The Browns just finished another double-digit loss season and questions abound throughout the roster. Are the Browns heading in the right direction? Do the Browns have a core to build around?
The OBR is breaking down the Browns current roster position-by-position. The second in the series is the breakdown of the running backs.
The running back position was viewed as a position of strength of the Browns as the Browns headed into the 2011 season. Fresh off being named to the cover of Madden 2012, Peyton Hillis was expected to provide the lion's share of the offense. He was coming off a career year where he rushed for 1,177 yards with 11 touchdowns. He also was the team's second-leading receiver with 61 receptions and two touchdowns.
Then the Madden curse seemed to strike. Hillis sat out the third game of the season with strep throat and things went downhill from there. He pulled a hamstring against the Raiders and missed close to half of the season. He finished strong in two of the final three games, but his season ended far shy of his 2010 season with 587 yards and three touchdowns. He also was far less involved in the passing game with 22 receptions for 130 yards.
Many of those following the Browns think it's a foregone conclusion that Hillis will leave via free agency this off-season. The Browns and Hillis' agent broke off talks mid-season, but Hillis said in his final interviews of the season that he wanted to finish his career with the Browns. Pat Shurmur said he and Hillis had ‘a very good conversation' in their season exit meeting.
The Browns brain trust Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur refused to address the Hillis situation and sound as though they are willing to let him test free agency. If that happens, it is unlikely Hillis will return as a suitor might come close to what he is seeking in compensation. However, even if he doesn't get the offer that he's hoping for, many times a player will take a similar offer with a new team just to save face.
With the uncertainty of Hardesty, it is likely the Browns would like for Hillis to return, but they will not break the bank to sign him. If Hillis truly wants to remain with the Browns, the ball likely will be in his court.
Hardesty is hardly a player that can be depended on to carry the burden after missing most of his two NFL seasons with injury. After missing the 2010 season with an ACL injury, Hardesty was slow in getting his knee into shape heading into the 2011 season. After he finally started to play, he strained his calf, which ended up holding him back for much of the remainder of the season. He finished with 266 yards on 88 carries for a 3.0 average per carry. Hardesty's longest run of the season was just 19 yards. He caught 14 passes for 122 yards. Hardesty has yet to score an NFL touchdown and has not shown what Tom Heckert saw in the former Tennessee standout enough to trade up in the 2010 draft to select Hardesty in the second round. Heckert even admitted he hasn't yet seen the player he drafted. He did say in the season wrap up that he is looking forward to seeing a healthy Hardesty play next year. I think all Browns fans are, as well, but with his injury history in college, it's hard to go into the season counting on Hardesty to be the feature back.
Ogbonnaya is an intriguing story (See Don Delco's story ‘The Curious Case of Chris Ogbonnaya'). He was signed off the Texans' practice squad after Hillis and Hardesty went down and literally stepped right into the lineup with only a couple of days practice. He had the Browns biggest rushing game of the season when he rushed for 115 yards against the Jaguars. He had 90 yards against the Rams. Ogbonnaya had the Browns longest runs of the season from scrimmage with a 40-yard burst against Jacksonville and a 28-yard run against the Steelers. After Hillis returned, Ogbonnaya was the third down back, but rarely carried the ball the rest of the season, just four times in the final five games. He finished as the second-leading rusher with 340 yards on 76 carries and a touchdown. His 4.5 average was the highest among the Browns running backs. He also caught 23 passes for 165 yards.
Brandon Jackson was signed as an undrafted free agent from the Packers after starting 13 games for the Super Bowl champions. However, he suffered a turf toe injury in the preseason and spent the season on injured reserve. He was signed to be the third down or change of pace running back. Jackson is expected to return fully healthy for the 2012 season.
Armond Smith made the roster coming out of training camp as an undrafted free agent. He might have been the fastest player on the roster, but when injuries happened to Hillis and Hardesty, the Browns turned to Ogbonnaya, rather than Smith. He carried the ball three times for two yards in his action in the early season. Smith's biggest claim was when he broke an 80-yard run for a touchdown in the preseason, but he also fumbled the ball away twice in the same game. Smith spent the majority of the season on the Browns' practice squad.
Owen Marecic was drafted in the fourth round to be the starting fullback. Marecic suffered two concussions during the season and ended up with four carries for eight yards. He also caught five passes for 31 yards. The Browns chose to let Lawrence Vickers leave via free agency and drafted Marecic. Vickers led the way for Arian Foster in Houston and the Browns missed his lead blocking greatly. Marecic should improve his blocking, but he has a way to go. It is concerning that he has already had two concussions in his rookie season.
Eddie Williams was on the practice squad as the backup fullback and was activated after Marecic went down with a concussion and Alex Smith went to injured reserve.
Bottom Line: The Browns should re-sign Hillis to give them stability at the position. If Hillis leaves via free agency, the team must sign a number one free agent to replace him such as Matt Forte or Michael Bush. Otherwise, running back would be a high priority for the Browns in the draft as Hardesty and Jackson cannot be counted on to be the feature back. They could use one of their top three picks on a back if they don't re-sign Hillis or another back. Ogbonnaya showed enough promise in his limited action to be in the mix.
(Next: A look at the wide receiving corps)