Competition pushing Cleveland Browns running backs to next level


May 26, 2015; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Terrance West (28) and Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) during organized team activities at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Browns had a solid running attack in 2014, even with the loss of center Alex Mack for the season’s final 11 games.

Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell combined to rush for 1,280 yards and 12 touchdowns, which if they were a single running back would have placed them fifth in rushing and second in touchdowns in the NFL. They also helped erase the memory of the abomination of 2013, when the Browns posted the worst rushing performance in franchise history.

While it would seem as if the Browns are set at running back, general manager Ray Farmer is not one to sit on last season’s accomplishments.

“We make the decisions that we think we need to make to improve our football team,” Farmer said prior to last month’s NFL Draft. “Driving competition is a part of that. So I do want player A to compete with player B and player B to complete with player C. And player C might end up being player A at the end of the day. Nobody expected it, nobody anticipated it. But the idea is to drive the competition on our roster.”

Enter running back Duke Johnson, the team’s third-round draft choice out of the University of Miami.

Johnson made his debut on Tuesday during Organized Team Activities and, according to the club’s website, even if the defense was allowed to have contact with running backs, “it’s likely they would not have even had the chance to on some of Johnson’s runs. His explosiveness is apparent and all signs are pointing toward the rookie from Miami crafting a unique, but significant role by September.”

Johnson, who left Miami as the Hurricanes’ all-time leading rusher, also caught the eye of head coach Mike Pettine.

“(Duke) certainly showed it today, the explosiveness of his ability to put his foot in the ground and go,” Pettine told The Beacon Journal. “There was one of the runs in the team period that unless we were playing flag football that would have been a 40- or 50-yard chunk. He’s got a lot to learn, but he’s probably a typical rookie where he is right now. I think we’ve all seen what he can bring – the explosiveness and how we can turn a handoff or a short pass into a significant gain with a back like that.”

As well as they played at times last season, Crowell and West had their problems, most notably remembering where they were supposed to line up, and struggled at times to understand what it takes to be an NFL player.

Heading into his second year, West says he has a better understanding of how things work.

“I look at how they treat guys now as a rookie. That’s what comes with it. They don’t want you to get a big head and make it seem like you know everything,” West told The Plain Dealer. “There is always room for improvement . . . and I’m on the right track now. The team drafts your position every year. That’s what the draft is for . . . At the end of the day you still have to perform. If they don’t draft (a running back) and you don’t perform it’s still next man up.”

As for Crowell, he spent the off-season focusing on the importance of embracing second chances in life and, in the process, revealing a solid maturity level that matches a talent level that caught the eye of former Browns’ running back Earnest Byner.

“Crowell has the most potential to be the type of leader and player that the Browns need,” Byner told the team’s website in January. “His talent is there. I think he is open to learning and growing. His future is as bright as any young back in the league.”

The Browns will look to run the ball as much as possible this fall to take pressure off quarterback Josh McCown. With a backfield trio of the explosive Johnson, along with a maturing West and Crowell, the Browns’ running game has the potential to be even better than last season.

And if that happens, the plan to not “over-prioritize the quarterback position” just may have a chance at succeeding.

What do you think of the Browns’ current situation at running back?

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