Friday, July 31

Your '09 Cleveland Browns: Running Backs

It hasn't always felt like summer, but here we sit in late July. The All-Star game is history, training camps are firing up, fantasy leagues are drafting, and the Tribe has traded their latest Cy Young winner. Football season hasn't quite arrived, but it's not far away, either. With the Browns' roster basically set, it's time to give each position a closer look, starting with the running backs. I've thrown the fullbacks into the mix also, because frankly, it would be a waste of time to try writing a true "fullback preview".

The Cast
Starters: Jamal Lewis (RB), Lawrence Vickers (FB)
Backup: Jerome Harrison
On the bubble: James Davis, Noah Herron, Charles Ali(FB)

Glancing back...
After running the ball surprisingly well in 2007, Cleveland's rushing attack - and the offense as a whole - struggled mightily in 2008. Several factors likely contributed to the team's problems on the ground, including injuries and inconsistency from the offensive line, a passing attack that wasn't nearly as potent as it was one year earlier, and the fact that Jamal Lewis was banged up, and clearly wasn't running with his typical burst.

When Jamal Lewis arrived from Baltimore in 2007, he seemed pretty washed up. At the time, I certainly thought that signing Lewis was questionable at best. In 2005 and 2006, Lewis' yards per carry fell to 3.4 and 3.6, respectively, marking the first times he'd averaged less than 4.3 YPC in his career. But Lewis defied the critics in 2007, posting a healthy 4.4 YPC average, running for over 1,300 yards, and finding the end zone 9 times, as he helped the Browns become one of the NFL's pleasant surprises.

After adding depth on the offensive line and an additional wideout in Donte Stallworth, the Browns looked primed burn up the bulbs on score boards everywhere. As we know all too well, last season didn't exactly go according to plan. The offensive line was banged up and inconsistent at best, Derek Anderson played his way onto the bench, Brady Quinn's season ended prematurely due to a finger injury, Braylon Edwards couldn't catch a cold, Donte Stallworth became one of the worst free agent signings in Cleveland Browns history, and the last four games were quarterbacked by a combination of Bruce Gradkowski and Ken Freaking Dorsey (KFD, for short). Other than that, everything was peachy.

Taking the vast majority of the carries, Jamal Lewis' YPC plummeted by almost a full yard, down to 3.6. Even with 279 carries, Lewis barely cracked the 1,000-yard mark. Some of his problems can be chalked up to the problems of the offensive line (and well, the offense in general), but Lewis didn't look like he did in 2007, and his lack of burst was noticeable.

Questions about why Jerome Harrison wasn't getting more carries grew from whispers to screams of frustration by mid-season, and Harrison's continued absence was dumbfounding. In spite of averaging 7.2 YPC for the year (and 6.2 YPC the previous season), then-coaches Crennel and Chudzinski largely - and inexplicably - kept Harrison riding the pine.

The highlight of Harrison's season was his 72-yard touchdown run in Buffalo that helped the Browns notch their fourth and final victory of the season. Sadly, that was in week 11. In spite of the fact that he showed major flashes whenever he was given opportunities, Harrison received five or more touches only three times, and averaged less than three touches per game.

Coaches cited Harrison's lackluster blocking ability when explaining why he didn't play consistently, but when you see a guy display that kind of explosiveness, you find ways to get him the ball. The curious case of Jerome Harrison was just another example of how Romeo Crennel could, when evaluating certain players, allow minor flaws to compromise his judgment of the player's entire catalog of skills. In Harrison's case, Crennel definitely didn't celebrate the guy's entire catalog.

The other running back of consequence last season was Jason Wright, who skipped town during free agency to hang out with John McCain and play for the NFC champs. Wright had been with the Browns since he was signed in 2005, and had his best season in 2007, when he gained over 500 total yards. Although he lacked the raw skills to start, Wright was sound fundamentally and a solid third down back. No tears were shed upon his departure, although now all of my "Wright stuff" puns are toast.

Lawrence Vickers handled most of the fullback duties again last season, and Vickers is an above-average player, albeit at one of the most unappreciated positions on the field. In addition to being a sound blocker, Vickers has good speed for a big guy, and pretty solid hands. Vickers is fairly reliable as a safety valve receiver, runs well enough that he could be a serviceable goal line back, and he might even be able to split carries in a pinch.

