As was reported this weekend by numerous sources, the Browns went ahead and came to an injury settlement with running back Montario Hardesty which allows him to become a free agent. The Browns also announced the release of wide receiver Josh Cooper and picked up running back Fozzy Whitaker. This marks the end of Hardesty’s career in Cleveland, which was disappointing because he could not avoid injuries, which was the same issue he dealt with at Tennessee and the Browns made the calculation, they have enough underwhelming receivers and needed another running back.
Montario Hardesty’s selection in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft was one of need and a reactionary trade to move up in the draft. The Browns were targeting a running back and with the pick before the Browns came up and took Hardesty, the Houston Texans had moved up and selected Ben Tate, running back from Auburn. It is unclear if the Browns were hoping they could get Tate and were unable, but they wanted to get a running back and were afraid they would miss out if they did not move up when Tate went off the board. This enabled them to get Hardesty.
There is no question that Hardesty had talent and he flashed on a few occasions what he could do, but from his time in Knoxville to his time in Cleveland, injuries dogged Hardesty’s career and never allowed him to live up to his draft status. When the Browns brought in Trent Richardson, the hope was that the pair could be a two-headed monster. Two games into 2013 and Hardesty was on injured reserve and Richardson was traded.
Hardesty still could end up being a contributor for a team and there is no reason not to hope that he can find some success, but this mark makes it official that it will not be here. The Browns now are in a situation where they need to address the running back position in earnest this coming offseason. They might like Dion Lewis, but he is coming off of a broken leg and was looked at for a complementary role, so they still need someone who can be the top back.
The Browns claimed Whittaker off waivers from the Chargers who is a former Texas running back like Chris Ogbannaya and is familiar with Norv Turner, who was the offensive coordinator there last year. He also has experience returning kicks and while Greg Little has done a nice job in that role, it is unclear if that was a temporary fix or something they are happy to keep. Whittaker is a 5’10″ 202lb back with decent speed and reliable hands out of the backfield, which has become a calling card for Browns backs.
Meanwhile Josh Cooper was the prototype 5th/6th receiver. He could catch passes at times, but did not offer much physical upside and was never going to crack the roster. With the return of Josh Gordon, he became expendable and the Browns have enough underwhelming receivers on the active roster with Little and Travis Benjamin there. Cooper was also somewhat here because of his chemistry with Brandon Weeden, who is not starting at this point and may never start again for the Browns.
It is unclear what role the Browns have in mind for Whittaker but he has more of a chance to contribute than Cooper did. It is unlikely Whittaker will be a great player but the Browns are constantly trying to get better and maneuver their roster to see if they can find some contributors, whether as featured players or role players. They need both.