Much like the team's quarterback situation, the Cleveland Browns see their running back situation remain unchanged heading into the 2008-2009 season. The Browns broke a 20-year drought of 1,000 yard rushers in 2005 when Reuben Droughns ran for 1,232 yards. However, it was Jamal Lewis' impressive 1,304 yards that gave the Browns the running game they've been searching for since returning to the league.
With pretty much the same offensive line returning, the chemistry can only get brighter in Lewis' second year with the Browns. Unlike the quarterback position though, there are some questions regarding our depth. Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison have their bright spots, but would somebody else -- like the recently discussed Kevin Jones -- help better diversify our backfield?
1. JAMAL LEWIS - STARTING RUNNING BACK
Experience: 7 years
Stats: 1304 yds, 11 TD
There are no "ifs", "ands", or "buts" about it: Jamal Lewis is by far the starting running back for the Browns. It's not a bad thing that we don't have competition for Lewis -- after all, aren't teams that have backs that they're confident in, like LaDainian Tomlinson, Joseph Addai, or Brian Westbrook, better off? Lewis was fifth in the NFL in rushing yards last year, and third in the AFC. Unlike Droughns' season in which he only ran for two sorry touchdowns, Lewis was able to pound it in nine times, even with Derek Anderson tossing 29 scores.
Worst Attribute: Facing the Steelers - I don't care what he did when he was with the Baltimore Ravens. As great at Lewis was last season for the Browns, he failed to deliver against the Steelers. Take a look at his stats against Pittsburgh last year:
Game 1: 11 carries, 35 yards (1 lost fumble)
Game 2: 16 carries, 35 yards (1 lost fumble)
Lewis only lost two fumbles all season, and at least in the second game, it was costly. Whether we like it or not, just like every other season, if we can't beat Pittsburgh, we're not going anywhere. Lewis had two of his worst games against Pittsburgh, and with the type of pressure they bring, we need the veteran back to carry us if necessary. However, the low carries also highlight another issue about Lewis: one that Plain Dealer writer Terry Pluto also pointed out a few weeks ago.
Lewis had less than 20 carries on five occasions last year. Each time, he averaged less than four yards per carry. In 7 of the 9 games that he did average 20 or more carries, he often averaged well over 4.0 yards per carry. Yes, that means the long-heard rumor of Lewis "getting stronger as the game goes on" is true. However, it also means that if Anderson and the passing game run into some road blocks early on, more times than not Lewis is not going to bring us out of a funk in the first half of a game.
Best Attribute: Closer's Role - The Cleveland Indians know all too much about how devastating it is not to have a real closer (thanks a lot, Joe Borowski). In football, the closer's role is very similar to the one in baseball: finish off your opponent at the end of the game when you have the lead. There wasn't a better example of Lewis embracing that role last year than this beautiful highlight against the New York Jets in Week 14:
When playoff season was just around the corner, Lewis only embraced his closer's role even better, including the Snow Bowl against the Buffalo Bills, when he racked up 163 yards on 33 carries. As far as what to look for in training camp this year, there's not much he can improve on at this point his career besides getting more acclimated to the offensive playbook.
Various Concerns / Comments - A popular topic regarding Lewis is what will we do if he suffers another injury. As injury-plagued as he has seemed throughout his career though, he has still participated in 106 out of the 112 games he's been eligible to play in. The big issue when he came to the Browns last season was the downhill spiral he had been on: in his last two years with the Ravens, he only averaged 3.5 yards per carry. He seemed to reach his prime again with the Browns, but there are still people who are weary on whether or not he can deliver two years in a row.
My opinion? I think he's healthy, and I think our offensive line is much better than the Ravens' was in those two down years.
Job Security: A+
Player Quality: A-
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. JASON WRIGHT - BACKUP RUNNING BACK
Experience: 4 years
Stats: 510 total yards
The fourth-year back out of Northwestern has drawn different opinions amongst Browns fans in terms of what he's capable of. Some believe he's extremely underrated and could start, while some believe he can't handle the load if Lewis goes down. I wouldn't go as far as saying he could start: it's impossible to make that type of judgment on someone unless they are a Michael Turner. After some solid spot situations last season though, has Wright proven himself to the point where we don't need to sign another veteran back?
Worst Attribute: Middle of the Road - Wright isn't going to drive a pile forward like Lewis will. And, he won't outrun a defense to the sideline like Jerome Harrison can.
Best Attribute: Good Fundamentals - The "worst" section was short for a reason: it quickly leads to Wright's best attribute. Whenever Wright enters a game, he may not have the skills to take over a game, but he understands the role he is playing. Most impressive last season was Wright's ability to have a substantial gain, despite the fact that he received minimal carries:
|Week 3: 1 carry (Long = 13)||Week 13: 1 carry (Long = 9)|
|Week 4: 2 carries (Long = 15)||Week 15: 3 carries (Long = 10)|
|Week 12: 3 carries (Long = 10)||Week 16: 3 carries (Long = 18)|
I've been calling for the Browns to utilize the burst that Jerome Harrison appears capable of providing. When you look at the facts though, isn't Wright already fulfilling that role? He's not too bad of a receiver either: 24 catches for 233 yards last season.
Various Concerns / Comments - Despite Wright's success, will Harrison finally be able to usurp the backup running back role from him? In reality, if Lewis goes down this season and we don't bring in a veteran, you may see Harrison start so that Wright can maintain his effectiveness as a backup / spell back.
Job Security: C+
Player Quality: C+
Final Roster Odds: 99%
3. JEROME HARRISON - BACKUP RUNNING BACK
College: Washington St.
