There seems to be some misconceptions regarding training camp and preseason injuries. Injuries happen, they are unfortunate, and they are frustrating, but the fact guys are hurt and not practicing in training camp and the preseason is not a great indicator that they are going to be cut or make the team. The prime example of this situation could be Montario Hardesty, who many fans and members of the local media are projecting is on the bubble. He might well be but the fact that he is being held out due to a hamstring or now a thumb injury might actually indicate his roster spot is safe and they are trying to save him to be healthy for the season. There are a number of players on this roster, Trent Richardson being the most notable, that have been healthy scratches in practices and even preseason games or have minor injuries that are being held out to get them healthy for the season.
It started out with Phil Taylor and Athyba Rubin having extremely minor injuries that held them both out for a couple days. Much like with Richardson’s shin, had they really needed Taylor and Rubin, they could have and would have gone. Having them go out and prove that they can play through pain in practice and the preseason does not make them or the Browns any better. Being healthy for games that count is the main concern and if they are going to be hurt or play through pain, they are going to do it in the regular season.
Taylor and Rubin are hardly the only one either as Desmond Bryant, Leon McFadden, Josh Gordon, Chris Owens, and David Nelson are other examples of guys who have been held out of practice for precautionary measures. If any of these guys were on the bubble to make the team, they would likely be out there to show why they can make the team as they cannot make the team from the sidelines. Owens is in a battle with Buster Skrine for the starting cornerback spot opposite Joe Haden and while he could go out and battle through his currently hurt foot, it would not give the team a great look to help them determine who is the best player for the competition and if he gets further injured in the process, it does them no good.
For whatever reason, Hardesty is not receiving the benefit of the doubt in this regard despite the fact he is being treated much the same way as the rest of these players. Dion Lewis had made the most of his reps in practice, which is exactly what the team wants him to do, but his success does not mean Hardest is going to be cut. The fact is the Browns may keep three, maybe even four running backs and Chris Ogbannaya is not going to be one of them. Ogbannaya is going to make the team as a fullback. As a result, the remaining contenders include Richardson and Lewis, who are going to make the team, with Brandon Jackson and Miquel Maysonet as the others fighting for a spot.
At this point, unless he really shows something in the remaining preseason games, Maysonet is probably going to be a player they try to put on their practice squad. Jackson is a 27 year old running back who might make the team as he has been effective in opportunities and looked good against the Rams, but if they only keep three backs to keep a second fullback, he seems like he will be the odd man out. Unless he is the next coming of Thomas Jones, this is his seventh year in the league in a position that tends to show almost immediately, so he is what he is at this point. On a team that was dying to find a running back, Jackson was average at best for the Green Bay Packers.
Hardesty is a 26 year old running back coming into his fourth year as a pro. It is put up or shut up time for him and no one knows that better than Hardesty. If his roster spot is on the line, Hardesty would likely need to be restrained to keep him off of the field to fight for reps and his roster spot. The fact that they are so content to hold him out seems to suggest they know what he is going to bring and they are happy with it. The fact he gets hurt is incredibly frustrating, but people quickly forget that a slimmed down version was effective for the Browns last year in the few opportunities he had to get the ball.
In a running back rotation that never had any rhyme or reason under Pat Shurmur, Hardesty had 65 carries for 271 yards and a 4.2 yard average. Shurmur never seemed to ride the hot hand as there were times when Hardesty would run well for a series and then get taken out, so Shurmur could continue to pound on Richardson’s ribs. Hardesty was a spark who seemed to break a nice run in every game he got carries and a player Shurmur did not use enough last year.
For instance, Hardesty had 4 carries for 23 yards against the Dallas Cowboys. That is an average of 5.8 yards per carry and he had a 12 yard run. The following week, he had 2 carries for 14 yards against the Steelers and one of those runs was for 13 yards. The week after that, he had 5 carries for 39 yards including a 19 yard run against Oakland for a 7.8 yard average. The second to last week of the season against Denver, Hardesty had 3 carries for 14 yards and a reception for 7 yards for 5.25 yards per touch.
The obvious question is when Richardson was clearly laboring with his ribs, why was Hardesty not getting more touches? When Richardson would struggle because he was so clearly hampered, Shurmur would stick with him and not go to Hardesty, even when he was running well. In games where Hardesty was given the opportunity to get a sustained number of carries, he tended to be effective.
There were three games where Hardesty had 10 touches or more: Cincinnati, the second time, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh in the season finale. Against the Bengals, Hardesty was a big spark and helped them win the game. He carried the ball 15 times for 56 yards and his only touchdown on the season including a 14 yard run and had a catch for 9 yards. The average was hardly spectacular, but he was effective. Against the Chiefs, Hardesty had 10 carries for 52 yards and one of those runs was his longest of the season for 25 yards. The final game of the season against the Steelers was a struggle as he had 14 carries for only 37 yards, but did rip off a 16 yard run. It is worth pointing out that Thad Lewis was the quarterback in that game. Nevertheless, that is a putrid average but the point remains the same. Given sustained touches, Hardesty could be effective and give the Browns a nice change of pace from Richardson. In 6 games last year, Hardesty had runs of at least 12 yards, which is just under 10% of his carries for the season. That might not seem great but considering he virtually never had a chance to get into a rhythm, he had to be a microwave type player and hit the ground running.
People are quick to point out his drops as he had one particularly bad day with four drops, but catching the ball is not something he is unable to do. He had an ugly day and needs to keep working to make sure it never happens again. The larger concern with Hardesty is actually fumbles. In only 67 touches last year, Hardesty put the ball on the carpet twice. That has to improve significantly if he wants to be a viable weapon in this offense going forward.
Hardesty’s injuries and pain are frustrating and the thumb injury he sustained today will not help. It would be nice if every time Richardson is out, Hardesty can make the most of the opportunity and display his talent and why he was a second round pick. With more consistent work, he has the talent to be an effective player but obviously he needs to catch the football and hold onto it when he gets in there. Given the history of Norv Turner and Rob Chudzinski, there are going to be plenty of carries to go around even if they are hoping to get 300 for Richardson. The question is who is going to get those other carries. Lewis may get his share but someone else is probably going to get a good number of them as well. That player seems like it will be Hardesty. And while it may only be an initial depth chart the Browns released, despite nursing a hamstring at the time, Hardesty was still the second running back listed. Everything seems to suggest that the Browns as an organization seem to think Hardesty has something offer this team, whether he plays in the preseason slate or not. While he has not lived up to his draft status and likely never will, he does have talent and he does have something to offer in this offense. As much as some would like him to be released, the likelihood is that Hardesty will be on there in the end and the focus is on getting him healthy and ready to contribute for the season as opposed to making critics feel good in the preseason.