The Cleveland Browns running back situation has been a major point of interest since Peyton Hillis came down with strep throat a quarter of the way through the 2011 season. The Browns have since lost Hillis to free agency and are entering the 2012 NFL draft period without a certain No. 1 running back for the upcoming season.
Cleveland has the chance to draft the top running back in the entire draft class, Trent Richardson, or go in any other direction the franchise sees fit. Draft rumors around the NFL have been circulating over the past two months and the most recent mock drafts claim that the Browns are more likely to trade down in the first round rather than select a player at No. 4.
If the Browns decide to go away from Richardson, there is still one running back on the free-agent market that could make a significant difference next season.
Cedric Benson was not re-signed by the Cincinnati Bengals despite a productive four-year career with the club, and three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. It was rumored that the Bengals did not want to risk any more legal issues with Benson after his multiple arrests in 2008, 2010 and 2011.
Benson has proven over the last four seasons that he can be a productive rusher in the AFC North and has been a thorn in the Browns' side seemingly every time they played the Bengals over the last few years. More importantly, Benson was very productive against teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and has even faced off against rival teams in the playoffs.
Browns fans would much rather have a rookie like Richardson on the active roster instead of a seven-year veteran in Benson. However, Cleveland struggled mightily at the running back position last season and have had multiple injuries to their rushers over the last few seasons.
It is always a good idea to build depth at every position in the NFL, and Benson should come at a good price because of his lack of interest on the free-agent market.
Another reason for the Browns to consider Benson is the fact that many players in the NFL have one good stretch with a new team before the end of their careers. Benson would clearly be motivated to play against his former team and would be even more motivated if the Browns were to sign him for a one-year contract.
Benson would not even have to leave the state of Ohio in order to play for the Browns and Cleveland has not ruled out the idea of bringing him in at some point this summer.
Brandon Jackson and Montario Hardesty are currently slated to be the top running backs on Cleveland's depth chart if the team does not add a runner in the NFL draft or free agency. Both players have had their share of injury issues over the last two seasons and there has been little news on whether or not Jackson can return to the Browns this upcoming season after being placed on injured reserve in 2011.
Armond Smith may be the biggest sleeper in the Browns offensive arsenal. After a productive preseason in 2011, Cleveland released Smith halfway through the year to make roster space. The Browns re-signed Smith the day after the 2011 season concluded and it is apparent that Cleveland will give him another opportunity in training camp.
Benson has rushed for over 5,000 yards throughout his seven-year career, and has remained a consistent threat on the ground over the last three seasons. The biggest knock on his game has been an issue with fumbles over the last two seasons, an issue that Cleveland was familiar with in 2010.
The Browns running-back dilemma will likely be solved over the course of the draft at the end of April. But, if the Browns come away from the first round without a new man in the backfield, Benson could be an option for the 2012 season and beyond.