Continuing with our Week 1 training camp preview schedule (Offensive Attack), today we begin the discussion on the running back position for the next several days. For those wondering where the fullbacks will fit in, fear not; Lawrence Vickers and Charlies Ali will have their own brief fullback preview this Friday.
Looking at the Browns' roster, we don't have a starting running back of the future on the bench. With an offensive approach focused on the ground game this year, a lot of our success may depend on the health of Jamal Lewis.
1. JAMAL LEWIS - STARTING RUNNING BACK
Everybody on the Browns' offense had a down season last year, including starting running back Jamal Lewis. After an impressive campaign in 2007 in which he ran for 1,304 yards and 9 touchdowns, he barely cracked the 1,000-yard milestone in 2008.
The best number to look at is yards-per-carry average.
2006: 3.6 yards per carry (with Ravens)
2007: 4.4 yards per carry
2008: 3.6 yards per carry
When the Browns signed Lewis as a free agent in 2007, many of us thought we were getting a Lewis on the downside of his career. After the 2007 season, while we didn't think Lewis was in his prime, it seemed logical that he would be able to maintain successful production over the next several seasons. Two years later, we're again wondering what type of Lewis we're going to get this season. While much of the problem last year was Romeo Crennel's and Rob Chudzinski's failures to give him the ball in the second half of games, on the several instances that he did get to carry the load, he came up short of his own expectations.
If the drop in production was indeed a byproduct of the lack of production and lack of smart game-planning surrounding him, then things will be much different this season.
Worst Attribute: Facing the Steelers - This is a direct carryover from what I listed as Lewis' worst attribute last season -- facing the Steelers. Here is what Lewis has done against the Steelers since joining the Browns:
Game 1 (2007): 11 carries, 35 yards (1 lost fumble)
Game 2 (2007): 16 carries, 35 yards (1 lost fumble)
Game 3 (2008): 19 carries, 38 yards
Game 4 (2008): 23 carries, 94 yards
Let's ignore his inflated statistics in Game 4, as that game was when the Browns were already eliminated from the playoffs in Week 17, and as the Steelers were already in the process of blowing us out 31-0. If the Browns are ever going to get over the hump and if Eric Mangini is ever going to make an impression in the AFC North, it'll have to come through defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers. So far, Lewis isn't cutting it. It is extremely difficult to run against the Steelers, but you need at least around 70 yards a game to contend. Mangini will need to find a way to ensure that Lawrence Vickers and the offensive line are focused on their assignments every time Lewis touches the ball.
Best Attribute: Having the Bulk - This is a new title to the attribute I'm giving to Lewis this year; last year I called him a solid closer. Today in the NFL, the top defenses are getting younger, faster, stronger, and smarter. The days of having a single running back being able to physically abuse a defense single-handedly are disappearing. In the past, Lewis' bulk alone could wear down a tired defense in the fourth quarter. That's where Mangini's approach of the offensive line having more bulk (and in turn aiding the run game) will come into play. When Lewis pounds the ball, he can truly pound the ball as opposed to being met in the backfield. Lewis' size advantage is supposed to come into play when he reaches a smaller linebacker in the second unit or a defensive back in the third unit. If our offensive line can get him there more often, Lewis can begin to use the power he was unable to showcase the majority of last season.
Various Concerns / Comments - A year after Thomas Jones' production was low with the Jets in 2007 (3.6 yards per carry and 1 touchdown), it shot through the roof in 2008 (4.5 yards per carry and 13 touchdowns). Mangini is installing an offense that will give Lewis the opportunity to provide the type of production Jones did last season. If he doesn't capitalize, then Mangini will certainly have no problems giving more touches to whomever he deems as our team's Leon Washington.
Job Security: A+
Player Quality: B
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. JEROME HARRISON - BACKUP RUNNING BACK
Week after week, Romeo Crennel would almost promise the fans in press conferences that Jerome Harrison would receive more playing time against whoever our next opponent was. Unfortunately, that usually meant that instead of 1 carry, Harrison would receive 2 carries. The only people that appeased were the opposing team's coaches.
Forgive me if I burst into another Harrison love-fest here, but he really can and should be the "X-factor" for our offense this season, even over the propositions I've made about Joshua Cribbs in the past. In limited action two years ago, he averaged 6.2 yards a touch. That didn't earn him much more playing time last year, as he had about ten more carries with a 7.2 yards per carry average.
Based on Mangini's trend with the Jets, hopefully Harrison is in luck. Leon Washington, who played a very similar role I envision Harrison being capable of, accounted for 803 yards of total offense and 8 touchdowns last season. That's pretty darn good for a backup running back, especially when you're starting running back ran for over 1,300 yards. Besides these stats outlining how good the running backs are, it shows me that Mangini knows how to utilize his roster (unless of course you have a renegade like Brett Favre).