Experience: 2 years
Stats: 23 carries, 6.2 ypc
Remember my self-addressed question above, when displaying Wright's long-carry statistics, on whether or not that was good enough to hold the backup role to Lewis? In limited action last year, my supposed "man-crush" did everything a guy could do to warrant more playing time. With every time he shined though, it seemed like he would be on the inactive list the very next week. Now, here's the question for Harrison: is his potential, which actually netted a few more yards on average than Wright, worth more playing time?
Worst Attribute: Blocking Skills - Slightly smaller than Wright, the biggest knock by far on Harrison, and probably the sole reason he was inactive so often last season, was the fact that he wasn't a great blocker. Forget "great" blocker -- he wasn't even deemed as a "good" blocker. Various sources have already reported that blocking is something Harrison has worked on in the offseason. It's hard to believe he's significantly better at blocking now though -- of course everyone works on something, but few people see results worthy of an applause.
Now comes my big argument countering Harrison's weakness: why does he need to be a great blocker? The concern is probably this: "if Harrison is in the game and we go for a playaction pass, Jerome will get bowled over and Anderson won't have time to get the ball downfield." My response: if Harrison's in the game, give him the ball. It may seem predictable after awhile, but then again, I watched Cribbs touch the ball probably 95% of the offensive snaps he took while in the backfield or in motion last season, and every time it resulted in a positive gain.
I think the Browns are out-thinking themselves when it comes to Harrison. Utilize his strengths, and when you need a blocker, just assign the appropriate personnel.
Best Attribute: The Burst - I have visions of Harrison racing down the sideline, especially after a defense is gassed. Most of all, in training camp, I hope the Browns focus on working in screen plays to Harrison. Again, I don't doubt teams will know it's coming. However, I do doubt their ability to stop the play from being successful.
Various Concerns / Comments - Harrison has had some ball security issues in the past, which is why I wouldn't give him too many reps in a game. He will get so fired up after a play or two that he'll search for even more on the third play, causing him to lose focus of the players trying to strip the ball away from him. Last year, we heard Harrison would get more opportunities. Nothing truly materialized. We're hearing the same talk this year. Will there be a difference?
Job Security: C
Player Quality: C+
Final Roster Odds: 95%
4. AUSTIN SCOTT - UDFA RUNNING BACK
There isn't a lot of competition at the running back position beyond the top three guys, but at this point Scott has the best chance to make an impression.
Reportedly, the team sees him as a developmental running back. He's a very tough player and can run through tackles. Unfortunately, too many of his other skills are yet to be polished. One thing to keep a close eye on is whether he takes to the challenge of outshining Harrison, who is usually outstanding in training camp.
The bottom line? He's the only back with a chance to take away Harrison's spot, but the chances of that happening are very, very slim. If he shows enough potential and can contribute on special teams, he could be on the practice squad. Over at our Penn State corresponding SB Nation website, they recently had the following to say regarding Scott:
Of the PSU players who went undrafted but were picked up by NFL teams, which one has the best chance of actually seeing playing time in The League?
"...but I would say Austin Scott probably has the best chance. With his troubles seemingly behind him he can focus on football again. And in a town like Cleveland he won't be as exposed to the temptations of the big city lights and glamor like New York or California. Jamal Lewis is the feature back there, but you have to wonder how many years he has left."
Final Roster Odds: 2%
Practice Squad Odds: 40%
5. TRAVIS THOMAS - UDFA RUNNING BACK
Thomas' expectations aren't too high heading into camp. Like Scott and Harrison, he'll have to make his mark on special teams, a role he contributed towards at Notre Dame.
As a running back, Thomas is reportedly a short-yardage back at best who isn't cut to make it at the big league level. Even if he did have the potential to break out, his reps will be limited in camp.
Our Notre Dame SB Nation correspondent over at Rakes of Mellow didn't seem to be too high on Thomas' stay at Notre Dame. Here's an example:
November 3rd, 2007 vs. Navy: The Streak Ends
..."the final score was 46-44 in three overtimes, with the final play a microcosm of the entire season: Travis Thomas sucking really badly as the offensive line got no push, leading to a bevy of text messages from friends that included various levels of capital letters and exclamation points asking "Travis Thomas?!? REALLY?! TRAVIS THOMAS?!"."
Final Roster Odds: 0%
Practice Squad Odds: 2%
RB Position Quality (Overall): B
The Browns' grade is elevated at running back due to an impressive effort from Lewis last season. However, we probably don't have our running back of the future behind him, thus the grade of a 'B'. I can't get too excited about how well Harrison produces in camp, because he did well the past two years only to see minimal playing time. What will be more important in camp are the situations he is placed in: is he always going to be with Quinn or Dorsey (second- and third-string), or will he get special packages in the first team with Anderson?
Another viable option at running back is Joshua Cribbs. Unlike quarterback, I think Cribbs can be used effectively on certain downs in the backfield. Officially, he had 9 carries for 61 yards last season. Although I'd like to see Harrison receive more reps in the backfield, the same goes for Cribbs too -- putting him back there at least once or twice a game creates opportunities.
I don't think we'll bring in a veteran like Kevin Jones to camp. The staff seems to have indicated that while the concern behind Lewis is there, they are satisfied enough with what they have. If you have any thoughts you'd like to add to the Cleveland Browns running back situation heading into training camp, please feel free to express yourself as much as you'd like!
NEXT UP (SATURDAY): Fullback (that's right; all two of them!)
P.S. Hope everybody had a Happy 4th of July!