As the Cleveland Browns head into another season, injuries appear to be opening doors for players who may have been staring at a different set of circumstances roughly one month earlier. With the latest bout of bumps and bruises bubbling up in Berea, the Browns backfield is suddenly a sizeable question mark with second-year back Montario Hardesty now looking at a primary backup role to Peyton Hillis, the man for whom an injury one year earlier opened a door to what would ultimately be several flattened defensive backs and the cover of Madden 12.
Brandon Jackson’s recent run-in with turf toe will reportedly keep the man who was dubbed a “key guy” just two weeks earlier on the shelf until Week 5. Hardesty, fresh off of a year-long rehabilitations stint with his surgically repaired knee, will go from a guy who was on the roster bubble – NFL Radio’s Gil Brandt hinted that the Browns could consider moving on without him this past weekend – to being a “key guy” himself as the Browns look to lighten the load on a running back in Hillis who experienced evident fatigue at the tail end of the 2011 season.
With Jackson’s toe and Hillis’ recent down time with a hamstring pull, the backfield has been occupied by the rebounding Hardesty and a handful of players who are looking to make a living as professional football players like Quinn Porter and Armond Smith. Considering that this team found itself in a considerable bind during times when Hillis had to take a few plays off, backfield durability is an obvious concern with 13 days until Week 1.
“I don’t know what to think in terms of the durability there right now,” head coach Pat Shurmur stated following the team’s walk-through on Sunday. “We’ve got a guy coming back from injury and one that’s banged up right now. We’re keeping our eyes open at a lot of positions to possibly help bolster the roster. We’ll see how that goes as we finish our fourth preseason game.”
As it was with Eric Mangini during his two season’s under headset, ball security is something that Shurmur harps on from all of his players. Smith currently leads the team in ground yards with 145, largely due to his 81-yard scamper against the Green Bay Packers. Despite his all-around electric speed in the open field, the aforementioned Smith has also had considerable issues holding on to the football, fumbling twice against the Detroit Lions but again against the Philadelphia Eagles one week later. Porter is averaging 4.2 yards per carry and has snagged a pass out of the backfield, but also put a ball on the ground against the Lions.
On Monday, Shurmur insinuated that the team has packages in place that could feature both Hillis and Hardesty sharing the same backfield. Noting the physical style of Hillis’ ball-toting and willingness to take on a straight-on blow, having depth behind Madden’s cover boy is imperative. Thankfully, instead of turning to a player of Mike Bell’s ilk, the Browns do feel that they have a solid reserve back in the form of Hardesty who can help carry the load until Jackson is fully healthy.
“I know why Tom [Heckert] drafted [Montario] because I evaluated him when he came out,” Shurmur said. “I just had a different mailing address. I think we’re starting to see what he is and was in college. I’m hopeful that he’s going to get to that level.
“He’s quick, he’s got excellent vision. Again, much like a lineman blocking in there, the holes and creases aren’t always large and you’ve got to be able to press it and jump through it. I think he can do that well. He has the instinct to run to day light. I think he’s a solid guy in terms of his physique where he can be a good pass protector and I think he also catches the ball well. That’s what we expect to see.”
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