The other fullback on the roster, Charles Ali, is more in the Terrelle Smith mould. Ali is a little slower and bulkier than Vickers, making him an effective blocker, but you don't want to see Chuck toting the rock. Ali did most of his work on special teams last season, and he also started four games when Vickers was sidelined.

I'm sick of talking about the '08 season. It's like Caddyshack II- let's just pretend it never happened.

Looking forward...

Let's just get the obligatory fullback discussion finished. Lawrence Vickers will once again break camp as the starter, and he should be an above-average player like he's been in the past. Although Vickers has the skill set to do more than just block, I don't expect Eric Mangini's offense to look for cute ways to get him involved. Vickers will block, and his touches should be few and far between. It's far from a certainty that Charles Ali will earn a roster spot, but my gut tells me that Mangini will like this guy. Ali is about as good of a backup fullback as you can hope for, and Coach Penguin may even prefer him to Vickers in certain formations due to his size. If Ali can show something on special teams, I think he sticks.

As much as I like Jerome Harrison, Jamal Lewis is the key to the running back position in 2009. Eric Mangini's offense will supposedly stress ball control and focus on a power running game, and Lewis is certainly the most power-oriented back on the roster. If the offensive line is better and Lewis is hitting on all cylinders, there's no reason to think he can't produce at a level either equal or similar to 2007.

As was mentioned earlier, an ankle injury hampered Lewis last season, especially down the stretch. Off-season ankle surgery should have rectified that problem. Although Lewis is going to turn 30 in late August (an age when many backs are put out to pasture) and has plenty of wear on his tires (1 carry short of 2,400), his legendary conditioning program is such that he might be able to play effectively well into his 30s.

With Lewis, there are two major question marks and they both relate to injury. First, will Lewis' bum ankle be good as new? And second, are we going to see a pattern of nagging injuries for Lewis that will have a cumulative effect? Unfortunately the answer to each query is anyone's guess at this point, but once the season starts, we'll find out quickly.

Although Jamal Lewis is the most critical cog in this season's backfield, expect to see far more of Jerome Harrison in the past. In my new book, Observing Incompetent Coaching, I devote an entire chapter to Romeo Crennel's incomprehensible neglect for Jerome Harrison over the last two seasons. The fact that Eric Mangini has liked what he's seen from Harrison and intends to get him plenty of touches should let me get to sleep this season without the aid of Jack Daniels. Honestly, Harrison's skills have been painfully obvious to just about everyone who's watched this team over the last two years.

But we've also heard these empty promises before when it comes to Harrison's playing time, so why should we believe Mangini? Well, for one, everything Mangini does has a purpose, and whether or not I agree with him, it's at least comforting to know that we won't be flipping any more coins to decide who starts at quarterback. But beyond that, there's precedent for how Mangini deals with having a speedy second fiddle like he had in New York with Leon Washington, and I'm certainly not the first to connect those dots.

Washington (Florida State) was drafted in the fourth round during Mangini's first year in the Big Apple, 2006. His rookie year, Washington split carries with Cedric Houston and Kevan Barlow, but was the most effective of the three options. In the 2007 off-season, the Jets traded for Thomas Jones (tough draw being named "Tom Jones" - how many times do you think he had to put up with "It's not unusual" jokes during his youth?), who replaced the three-headed monster as the featured back. Here's the encouraging part: even with Jones starting, Mangini made a point of getting the football into Washington's hands. Despite his reserve status, Washington never had fewer than 100 touches, and gained 566 and 803 yards from scrimmage, respectively, during the last two seasons. Mangini also utilized Washington to return kickoffs and punts.

We can probably expect Mangini to use Harrison in a similar fashion. Like Washington, Harrison is a good receiver, so expect to see some screens and swing passes mixed in. Eight to 10 touches per game is probably realistic. Josh Cribbs is such a phenomenal kick returner that we won't see Harrison returning many kickoffs, but don't be surprised if Harrison replaces Cribbs as the punt return man. That would give Cribbs a little more rest, and might allow Mangini to find some more creative ways to get Cribbs involved in the offense.

