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2013 NFL Draft: Even with Trent Richardson, the Cleveland Browns Could Still Look at These Running Backs
By Kevin Drozin
The Cleveland Browns enter the 2013 NFL Draft with four running backs on the roster: Trent Richardson, Montario Hardesty, Chris Ogbonnaya and the newly acquired Dion Lewis. Richardson, the Browns’ first-round draft pick from a year ago, is expected to be donning the orange helmet for the long haul and Ogbonnaya recently agreed to a two-year deal to stay in Cleveland. Lewis was acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, and provides the Browns with a change-of-pace back who will most likely fill the third down role on occasion.
According to several media outlets, Hardesty looks to be on his way out. Drafted by Tom Heckert in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Hardesty’s three NFL seasons have been underwhelming. Coming into the NFL with durability concerns, Hardesty suffered a torn ACL in the final preseason game of 2010 and never seemed to fully recover from the injury in 2011, rushing for 266 yards on 88 attempts and no touchdowns. Last season Hardesty flashed the potential touted by Heckert, averaging 4.2 yards per attempt in his backup role to Richardson–so the Browns could use him as trade bait heading into next week or further into the offseason.
The acquisition of Lewis should all but solidify that Cleveland won’t be selecting a running back in next week’s Draft; however, the Browns could be looking to the late rounds to find a diamond in the rough. Players drafted in the later rounds are typically players with practice squad talent, but whom coaches and general managers see potential in. For that reason, it is not out of the question that you might see another new running back in a brown jersey come April 27.
Head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have both seen their share of running back success in their time in Carolina and San Diego, respectively. In Carolina, Chudzinski ran his offense primarily through dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton, but after starting the 2012 season 1-6 with the read-option offense, Chudzinski got back to the power running game and Carolina finished the season 7-9 behind their trio of running backs, as DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert combined for 13 touchdowns.
Turner had similar success with multiple running back combinations in San Diego. Before the combination of Tolbert and Ryan Mathews, Turner had the luxury of NFL-great LaDainian Tomlinson in his backfield. Behind Tomlinson, Turner also fostered the emergence of multi-purpose back Darren Sproles, now with New Orleans, expanding the playbook to utilize his quickness and pass-catching ability.
Now together in Cleveland, Turner and Chudzinski were handed their workhorse running back in Richardson, but will continue to search for more pieces to add to their offensive puzzle. Considering the past success of both coaches, if the Browns were to add another running back to the current stable on the roster, this writer believes they will add a smaller, shifty back like Sproles to compliment the ground-and-pound style of Richardson. While newly acquired Lewis also fits this bill, let’s take a look at the late round options for the Browns:
Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt University (Projected Round – 6)
If Stacy were to fall to the sixth round, he would be an incredible steal for any team looking for a complimentary running back. As the Commodores’ featured back, the 5’9” 216 lb Stacy averaged 5.9 and 5.5 yards per carry in 2011 and 2012, rushing for 24 total touchdowns in that time. He also excelled when called upon to catch screen passes, turning them upfield quickly for yards after the catch. Playing in the SEC, he has experience running against NFL-ready defenders and had some of his best games against top-tier talent. Possessing quick feet and an eye for the crease in the defense, Stacy shows an incredible burst through the line and an ability to make linebackers miss.
Ray Graham, University of Pittsburgh (Projected Round – 6/7)
If not for his devastating knee injury in 2011, Graham might be considered an early round talent. However, following his knee injury draft experts have been cautious with their projections. Coming off of his ACL rehabilitation, Graham had a productive 2012 rushing for 1,042 yards and 11 touchdowns. Drawing comparisons to former Pitt, and current Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, Graham has the lateral explosion coveted in today’s NFL. If Graham slightly modifies his game to run more north-south rather than looking to break every run to the outside, he could be an elite talent at the NFL level.
Dennis Johnson, University of Arkansas (Projected Round – 5/6)
Better known as the backup to Knile Davis, Johnson provided Arkansas with a reliable insurance policy. Short in stature and equipped with extremely powerful legs, the 5’7” and 196-pound running back bounces off would-be tacklers and keeps his feet moving. He has a strong stiff arm when he decides to use it, but Johnson typically tries to out-muscle defenders with his lower body strength, and with great success. He is a great all-around back, able to catch the ball out of the backfield, run in-between and outside the tackles and he picks up the blitz well. In 2012, Johnson rushed for 757 yards (5.5 avg) and eight touchdowns, caught 25 passes for 160 yards and two touchdown and returned 17 kickoffs for the Razorbacks.
If the Browns look to the Draft for another running back to pair with Richardson, Stacy, Graham or Johnson would provide Chudzinski and Turner with their Sproles or Tolbert-type, any of which can be used in multiple formations and have the ability to perform different roles in the offense. The countdown is at six days until we officially find out which new players will be making their way to Cleveland, and this writer is hoping to see one of these running backs jumping into the Dawg Pound.
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