The Browns traded up in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft to select Hardesty with the 59th overall pick, despite the fact that he was injury prone in college.
Hardesty is at a crossroads with the Browns. This offseason will go a long way in determining the future of his career with any team.
The track record isn't pretty:
In 2006, Hardesty's first year at the University of Tennessee, he tore his right ACL. The following year, he started five of 13 games due to a high ankle sprain, then made just one start over the next two seasons, and missed four games in that span.
Finally, Hardesty started every game in his senior campaign playing through lesser injuries, and he rushed for 1,345 yards and scored 13 TDs in college football's best conference.
Call it the Cleveland Browns curse, call it a significantly injury-plagued career, call it whatever you want. Hardesty got to the pros, and his fortunes didn’t change.
In the final game of the 2010 preseason, Hardesty tore an ACL again. This time, it was his right knee, causing him to miss his entire rookie season. He even missed time with hamstring and calf injuries in 2011.
With just one completely healthy season in which Hardesty was able to suit up for every game over the past six seasons, durability is beyond a question mark at this point. It's unlikely he'll ever be 100 percent again.
With the selection of Trent Richardson No. 3 overall in this year’s draft, the Browns might have taken the most talented playmaker on the board at the time, but also appeared to make it clear that Hardesty was not the workhorse answer the Browns thought they were getting two years ago.
Richardson is slotted to start, while most presume Hardesty has an inside track for the No. 2 position since he started the majority of games last year when healthy enough to play.
The Browns, though, will welcome Brandon Jackson back to the fold as a potential third-down back with his ability to block in passing situations and catch the ball out of the backfield. Jackson brings West Coast savvy and a Super Bowl ring as a former member of the Green Bay Packers.
Although Jackson himself was placed on injured reserve in the 2011 preseason with a toe injury, he does not have near the unfortunate injury history Hardesty has.
Chris Ogbonnaya proved his viability as a runner when he made one start in particular replacing the—yes—injured Hardesty.
The former seventh-round selection of the St. Louis Rams ran for over 100 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars, a defensive unit that finished 2011 ninth against the run. He was in St. Louis when Pat Shurmur was the offensive coordinator, and has familiarity with the system to begin with.
Running backs playing in a West Coast offense need to be able to run, catch, and protect.
Richardson can do it all, according to Shurmur himself. Jackson can do the latter two very well, and Ogbonnaya has proven his tough running ability and is a decent receiver himself out of the backfield.
Hardesty notoriously dropped four passes against the Tennessee Titans last season, and at one point in the season had six drops in 16 targets.
What hurt Hardesty most is that he failed to show he was clearly a better runner than Ogbonnaya. However, head coach Pat Shurmur kept plugging Hardesty into the starting lineup, week after week, and underwhelming results occurred every time.
This year, Shurmur says he'd love to see a healthy Hardesty, and that he thinks he is "hopefully finally getting back." Although the Browns hope Hardesty can pound like Richardson is expected to, that's hardly a ringing endorsement of Hardesty's health.
It’s difficult to swallow for many reasons. The front office and Shurmur surely want to see Hardesty succeed, but Hardesty is already 25 years old with more wear and tear on his legs than most players ever have to endure.
The production: 88 carries, 266 yards, zero touchdowns. Only three yards per carry.
It's just not enough.
Commend Hardesty’s effort for persevering through all the hardship and being relentless in pursuit of a successful NFL career. Here's to hoping Hardesty does show something that will lead coaches to believe he can be successful in 2012 between now and the cut to the final 53-man roster. Few players deserve it more.
As it currently stands, though, it’s time for the Browns to spread snaps around to more durable, more reliable, and more sure-handed backs to run a more proficient West Coast offense in 2012.