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This is the second in a series of position-by-position looks at the Browns' personnel entering the 2011 season. Here is our analysis of Cleveland's RB situation.
Overview — Entering the 2010 preseason, it appeared rookie Montario Hardesty and veteran Jerome Harrison would compete for the bulk of the Browns' carries. However, Hardesty suffered a pair of knee injuries — one a minor ailment that kept him out until the final preseason game, the other a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that ended his season. Harrison, meanwhile, couldn't recapture his impressive form from the end of the '09 season, when he racked up 561 rushing yards.
With Hardesty out and Harrison struggling, former Broncos RB Peyton Hillis, acquired in the trade that sent QB Brady Quinn to Denver, took the job, and in impressive fashion. The 240-pound Hillis ran with the power the Browns sought in their lead back and possessed the pass-catching ability to be a three-down option at a position where the team lacked much depth (an issue, it must be noted, that was the Browns' creation, as they carried just two running backs on the roster for a good portion of the season).
All totaled, Hillis rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 TDs on 270 carries and caught 61 passes for 477 yards and a pair of TDs. Harrison, who fell out of favor with head coach Eric Mangini, was dealt to Philadelphia in October for Mike Bell, who saw limited action as Hillis' backup.
RB Peyton Hillis — Hillis' was the team's offensive MVP in 2010. Whether he has as big a role next season remains to be seen with Hardesty returning, a new head coach (Pat Shurmur) who's installing a new offense and the prospect of more competition for carries. Nonetheless, Hillis figures to be an important part of the attack after his banner year.
RB Mike Bell — Bell carried just 31 times for 71 yards in 11 games with Cleveland. If Bell, a free agent, returns, it likely would be as a short-yardage back, with someone else serving as the top backup. He might want to take his chances signing elsewhere, and the Browns are likely to add at least one more back in the draft or free agency.
RB Montario Hardesty — The Browns liked Hardesty enough to trade back into Round Two to select him in last April's draft. But where does he fit in the RB picture for 2011? Hillis, like Hardesty, is a big, physical back, and it wouldn't be surprising if the club added a smaller, quicker runner, too. Hardesty's injury history is also a concern, as he has torn the ACL in both knees.
RB Quinn Porter — An undrafted free agent from Stillman College, Porter was signed to the team's practice squad in November and added to the offseason roster in January. He'll compete for a reserve role.
FB Lawrence Vickers — Vickers, whose contract is up, is one of the AFC's better blocking backs. Among the factors that could determine whether he returns to Cleveland or not are the salary he would be seeking, as well as the role of the fullback in Shurmur's offense.
Bottom line — Hillis proved he could be a lead back and seems the most likely starter of the group of runners currently on the roster. Hardesty is likely to have a role, too, and perhaps a major one if he's recovered fully from his knee injury. Look for the Browns to add other options at this position, with more quickness and speed needed in the backfield.