It is much easier to earn an NFL roster spot from on the field than from an exercise bike on the sideline.
Yes, it is an obvious truth, but this exact juxtaposition is playing itself out every day at Browns training camp in Berea. Cleveland’s roster currently lists five running backs, four of whom have at least a modicum of NFL experience. Unfortunately, one of them has struggled to get on the practice field and fight for his future in orange and brown.
No, I’m not referring to Trent Richardson, he of the kicked shin that kept him out of practice sessions last Friday and Saturday, and may, if you believe Tony Grossi, keep him out of the team’s preseason opener against the St. Louis Rams on Thursday at FirstEnergy Stadium. Let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter if Richardson plays on Thursday, or really at all in the four preseason games. It would certainly be nice to see him in there, but his health is surely more important than letting the fans see him run the ball in meaningless exhibitions. Further, many football minds much smarter than myself will tell you that running back is one of the positions that requires the fewest reps to get to full speed, as Richardson himself proved last season by putting together a solid rookie campaign after missing all of the preseason schedule recovering from knee surgery.
Instead I’m talking about Montario Hardesty, who has found himself tethered to an exercise bike, helpless to improve his roster odds through his play. The fourth-year runner was already facing a tough battle for a roster spot and playing time due to his history of injury trouble and the fact that he was drafted by the previous regime. Hardesty did enter camp as the incumbent backup to Richardson, but besides that his only other advantage may have been that he shared an alma mater – the University of Tennessee – with Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III.
But Hardesty has done little to help his case since camp opened. He has practiced just once since the team went to full pads as he attempts to rehab a hamstring injury on the aforementioned stationary bike. He must surely be wondering if each turn of the pedals brings him a little bit closer to the end of his time in Cleveland. He was still listed as the backup running back when the team released its first depth chart on Sunday, but that bicycle seat must be feeling even hotter than usual under the August sun.
Who has stepped into the void left by Hardesty’s personal Tour de Berea? That would be former Philadelphia Eagle Dion Lewis. The third-year player out of Pitt was acquired this April in the trade that saw linebacker Emmanuel Acho head to the City of Brotherly Love. While listed as the third running back on the Sunday depth chart, Lewis has been extremely impressive through the first week and a half of camp.
With Hardesty out and the team’s cautious approach with Richardson, Lewis has seen plenty of first team carries, which he has used to impress the new coaching staff. He has also displayed good hands out of the backfield, an attribute that Norv Turner’s offense stresses and Hardesty does not really possess. Further, he has shown a knack for elusiveness in the open field after making those catches, a skill that was on display at practice July 28 when he left safety Kenronte Walker rooted to the turf before walking in for a touchdown. He is also currently listed as the co-starting kickoff return man with Johnson Bademosi. Right now it looks like Lewis will start on Thursday, and don’t be surprised if he is RB2 the next time Chudzinski and his staff release a depth chart.
Even if he is overtaken by Lewis, all hope is not lost for Hardesty. The Browns look likely to keep three running backs on the roster, and with Chris Ogbonnaya’s conversion to fullback – where he is currently listed as the starter ahead of Owen Marecic – that leaves one spot outside of Richardson and Lewis, whose versatility should ensure his inclusion. It looks likely that spot will go to either Hardesty of Brandon Jackson. Due to the injuries, the veteran Jackson has had his opportunities thus far in camp. Not much has been reported about his performance, but you have to assume that this coaching staff likes the former Packer, as he was given a new one-year contract in May. It is still possible that the Browns keep four running backs as well as a fullback, but Hardesty certainly wants to get back on the field and earn a job rather than hoping he gets lucky when the final roster is announced.
Richardson is still the clear starter, and everyone in Cleveland hopes (and I believe) that his sophomore campaign will be one to remember for broken tackles rather than broken ribs. In spite of that optimism, having a capable backup or backups is essential at running back, one of the most punishing positions in the NFL. Dion Lewis has made his intentions to be that backup clear. Brandon Jackson has been getting his reps and is a proven player in the league. Let’s hope that Montario Hardesty can soon get off the bike and show Cleveland why Tom Heckert made him a second-round pick just three years ago.