It is natural that Trent Richardson is the focus of significant attention because he was the third pick of the draft last year, is expected to be the focal point of the offense, and showed significant talent early last year before injuries and overuse wore him down and made him look far worse than his talent suggests. The fact that the Cleveland Browns are resting him as a preventative measure out of concern that he will develop stress fractures in his legs due to compensating for the pulled muscle in his shin has caused some fans much angst. While they should not be worried about Richardson as he would play if there was a game tomorrow, his absence creates a situation forthe rest of the running backs on the roster to show what they can do and get all of the carries he will not in training camp, should he need to be rested. The Browns gain nothing from running him into the ground against their own guys and there are backs on this roster who want to prove their worth for this team and there is talent worth keeping an eye on to help supplement what Richardson brings to the team in the regular season and in the future, hopefully the post season.
The best case scenario is that Trent Richardson would be perfectly healthy right now and ready to hit the ground running in the regular season. He is not perfectly healthy right now but he should still hit the ground running in the regular season. Richardson knows his job and while he could do some work on getting better as a receiver and blocker in the backfield but he was well prepared as a rookie coming out of Alabama. Beyond that, he knows how to play the position and how to run the football. If this was just about any other position, this would be a potential issue but not with running backs and not with Richardson. In fact, Nick Saban saved him for the regular season quite a bit, so this is nothing new and most of this rest and treatment is more preventative than anything else.
The fact that the Browns are taking such a precautionary approach to Richardson is a far different approach than Pat Shurmur did last year, who ran Richardson with broken ribs and a knee that was not 100% even when it was in meaningless games when the team was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. The flashpoint of Shurmur’s incompetence in this area was made clear when the Browns were playing the Denver Broncos in garbage time with Colt McCoy throwing bounce passes late in the fourth quarter. Richardson was rolled up on while pass blocking, with broken ribs and all. He was fortunate to escape with a mild ankle issue as it could have been a career altering injury, all in a game that meant nothing. The fact that the new regime is being so protective of Richardson should make him not only feel like the team cares about his future here but should help him stay healthier in the season. If the Browns had a game today, Richardson could easily play, but the fact that he is being saved for when the games count has opened up opportunities for his teammates and the rest of the stable to compete and get better to help him.
While Richardson is expected to the bell cow and feature back in the Browns offense, they do have players that contribute behind him and the Browns coaching staff now here is far more willing to use them all. As was pointed out by Justin Higdon of DraftBrowns.com, Norv Turner has made it a practice to keep four running backs in his past. It may not be a lock to happen this season but the Browns do have guys worth holding onto who should be able to take advantage of in Richardson’s absence including Montario Hardesty, Chris Ogbannaya, and Dion Lewis.
To this point in his career, Hardesty has been a disappointment and he would probably the first person to speak to that reality. Between injuries, some struggles with catching the ball, and a running back rotation with no rhyme or reason, Hardesty has had trouble getting many opportunities to carry the ball or much of a rhythm in the NFL. Even when Richardson was clearly compromised last year and Hardesty was playing more effective, Shurmur kept giving it to Richardson. Hardesty looked good as a sleeker back with incredible explosiveness and a great first step after getting down to playing at a lower weight; a move that agreed with him on the field. He was a quick back to counter Richardson’s more deliberate power, especially when Richardson was laboring with his knee. For whatever reason, he still saw little action and the way the rotation was handled was confusing to anyone who watched him play. While many fans will immediately jump on Hardesty because of an ugly game with drops, Hardesty is someone who can contribute as a receiver out of the backfield and needs to just get over it and move on the way Greg Little did. He is also a great change of pace for Richardson and should be used more, especially when he gets a hot hand as he did a few times last year only to promptly be put back on the sideline. The new coaching staff has no loyalty or attachment to him, but Hardesty is easily the most talented back not named Richardson on this team and it would be an upset if he did not win the second spot on the depth chart. Hardesty could be a pleasant surprise and a nice bonus for this team this year if he convinces the coaching staff to believe in his talent and makes the most of his opportunities.
Another victim of poor utilization, Ogbannaya may as well have gone into the game wearing a sandwich board that said the Browns were going to pass. Apparently Shurmur thought opposing defenses were too stupid to notice that despite the amount of time he was on the field, Ogbannaya had all of eight carries in the fifteen games he played last year. Ogbannaya can block and catch out of the backfield, but he is somewhat who can contribute as a runner as well and if a team is not going to at least keep defenses honest by giving him the ball, the only time he can be used is in painfully obvious passing situations, because as was seen last year, defenses noticed and completely changed their look depending on who was in on third down. The result was a far more difficult time for rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden in third down situations.
The wildcard could be Dion Lewis who is a shifty, agile back from the University of Pittsburgh, which seems to be something Joe Banner has developed an affinity. In Philadelphia, the Eagles got LeSean McCoy out of Pittsburgh and they also took Lewis. Banner is here and he acquired Dion Lewis via trade. It was a little surprising the Browns were not able to get Ray Graham into camp as a tryout player for the same reason as he also went to Pittsburgh and had the same profile and style. It remains to be seen what Lewis will do for the Browns and what role he could fill, but he has been a player that has impressed in the limited opportunities to get on the field he has had. He is someone who could be a threat as a runner and pass catcher.
Brandon Jackson is back on the roster to compete for a spot and while he is more than likely the first guy who will be released, he does have a shot to beat someone out. Mostly he is team as an injury replacement and if someone goes down, Jackson is the first call, but he will compete to try to make this roster. Jackson is in his seventh season of his career and this might be his last, best chance to make a lasting impact in the NFL, so that hunger could fuel him this season.
Last but certainly not least is Miquel Maysonet, the undrafted free agent out of Stony Brook, who had originally signed with Philadelphia as a tryout player before the Browns got off of waivers. Maysonet was somewhat of a draftnik darling this past year as someone who many touted as a small school sleeper. Maysonet could ultimately end up making the practice squad, but the fact he is here ensures the Browns will have a competitive training camp at the position and one that should be fun to watch. With a good, developing offensive line, the Browns should be able to run the ball with Richardson but if the Browns are going to run their offense like Turner and Rob Chudzinski have in the past, there could be a lot of opportunities for multiple backs to make an impact. And if the offense is more successful, there are more carries to hand out to these guys. Even with LaDainian Tomlinson as their feature back, they used guys like Michael Turner and then Darren Sproles to keep him fresh and change the look of the offense.
Competition is always a good thing in training camp, but especially at a position like running back and these guys should push each other to be their best. While people will talk about how Richardson not practicing is the end of the world or that he is injury prone or whatever other nonsense is going on, there will be some players worth watching at this position who could really bolster the position behind him, so he does not have to ridden into the ground like Shurmur tried to do last year. Richardson will be ready for the reason and will hopefully be the player he was drafted to be, but the NFL rewards teams who have multiple backs teams are able to utilize effectively and the Browns appear to have the players to make up a decent stable. Richardson being on the bike might be the easier story and great fodder for talk radio, but there are some other guys who will be a much better and more fun story to keep an eye on when training camp and the preseason get going. If they have the ability to run the football effectively without Richardson (and they should), then they should be that much better when Richardson is let loose, fully healthy and ready to be the player he showed he could be weeks two and three of the season last year before he suffered the broken ribs.