7 Running Backs Who Could Replace Peyton Hillis for the Cleveland Browns in 2012

Garyn DanielsContributor IJanuary 27, 2012

7 Running Backs Who Could Replace Peyton Hillis for the Cleveland Browns in 2012

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    The 2011 season definitely did not go as planned for the Cleveland Browns and Peyton Hillis.

    Many predicted that this was supposed to be his breakout year and earn him a lucrative contract extension that would keep him in Cleveland for many years to come.

    Instead, the year was filled with a nagging hamstring injury that kept him out for many weeks, complaints from Hillis about his contract and several reports about teammates that were upset by his actions. 

    Hillis is now a free agent and there is a lot of uncertainty about whether he will be a Cleveland Brown next year. If he is not brought back, here are seven possible replacements for him in Cleveland:

Trent Richardson

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    A very popular pick for many Cleveland fans and a lot of draft experts is Trent Richardson. With the fourth pick, it is very possible that Richardson could still be on the board when the Browns are on the clock.

    Richardson was dominant this year as the feature back for Alabama, rushing for 1,679 yards on 283 carries, scoring 21 touchdowns. His 5.9 yards per carry is particularly impressive, given the fact that he played in the SEC.

    Many of his yards came after first contact and he is very tough to bring down. What makes Richardson even more intriguing is his 29 catches for 338 yards and three touchdowns.

    With this versatility, Richardson looks ready to step into an offense and be a three-down back from day one. With the AFC North being built with strong defenses from top to bottom, a tough back is needed to run the ball and Trent Richardson could be a surefire pick for the Browns.

Michael Bush

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    Oakland has a tough decision to make regarding Michael Bush, as he is scheduled to be a free agent this offseason. There is a chance that Bush could re-sign with Oakland and form one of the best one-two punches with the returning Darren McFadden.

    However, Bush might opt to follow in Michael Turner's footsteps and become a feature back somewhere else.

    Oakland's loss could be Cleveland's gain.

    Bush became the feature back seven games into the season when McFadden went down. He ended up rushing for 977 yards on 256 carries and seven touchdowns. He kept Oakland in the playoff race while the quarterback play was subpar at best.

    As required in the West Coast offense, running backs have to be good receivers and, just like Richardson, Bush is a good receiver, catching 37 balls for 418 yards and a touchdown.

    The other thing Bush has working in his favor is that he is only 27 and has spent four years in the league. Before this season, he has had less than 200 touches in the other three seasons. Bush will be looking for a big contract this offseason and if the Browns are willing to pay what he is asking, he could be a solid signing.

Mike Tolbert

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    Mike Tolbert's contract situation is similar to Michael Bush. When given playing time, Tolbert has produced for the Chargers. However, despite how injury-prone Ryan Matthews continues to be, the Chargers used a first-round pick on him to be their back.

    The Chargers must decide if Tolbert's asking price is just right for them to keep him around. If not, he could fit into Cleveland's system nicely.

    Tolbert has not had more than 200 carries in his four seasons and is only 26 years old, so wear and tear should not be an issue.

    Tolbert may not have rushed for the yards that Richardson or Bush have, but he has been an absolute beast on the goal line, rushing for a total of 19 touchdowns the last two seasons.

    Red-zone efficiency has been a problem for the Browns, and they only had four rushing touchdowns this season. If signed by the Browns, Tolbert could turn some of the field goals into goal-line touchdowns.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis

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    BenJarvus Green-Ellis, also known as the "Law Firm," is scheduled to be a free agent and it is unknown whether or not the Patriots will bring him back. The Patriots have had a rushing attack by committee and Bill Belichick just drafted two running backs in the 2011 draft, so it is possible that he will not re-sign with the Patriots.

    Green-Ellis is 26 years old and has only been in the league for four years. He may not be as attractive as the other backs, but he has been a productive back. He has been a touchdown machine the past two years, with 24. He is not quite the receiver as the first three, so a change-of-pace back would definitely have to be on the roster.

    Hillis has had his problems with fumbles, but in four years and 536 touches, the "Law Firm" has never fumbled which would be a big help in the turnover battle. Needless to say, Green-Ellis could be a solid back for the Browns to pick up.

Earnest Graham

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    Earnest Graham is a running back who will fly under the radar during the offseason, but whoever signs him will get a bargain. He is a little bit of a risk coming off an Achilles tendon injury, but whenever he has been called, he has answered the bell and been productive. He is very versatile as he has played many games at running back and fullback, and even contributes on special teams.

    He is 32 years old, which means he probably would be a short-term solution, but a productive solution nonetheless. Since 2007, he has averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry every year. He has decent hands and can catch the ball out of the backfield as well. Paired with another two-down back and a change-of-pace back, the Browns could have a solid backfield if they chose to sign Graham.

Chris Polk

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    With all the hype surrounding Trent Richardson, Chris Polk is very much flying under the radar.

    Many people, including myself, tuned into the Valero Alamo Bowl to see Heisman-winner Robert Griffin III. Watching Polk's performance left me wondering how is this guy not getting more hype. Since 2009, Polk has rushed for over 1,000 yards and had at least five touchdowns every year, including almost 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns this past year.

    He also has better than average hands catching the ball out of the backfield and is a patient runner with good cutting ability, but he also has good power at 222 lbs. to finish his runs. His draft stock should rise if he has strong workouts. If Richardson is not taken by the Browns with the fourth pick, they should consider looking Polk with their other first-round pick, or even their second round, as he has all the tools to be a productive back in the NFL

Ryan Grant

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    With James Starks set to become the Green Bay Packers feature back next season, all signs point to Ryan Grant being able to test the free-agent market. Ryan Grant has only played five seasons, but will be 29 at the start of next season. Usually the age of 30 has signaled a decline for many running backs and it is something to be wary of with Grant as he has struggled with nagging injuries the past few seasons.

    However, when Grant was the featured back for Green Bay in 2008 and 2009, he rushed for over 1,000 yards in both seasons. With more touches, Grant could be fairly productive and replicate his 4.3 career yard per carry average. He has had only 186 touches the last two years, so he won't be as beat up as some of the other backs.

    He might demand a little higher than what the Browns would be willing to pay, but he would be a good option in the backfield should Cleveland decide to sign him.

Final Conclusion

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    It is anyone's guess at this point whether or not Peyton Hillis will be back in Cleveland. Should they decide to part ways with him, any of these seven backs could be on their radar to replace Hillis and hopefully help the Browns solve some of their offensive problems.