When Cleveland Browns breakout running back Dion Lewis broke his leg in the team's preseason Week 2 win over the Detroit Lions, it sent the team's backfield into chaos. Lewis, so promising in training camp and his limited time on the field, gave the Browns an added dimension at running back that complemented starter Trent Richardson's style well.
Now that Lewis is out—likely for the entire season—the Browns need someone to step up in the final two preseason games to prove himself a suitable, reliable backup for Richardson.
Lewis had 36 preseason snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) prior to the injury, rushing 10 times for 45 yards, including a 31-yard run, and catching seven of eight passes thrown his way, for 37 yards, an impressive 43 yards after the catch and a touchdown.
The Browns have their work cut out for them in finding another of their running backs who can be just as versatile and dynamic as Lewis.
In a perfect world, this would be Montario Hardesty; however, the 2010 second-round pick is currently sidelined after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery and is expected to miss at least the first two or three games in the regular season. Further, he hasn't practiced much at all during training camp, dealing first with a hamstring injury and then a dislocated right thumb.
Not helping Hardesty is that this latest knee procedure is just one of a litany of health woes that have bothered him during his career. He tore his right ACL in college and his left ACL in the final preseason game of his rookie year, forcing him to make his regular-season debut in 2011. That year, he tore a calf muscle that cost him half the season.
In the NFL, the best ability is often availability, so despite the season-ending injury to Lewis, the Browns may choose to part ways with Hardesty when roster cuts begin next week.
Unable to practice and unable to play, the Browns could move on from Hardesty. While it depletes their depth somewhat, it's not as though Hardesty is able to participate in practices and games right now to convince his (brand new, it should be noted) coaches he should stay.
That leaves the Browns with Brandon Jackson, Miguel Maysonet and the newly re-signed Jamaine Cook along with starting fullback Chris Ogbonnaya as those in the running to support Richardson.
At first glance, it appears that Jackson has the edge with both Hardesty and Lewis sidelined. He has similar pass-catching ability, with eight receptions on eight targets in the preseason, for 61 yards, 63 yards after the catch and a receiving touchdown.
He's actually also quite comparable in the run game, too. Yes, in Jackson's 18 preseason carries, he's gained just 30 yards—a 1.7 yards-per-carry average. However, if you remove the one 31-yard run, Lewis had nine preseason rushes for just 14 yards, a 1.5 yards-per-carry average.
Though Lewis has stood out more, Jackson is just as capable of taking on his role behind Richardson this year, and the similar stat lines help highlight this.
Ogbonnaya, too, has a high amount of value to the Browns, though more so as a receiver than a rusher. Last year, he caught 24 passes for 187 yards, while his carries dwindled to eight for 30 yards (he had 76 rushes for 340 yards and a score in 2011). He's a blocking fullback now, but he should also see some passing targets in third-down situations just as he did last year.
Maysonet, a free-agent pickup by the Browns in May, and Cook, whom the Browns picked up as an undrafted rookie in the spring and was released when they signed Maysonet only to resurface on the roster this week, would typically have an uphill battle to make the active roster. However, Lewis' and Hardesty's injuries (and the potential that the latter is released) give both players hope.
Maysonet has rushed 13 times this preseason for 30 yards, with 18 yards after contact. He's also caught two passes for 13 yards. An extended look at him in the final two preseason games should determine his positioning on the depth chart.
The battle is a bit tougher for Cook, considering he's coming to training camp with just scant days left to learn the offense and make an impact, so the Browns' preseason Week 4 game against the Chicago Bears will go a long way to convince Cleveland to keep him around, whether that be on the active roster or the practice squad.
Ultimately, the hope is that the minor-level handwringing going on presently about who backs up Richardson proves itself to be a non-issue once the 2013 season has wrapped. Richardson, who has a history of knee injuries—including a scope last summer—and played through his rookie season with broken ribs, has already dealt with a mild shin injury that forced him to sit out the first preseason game.
He's healthy presently and has given no reasons why the Browns should be worried about his ability to play all 16 games in the regular season; as long as it stays that way, the issue of his No. 2 will be about third-down work and spelling the starter, not one of whether or not that player will be able to take up the starting workload.
Granted, the Browns would be in a far better situation at running back if both Hardesty and Lewis were healthy. However, they have depth, a serviceable No. 2 in Jackson and a highly effective starter in Richardson. If the Browns want to run heavily on offense this year, they still have the personnel in place to do it; it's just not the most ideal compared to what could have been.