clout in the locker room, and on a 1-10 team you want to keep your veterans with you, but Mangini also showed no qualms about making the “unpopular” decision. I know I’m using a bit of hindsight here in knowing what we know about how Jerome Harrison finished the year, but it’s also important to remember that Lewis missed both the Baltimore and Cincinnati games in weeks 3 and 4, and Harrison was solid those two games as well (45 carries, 173 yards; 3.8 ypc) against two pretty good defenses.
Josh Cribbs proved his overall worth by being a big factor in the Flash (nee, Wildcat) package and as a WR running reverses and such. Cribbs averaged almost seven yards per carry, and gained only 119 fewer yards on the ground than Lewis; the difference is that Cribbs did it in 88 fewer carries. It’s not really fair to include Cribbs in the “running back” review, but given the fact that he was the best “running back” on the team through the first 13 games he deserves the credit.
Finally, there’s Chris Jennings. Forced into duty after the bye week (he was signed from the practice squad prior to the first Bengals game, but had just one carry for eight yards in that game prior to week 10), Jennings did about all you could ask of him given the offense’s overall ineptness. His 20 carry, 73 yard performance was a big factor in beating the Steelers, and his nine carries for 38 yards (4.2 ypc) in relief of Harrison against the Jaguars were a solid contribution. No one’s going to confuse Jennings for an every-down running back, but he’s definitely a change of pace from Harrison and can spell The Ghost when needed.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the solid play of Lawrence Vickers. There’s no way to quantify with stats what he brings to the offense, but we could see Vickers’ worth during the final four game winning streak when the Browns were finally able to run the ball. Vickers didn’t carry the ball at all this year (I couldn’t believe it either, considering in his day Chud almost always did the quick-hand-off to Vickers in short yardage situations), but to me the mark of a good fullback is not his carries; it’s his blocking. Vickers showed me that if the Browns can make a move or two to solidify the right side of their offensive line that he continues to be a solid fullback in this league.
Browns Roster Upgrade Advisory – Guarded
2010 Contract Situations
Josh Cribbs – Seriously? Do you even have to ask?
James Davis – Signed through the 2012 season; 2010: $395,000; 2011: $480,000; 2012: $565,000,
Jerome Harrison – Restricted Free Agent; made $449,920 in 2009
Chris Jennings – Restricted Free Agent; made $310,000 in 2009
Jamal Lewis – Signed through the 2010 season; 2010: $2.4 million + $1.6 million roster bonus in March ($4 million 2010 cap charge)
Lawrence Vickers – Unrestricted Free Agent; made $530,000 in 2009
The nice thing for the Browns is that if Lewis retires, they have almost no money tied up in their RB corps. The problem there is that they also have some guys that could leave. I pinged The OBR’s Barry McBride to get the low-down on Lewis’s contract situation with respect to the salary cap (if it continues to exist this season, of course) as well as what Lewis could do if he dragged his feet, collected his bonuses, and THEN retired; Barry dropped some serious knowledge:
Lewis is under contract, so if he elects not to fulfill that contract, the team isn’t going to owe him most of that. He would have to work something out with the team at some point. Right now, he’s got a 2.4 million base salary, with 1.6 in two roster bonuses and a workout bonus. What’s interesting is that there’s no signing bonus, so the team doesn’t have to worry about dealing with any pro-ration. The only trick is that about $1 million of that salary is “guaranteed”, so I’m not sure how they work that out if he wants to walk away. My guess is that they would re-do the contract allowing him to walk away without any cap hit to the team, but we’d really have to talk to his agent to know how that would be handled. From what I can tell, if he changes his mind, refuses to retire, and the team dumps him, they would be stuck with about a million in “guaranteed” salary that would apply to the cap. Of course, there’s unlikely to be a cap anyway… … My guess is that they’ll work something out that will free him to either retire or go on a victory lap with the Ravens. Since there’s no pro-rated bonus, it shouldn’t be tough… no inside info on that, just sorta guessing on my part.
Given the lack of penalties, it doesn’t seem to hurt the team either way with Lewis. I tend to think Barry’s right that one way or the other Lewis won’t be on the Browns’ roster for the 2010 season. The first two priorities are to: 1) lock up Harrison and Vickers for 2010 and beyond, and 2) to decide if Chris Jennings merits another contract. After that, regardless of whether we assume Jamal Lewis to be retiring or staying, it’s hard to look at the Browns’ current running backs and not think they could use more depth. I would say this is only a “General” upgrade need, however, as there are definitely areas of greater need. The Denver Broncos of the late 90s/early 00s showed that a solid running back/game is easier to create with a good offensive line than the other way around. Personally, I saw enough from Harrison, Jennings, and anticipate a step up from a healthy James Davis to consider that a solid start for the 2010 RB depth chart—assuming, of course, all are on the roster come training camp.
There are some intriguing names out there in free agency, but none that I would consider a total game-changer (someone like Darren Sproles, for instance, wouldn’t have as much impact here as he does in SD because of Josh Cribbs, plus there’s no way the Chargers are letting him walk). Some names of note (listed alphabetically, lest I be accused of advocating…) include:
First and foremost, I admittedly don’t know enough about the NFL CBA to know how many of the UFA players are actually RFAs because of the switch to the uncapped year. That said, a few of those guys probably won’t be on the market (Sproles, Washington, Williams, Thomas, Brown), and most of the others would be “meh” kinds of signings in my opinion. With that in mind, it makes more sense to me to look for RB help in the draft. And, since there’s not an Adrian Peterson-type back available at #7, there are other needs at the top of the draft; let’s just say that with everything having been said here, the Browns can realistically get RB help in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft. With that in mind, some names of interest could include:
Dexter McCluster, Mississippi
Ryan Matthews, Fresno St.
Ben Tate, Auburn
Joique Bell, Wayne State (MI)
Monterio Hardesty, Tennessee
Chris Brown, Oklahoma
The Browns would be foolish not to do *anything* with their RB corps this off-season. It is my opinion, however, that the need here isn’t as dire as it is at other positions.