There are two questions for Harrison to answer. Number one: will his effectiveness diminish with double-digit touches? Although he's tried to add bulk, Harrison is still on the smaller side, and we don't know how he will handle the punishment that comes with significant playing time. Number two: will Harrison's blocking satisfy Mangini enough to install Harrison as the permanent third down back? If Harrison's blocking can merely be adequate, it would mean he wouldn't compromise the element of surprise for the offense. In other words, if the defense knows that Harrison can't block worth a lick, it's pretty likely that he'll be getting the ball in some way, shape, or form when he's in the game.

The other two backs vying for the number three gig are journeyman Noah Herron and Clemson product James Davis, a sixth round pick in April's draft. Herron is a name that might be vaguely familiar to some fantasy owners.

A seventh round pick of the Steelers in 2005, Herron couldn't cut it in Pittsburgh and ended up in Green Bay. He racked up 45 carries with the Packers in '05 during the final 3 games, as the Pack limped towards the finish line. Go! Pack! Go! In 2006, Herron had only 37 carries, but hit his high water mark in week 5, when he amassed 106 yards, scored a touchdown, and became waiver wire fodder for desperate fantasy owners. Unfortunately for those who took a flier on Herron (timidly raises hand), he saw very limited action for the remainder of 2006. Herron spent 2007 on IR, and spent about a month with the Buccaneers last season, with whom he didn't see any action.

James Davis was a four-year starter at Clemson whose draft stock fell after a lackluster senior year, which was due in part to a poor offensive line. Many draft pundits liked the value the Browns received when they selected Davis with their final pick in the sixth round. Here a link to DraftCountdown's scouting report on Davis. From that report, among others, it appears that Davis runs strong between the tackles, is a solid blocker, and a hard worker. On the negative side, Davis has poor timed speed, lacks agility, and isn't a very good receiver.

As a sixth round pick, Davis is hardly a stone cold lock to make the roster, but his upside should give him a leg up on Herron, whose inability to stick anywhere else should be a major red flag. Herron might have a shot at making the team as the second fullback and a special teams contributor, but I'm willing to bet Charles Ali will edge him out if Mangini decides to retain an extra fullback.

Assuming Davis makes the club, he probably won't see much action unless either Lewis or Harrison sustains an injury. That said, it would be smart to pay attention to Davis during the pre-season games, because he might very well be an important player in 2010.

We already know that Jerome Harrison has talent, and he's finally going to get some reps this season. If all goes well, you've got the "lightning" part of a backfield tandem covered. Jamal Lewis probably has some petrol left in the tank, but at his age you can't take anything for granted, and being on the wrong side of 30 doesn't make it any easier to recover from major injuries. If Lewis can't handle a sizable role in 2010, Davis may become integral. Davis doesn't have to be the featured back, but if he can just provide the "thunder" to Harrison's "lightning", grabbing him in the sixth round could turn out to be a real bargain.

On a quick tangent about organizational philosophy, I'm a huge proponent of adding running backs in the middle and late rounds, as opposed to drafting them high. In the "chicken or egg" debate between running backs and offensive linemen, I'm taking the lineman 99 times out of 100. Teams like Denver and sadly, Pittsburgh, have proven time and again that if you can open holes, it's not difficult to find someone to run through them. Ironically, both of those teams have broken tradition and spent first round picks on running backs in the last two drafts (Rashard Mendenhall and Knowshon Moreno).

The point is that there are two, maybe three backs in the league that are clearly superior to the rest (Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, and possibly LaDainian Tomlinson if he really was slowed by injuries and not age). Outside of those super-elite, there just isn't any reason to pay a premium for a position with a short shelf life, expendability, and fairly negligible differences in skill between the starters for various teams. It makes much more sense to draft a handful of backs late, hope a few pan out, and spend your premium draft choices on offensive linemen who make the rest of the offense better.

Eric Mangini only drafted one running back in three years in New York (Washington, a fourth rounder), although the Jets did trade for Thomas Jones. Next off-season will give us a better idea of how Mangini values the running back position, and how he plans to build there for the long-term. But regardless of what he thinks of running backs, we've learned that he's more than willing to invest high draft picks in offensive linemen. If rookie center Alex Mack can help solidify a line that has major questions on its right side, Jamal Lewis and the other backs should look forward to more room to run in 2009, and hopefully, a big spike in production.

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