Last year we thought we’d introduce ourselves to Mike Holmgren by offering a report of each position group. The reports contained a ‘Roster Upgrade Advisory System’ not unlike that of Homeland Security. This year, even though the big show has been around for a year and has Tom Heckert in house, we thought we’d give the reports another shot. Previous reports: OL, DB, ST
Continuing Disclaimer: NFL teams looking to add pieces this offseason are in a bit of a quandry due to the pending labor issues that could halt free agency all together.
Much like last year, I’m taking a look at the running backs. And, in re-reading my post from last year (that upgrade need was listed as: Guarded), it’s amazing to look at the 2010 season and realize how the landscape changed almost entirely. In some ways, it was very, very good. In some ways, it was alarming.
I know some of you will look at the year that Peyton Hillis had and say, “High need of upgrade? YOU’RE HIGH!” and in some ways, you’d be right. But, for me, in looking at the running backs for 2011, there is one giant x-factor: the testy knee ligaments of Montario Hardesty. Are you ready to count on them? I’m sure not. And don’t get me started on Mike Bell.
Starters – Peyton Hillis (HB), Lawrence Vickers (FB)
Reserves – Jerome Harrison, Mike Bell, Montario Hardesty (pre-season), James Davis, Thomas Clayton
*Does not factor in QB/WR runs, or Wildcat runs not by RBs
It’s pretty easy to say that Peyton Hillis was easily the best player on offense, not to mention the best running back. His 1654 total yards on 331 touches comes out to an almost even 5.00 yards per touch. That’s good, especially since he was often the go-to guy for the offensive unit. And to think… how many times did Brady Quinn touch the ball the season? AND A DRAFT PICK.
Sorry, just had to throw that in. I think it’s required by law when talking about Hillis.
But, by the end of the season, it was obvious that the workload—combined with his style of running—was taking its toll on Hillis. As good as he was, he probably could have been better had he had someone to truly back him up during the large chunk of the season when he was THE option on offense. When you look and see that Jerome Harrison was second both in carries and yards in the RB corps, well, that’s not good when you consider he was shipped out before the trading deadline and played in only four games (did not record stats in the first Baltimore game).
So, as good as Hillis was—and he was GOOD—the rest of the depth was that bad. And that goes back in part to Hardesty and his balky knee ligaments. While a need level of “High” might be a little, err, high, I can’t just say, “Well, they’re getting Hardesty back, so all they need is depth.” I just can’t get there, because I don’t think Hardesty is ever going to stay healthy enough to carry the ball 150 times a year. The four best rushing teams in the NFL in 2010 carried the ball—as a team—over 500 times.
Kansas City—the league’s leading rushing team—carried it 556 times. The Browns? 413. And that includes WRs running reverses, QBs scrambling, and Josh Cribbs. Hillis did his part, with 270 carries. But, can he be counted on to carry the ball that many times every year? It would be a bit risky to do so. So, the Browns need a guy or combination of guys who, in my estimation, can carry the ball 200 times. They need somebody (bodies?) who can come in and contribute in a meaningful way. It is a HIGH need, and I don’t think Hardesty alone is enough to fill it. And, if Hillis gets hurt, without another reliable guy or guys, the Browns are DONE on offense unless their WR corps magically gets way, way better very quickly.
With the loss of Harrison via trade and the release of James Davis and Thomas Clayton, the Browns had four running backs on the roster as of the end of the season, and two of them are free agents:
Peyton Hillis – 2011: $555,000; 2012: Free Agent
Montario Hardesty – 2011: $405,000; 2012: $490,000; 2013: $575,000; 2014: Free Agent
Mike Bell – 2011: Free Agent
Lawrence Vickers – 2011: Free Agent
So, not really a lot under contract. Peyton Hillis is probably due some kind of a raise, but with the CBA status as it is who knows if that will happen. Beyond that, top priority would be to resign Vickers, unless the team is deciding to move away from the true FB (something Pat Shurmur’s offense in St. Louis did as 2010 progressed). The Browns did also sign a RB named Quinn Porter and a FB named Tyler Clutts to future/reserve contracts back in January. Please, please, hold your applause.
So, realistically? Not much in the fold right now. Which means, IMHO…
Browns Roster Upgrade Advisory Level: High
I don’t want to say it, but it’s possible that Hillis won’t ever repeat his performance from this season in terms of overall impact. Guy’s got an injury history, and was worn down by season’s end.
But even if he does, the Browns will need additional bodies that can carry the ball more than 31 times in relief of Thunder in 2011. He has an injury history, and it would be foolish to stand pat and hope that Montario Hardesty will be healthy enough to be the depth. Unfortunately, there’s no real “home run” in the draft or free agency, such as the latter may be. But remember: the Hillis trade was in large part and afterthought, and look how that turned out.
Let’s first look in terms of the draft. Would it be wise to use the sixth-overall draft pick on a running back? NO. Not only does the team has other, more glaring needs, but there isn’t really a legit top-10 running back in this draft. And, in addition to that, running back tends to be one of the easier positions to get good value in the middle and late rounds, as the jump from college to the pros isn’t as severe for running back as for other positions. To that end, should the Browns go through the entire draft without making a legitimate running back selection? Absolutely not. And that’s regardless of what they may do in free agency.
Here is a list of some of the top running backs in the draft, based on a few sources I researched:
Mark Ingram, Alabama
Mikel LeShoure, Illinois
Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech
DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma
Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State
Jordan Todman, Connecticut
Daniel Thomas, Kansas State
Allen Bradford, USC
Shane Vereen, California
Derrick Locke, Kentucky
Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State
Noel Devine, West Virginia
Da’Rel Scott, Maryland
Again, the Browns should not be picking Ingram #6, so that probably rules him out as he most likely won’t be there at 38. LeShoure probably won’t be, either, but you never know. Beyond those two, there really isn’t a lot of separation. My tendency would be to go for more of a third-down-back type of speed guy (since we already have two big backs) who can catch passes out of the backfield. To that end, I would not be opposed to someone like DeMarco Murray, who some have projected as a solid third down back who should be there in the third or fourth round.
If that’s even too high for you, don’t rule out a couple of guys like Shane Vereen from Cal, and Derrick Locke from Kentucky. They’re smaller, not-every-down-back kinds of players, but both can fly and will be on the board closer to the bottom of the draft. In terms of pure speed, a guy like Noel Devine will be there very late; he can fly, but he is TINY and may not be able to withstand the pounding of the NFL.
Notable free agent RBs, as of today (keeping in mind free agency may not happen at all this off-season without a CBA):
DeAngelo Williams (CAR), Arian Foster (HOU), Ahmad Bradshaw (NYG), Cedric Benson (CIN), Mike Tolbert (SD), Darren Sproles (SD), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (NE), Ronnie Brown (MIA), Ricky Williams (MIA), Michael Bush (OAK), Pierre Thomas (NO), Leon Washington (SEA)