It’s widely accepted that running backs take the most physical abuse and have the shortest shelf lives of any position in the NFL. So, while the Cleveland Browns begin their season against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday with Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, as their starter at halfback, one can’t help but wonder what in the world the front office is thinking with their backfield construction.
Richardson has the potential to be a very solid foundation, and that is always the first step in erecting any structure. But a few unfortunate injuries, along with some questionable decisions from the front office, have threatened to keep this metaphorical building from becoming anything more than an underground bomb shelter.
Entering training camp, the Browns backfield depth looked like it could build a skyscraper, or, at the very least, a five story apartment complex with nice exposed brick, a private gym, and all sorts of other appealing amenities. This was primed to be a backfield anyone would be more than happy to call home.
But then reality hit. Dion Lewis, who looked especially promising as a third down change of pace/scatback type player and also showed flashes on special teams returning kickoffs, fractured his leg in the team’s second preseason game. Montario Hardesty remembered that he is Montario Hardesty and underwent a rapid progression of injury. First it was a sore hamstring that sidelined him, followed closely by a sprained thumb that came on just his second rep in team drills after returning from the aforementioned hamstring knock. Finally, he put us all out of our misery for this season and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery that earned him another trip to season-ending injured reserve.
So that eliminated two important floors from the initial blueprint, leaving the Browns with Richardson, veteran Brandon Jackson, and two undrafted rookie free agents in Jamaine Cook and Miguel Maysonet. The two rookies were unsurprisingly cut – sometimes budget (roster) restraints force an architect to chop some of his planned features – and then Jackson was released on Sunday after posting an unimpressive 43 yards on 28 preseason carries.
So, at midday Sunday, the Browns had a grand total of one running back (Richardson) and one former running back who has been converted to fullback (Chris Ogbonnaya) on the roster. Say what they will about Richardson being the team’s offensive bell cow, but it is simply folly to carry only one running back on the roster.
How would the front office address this issue? Not by signing an experienced NFL performer like Willis McGahee, Michael Turner, Cedric Benson, or former Ohio State Buckeye Chris “Beanie” Wells. That would have been too logical. Instead, Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi opted to claim two former undrafted – and unproven – players off of waivers.
Bobby Rainey, who was claimed after being released by the Ravens, twice rushed for over 1,600 yards in a season while at Western Kentucky. Undrafted in 2012, he was only the eighth Football Bowl Subdivision player to record back-to-back 1,500-yard seasons, joining noted runners like LaDanian Tomlinson, Ray Rice, DeAngelo Williams, Darren McFadden, and Steven Jackson. Nevertheless, the 5-8, 212-pound back has zero NFL experience. Asking him to serve as Richardson’s primary backup will surely be an adventure as the Browns open the season on Sunday.
The Browns other backfield waiver claim was Dennis Johnson, a running back from Arkansas who signed with the Houston Texans after this year’s draft before being released. His college career was considerably less decorated than Rainey’s, as his best season in Fayetteville included just 757 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. However, at 5-7 and 193 pounds, he should provide a shiftier running style that could serve as a cheap facsimile of the injured Dion Lewis.
While either of these young backs could pan out, this is yet another situation that the new Browns administration has bungled. Go back and click on that link two paragraphs above. Could Banner, Lombardi, and company really not pick one player with real NFL experience from that list? The front office has made their aversion to signing veterans clear, but when the cupboard is that bare, it is hard to see the benefit of adding two unproven performers instead of picking one young player with potential and one veteran with a legitimate track record in the league.
Of course, one (or both) of these moves could work out and Johnson or Rainey could reveal themselves to be the next (insert random undrafted running back who comes out of nowhere to set the league on fire) and seize the backup running back position. However, this is the second time this week that I have written about a position group where the front office’s moves have left the entire fanbase scratching their heads and spewing snark on Twitter. Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi had better hope that one of these supposed lumps of coal hardens into a diamond. Otherwise, the Browns backfield structure may just topple in on itself.