Worst Attribute: Blocking Skills - Much like we can't say Braylon Edwards is cured from having stone hands because he is catching the ball in practice, we can't keep buying into the media and coaches when they say year after year that Jerome Harrison's blocking has improved. This was the reason Crennel never played Harrison in the first place, and while Crennel's reasoning was flawed on a larger scale, Harrison was clearly at a disadvantage on plays he was asked to block on.
I still say that something like this can be amended simply by not putting Harrison in very many blocking situations. Every time Joshua Cribbs was at quarterback or running back last year, the defense knew he was going to get the ball but still had difficulty stopping him. With the right play calling and a few simple "chips" in blocking, Harrison should be good to go.
Best Attribute: The Burst - From last year's training camp preview, I wrote:
"I have visions of Harrison racing down the sideline, especially after a defense is gassed."
And my visions came to fruition...
Various Concerns / Comments - Many people, especially those who are not fans of the Browns, probably think it is wishful thinking to believe that Harrison could become a contributor like Washington has in New York or Darren Sproles has in San Diego. I bought into Harrison's potential a long time ago, and with Mangini's history towards Washington, I'm not going to stop buying into it any time soon.
Job Security: B-
Player Quality: B-
Final Roster Odds: 98%
3. NOAH HERRON - FREE AGENT RUNNING BACK
Don't be surprised that RB James Davis isn't listed third here. While the first two running back positions are pretty much set in stone, three on down are not. Since Davis was a sixth-round draft choice, a roster spot is far from a guarantee for him.
Herron was originally a seventh-round draft choice by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2005. That's the same year the Browns took offensive tackle Jon Dunn in the seventh round. He was so forgettable that if I would've made up a random name, I bet many of you would've bought it just as well. Anyway, Herron didn't last long with the Steelers and was signed by the Green Bay Packers as a free agent. While his stats in 2005 were not too impressive, he averaged 4.1 yards a touch in 2006 and caught 29 passes in limited action. That season, he was asked to step up at times due to injuries at the running back position for Green Bay.
When the Packers got rid of Ahman Green in 2007, Herron was scheduled to compete for a starting role in a three-way competition with Brandon Jackson and Vernand Morency (funny enough, Ryan Grant basically ended up winning a competition he wasn't even involved in). A sprained knee forced the Packers to put Herron on the injured reserve though; after that, he hasn't seen much action in the NFL. What type of impression will he make in Cleveland? Will he make the roster in place of fullback Charles Ali? We shall see.
Job Security: D
Player Quality: D+
Final Roster Odds: 40%
4. JAMES DAVIS - ROOKIE RUNNING BACK
One of the things I'm still looking forward to is the potential for a student-teacher relationship between James Davis and Jamal Lewis. When he was drafted by the Browns, the Plain Dealer noted that Davis went to the same high school as Lewis:
"When I was in high school, he always used to come back to the school and I went to Atlanta and trained with him a couple of times," said Davis. "He's a great running back and his workout is really tough."
The coaches have already praised Davis from his minicamp sessions, and he shouldn't have too difficult of a time leaping over Herron during training camp. Thankfully, the Browns showed no apparent interest in retaining Jason Wright (who went to the Arizona Cardinals); that left the void that Davis will likely fill. Nonetheless, I wouldn't guarantee his roster spot just yet. Davis was the team's final draft pick in the sixth round, and there is a legitimate chance that he would be able to slip to the practice squad if necessary. On the same note, he was originally pegged as going as high as the fourth-round. In that sense, you could look at him as a "steal".
Scouting reports indicate that Davis is a good north-south runner. Like Harrison though, he is lacking as a blocker. That's where Herron might pick up an advantage.
Final Roster Odds: 75%
Practice Squad Odds: 80% (if he were cut)
5. MARCUS THOMAS - FREE AGENT RUNNING BACK
The Browns quietly signed Thomas back in January. He was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the fifth round of last year's draft, but failed to make the final roster cuts. The Detroit Lions picked him up but only utilized his services for three games.
If you'd like to learn more about Thomas, listen to the people at DraftGuys TV ramble about him on YouTube, as they sprinkle in some college highlights too.
*EDIT (7/21/09): Thomas ended up being waived prior to the start of training camp.
Final Roster Odds: >1%
Practice Squad Odds: 10%
RB Position Quality (Overall): C+
We're hoping for a lot this year. We're hoping that Jamal Lewis returns to form. We're hoping that Jerome Harrison can perform if given the opportunity. We're hoping that James Davis or Noah Herron would be able to pick up the load if Lewis goes down to injury.
Unlike many other teams in the league, we don't have a young running back that we've invested a lot in. We're bound to take a youngster in next year's draft early on, but until then, the running back position is shaky for the Browns.