The Cleveland Browns traversed the final weeks of the offseason with more pearl clutching than it would seem possible for such a short amount of time.
Starting with the agita over wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s lack of attendance at voluntary organized team activities, and continuing through running back Duke Johnson’s request for a trade, a veteran intervention for quarterback Baker Mayfield over his comments about Johnson’s trade request, and alleged reports of a rough road for head coach Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken, it has been a noisy few weeks for the Browns.
One player who may be benefitting from all the noise is second-year running back Dontrell Hilliard, who was picked as a “surprise offseason standout” by ESPN’s Jake Trotter:
With Duke Johnson Jr. still asking to be traded, Hilliard has made the most of his opportunities at running back this offseason behind Nick Chubb. Hilliard’s capability out of the backfield as a receiver and in the return game could translate into a pivotal role for the former undrafted free agent, especially until Kareem Hunt returns from suspension.
Trotter is not the only one who took notice of Hilliard’s efforts. Early on in Organized Team Activities, running backs coach Stump Mitchell said there is nothing holding Hilliard back, according to clevelandbrowns.com:
“Like I told Dontrell, all I know is that we drafted a guy with the Jets in the seventh round, and (Hilliard) wasn’t drafted at all, and this guy came from a historically black university and Dontrell came from Tulane, so there has to be a problem somewhere. And it’s not his physical skills.
”He’s got to believe that he belongs and we expect him to come out every day and make plays. I think what he has to understand is that he has to believe in himself as much as we believe in him. Now, he’s getting an opportunity. This is huge for him, and he’s having one heck of a spring training camp.”
That is a lot of praise - and perhaps high expectations - for a player that joined the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2018, did not join the active roster until October, and only posted nine receptions for 105 yards in 11 games as a rookie.
Hilliard has something the coaches like, however, and his presence helps take a bit of the pressure off if general manager John Dorsey ultimately decides to trade Johnson. If Hilliard proves he is up to the challenge during training camp and preseason, Dorsey can choose to trade Johnson without worrying about a major drop off with Hilliard filling Johnson’s role.
It helps that he Browns don’t necessarily need to rely on Hilliard (or Johnson, for that matter) to carry a heavy load on offense because they Nick Chubb and, after his eight-game suspension is complete, Kareem Hunt.
How this all plays out will make for an interesting storyline this summer, and unlike what Browns fans saw unfold during the past few weeks, it will actually be a story worth following.