Since announcing their roster cuts last week and on Saturday, the makeup of the Cleveland Browns has changed significantly, particularly at the running back position. With Montario Hardesty and Dion Lewis on injured reserve, the team was clearly needy for a backup for Trent Richardson.
Initially, that appeared to be Brandon Jackson. However, in the preseason he rushed for only 43 yards on 28 carries (a 1.5 yards-per-carry average) and looked more valuable in the passing game, with nine receptions on 10 targets for 73 yards and a score.
And behind Jackson was, well, no one. The Cleveland running back depth chart was incredibly thin by the time the team made public their initial 53-man roster and it was clear that additions would be necessary, especially considering Richardson's injury-spotted past.
The result was a bit more aggressive than expected. Cleveland was quick to add Bobby Rainey (waived by the Baltimore Ravens) and Dennis Johnson (waived by the Houston Texans) and instead of bringing them on to complement the pair of Richardson and Jackson, the signings spelled the end of Jackson's time with the team.
Prior to training camp, the Browns had Richardson as their starter, Hardesty and Lewis as his backups, with Jackson and Miguel Maysonet as reserves. Now, they're down to Richardson, Rainey, Johnson and Chris Ogbonnaya, who takes up fullback duties but could also get a few carries and third-down passing targets. It's quite the change.
Neither Rainey nor Johnson have had much playing time in the NFL, especially with starters. Rainey was an undrafted signing in 2012 who was promoted to Baltimore's active roster in Week 6 of last season and landed on injured reserve in November with a knee injury. Johnson is an undrafted rookie who had 33 preseason carries for 129 yards and a touchdown and five receptions for 31 yards.
The Browns have shown a commitment to younger, developmental players, dating back to their past regime up to the present. However, to put such untested players—no matter how intriguing, promising or seemingly talented—to back up the team's most important offensive asset is a gamble.
Should Richardson miss any time, for any reason this year, the run game is in the hands of two undrafted players who have never taken a regular-season snap. Though making the "safe" choice of sticking with Jackson was clearly not an option—not at 1.5 yards per carry—it's impossible at this point to tell what Rainey and Johnson will be able to do should they be asked during a real, regular-season game.
There are some hints, of course. Rainey has been impressive during the preseason, with 89 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. He has an ideal combination of power and speed that echoes the other two backs that remain on Baltimore's roster, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Johnson was a standout in college at Arkansas, with 2,036 yards on 345 carries and 13 rushing touchdowns, averaging 5.9 yards per carry and also scoring three return touchdowns.
Though the hands of fate have had much to do with Cleveland's current running back situation, considering the injuries that have ended Lewis' and Hardesty's seasons and forced the team into making these roster moves, it's interesting how willing the Browns are to depend on these young running backs.
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These signings may also be an indication of the confidence the Browns have in Richardson staying healthy for the year while also being a workhorse for their offense. If there was any doubt about Richardson's long- and short-term availability, it's not likely the team would have been so agreeable to the idea of having such inexperienced players behind him on the roster.
It's quite possible that the Browns see something in these two running backs that the Texans and Ravens failed to—they were both destined for those teams' practice squads before the Browns snagged them. It's equally as possible that neither Rainey nor Johnson will have many carries this year as long as Richardson remains healthy.
Fortune often favors the bold, and it was certainly a bold move for Cleveland to back up Richardson with these two young running backs. Hopefully this doesn't become a fool's errand but rather a savvy pair of roster decisions that makes the Browns' run game as good as it could possibly be this year.