Have the Browns Finally Found the Solution to Their Run-Game Woes?

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVMay 15, 2014

The Browns have no choice but to run the ball better in 2014.
The Browns have no choice but to run the ball better in 2014.Mark Duncan/Associated Press

The 2013 season wasn't a good one for the Cleveland Browns' run game. After trading 2012 first-round pick Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts two weeks into the season, running the football became an afterthought.

The Browns ranked 30th in rushing attempts per game, at 21.8. Unsurprisingly, they ranked tied for 27th in rushing yards per game, at 86.4. In total, the Browns rushed for only 1,383 yards and had just four rushing touchdowns. Their top running back was Willis McGahee, who had a paltry 377 yards on 138 carries.

Clearly, this offensive philosophy is not sustainable. The Browns could not approach the run game the same way in 2014. The team acted quickly in free agency to make improvements, bringing on former Houston Texans back Ben Tate.

Ben Tate's NFL Stats
YearAtts.Yds.YPARush TDRec.Rec. Yds.Rec.TD
via ESPN

However, the Browns didn't stop there. After all, their new offensive coordinator is Kyle Shanahan, who places a high value on running the ball early and often. In his system, there is more than enough room for two, three or even four running backs. 

The Browns thus used a third-round pick in the draft on the position, taking Towson's Terrance West. They also got a steal of an undrafted free agent in former Georgia and Alabama State running back Isaiah Crowell. As long as his off-the-field concerns are behind him, the Browns' depth chart at the position is rounding out nicely.

West and Crowell join Tate, Dion Lewis, Chris Ogbonnaya, Edwin Baker and Jamaine Cook at running back. Though it's only May, it does appear the Browns have more than enough talent at the position for the run game to be significantly improved. 

Tate rushed 421 times for 1,992 yards and 10 scores in his three active seasons with the Texans. He's expected to be the Browns' No. 1 back on the depth chart; however, this could go awry. Tate has a history of injuries, including an ankle that saw him miss the entire 2010 season, hamstring, foot and toe issues in the years that followed and rib injuries that ended his 2013 season early. He also has fumbled the football nine times, losing six of them.

Isaiah Crowell's College Stats
YearAtts.Yds.YPARush TDRec.Rec. Yds.Rec. TD
via Sports-Reference.com

That's why adding younger players like West and Crowell is so important for the Browns. They cannot hang all of their hopes on Tate and then have a repeat of 2013 if he should sustain another injury. But there are concerns with the rookies—primarily Crowell.

Crowell landed on the Alabama State football team after being dismissed from Georgia's program because of an arrest on weapons charges. Though those charges were later dropped, the former 5-star recruit had enough red flags to go undrafted. He also failed a drug test at Georgia.

Still, it's hard to deny how talented Crowell is on the field. In his three years and two schools, Crowell has rushed 514 times for 2,813 yards and 35 touchdowns and has a 5.5 yards-per-carry average. He could push down West on the depth chart despite not being drafted.

West is a very promising running back. Browns general manager Ray Farmer announced his satisfaction with being able to draft him at his post-draft press conference, saying, "I'm really excited to have him. ... We're fortunate enough to have the young man and I do think he has a chance to help our football team improve."

His collegiate rushing numbers are almost too good to be believed. In three years, West amassed 802 carries for 4,854 yards and 84 touchdowns. The bulk of that production came in 2013, when he rushed 413 times for 2,509 yards and 41 scores.

Terrance West's College Stats
YearAtts.Yds.YPARush TDRec.Rec. Yds.Rec. TD
via The Washington Post

West isn't an explosive or shifty back like Crowell; he is more of a power runner in Tate's mold. He's a major piece of the running back puzzle in Cleveland and doesn't have the injury history of Tate or the off-field issues of Crowell. He was not only a crucial signing—he may end up making the biggest impact of any of the Browns' rookie class if he can stave off Crowell's challenge.

While there are a few risks associated with at least two of the Browns' three newest running backs, each one signed is a step closer to the team having a productive run game this year. With the potential that wide receiver Josh Gordon will be gone for the entire season, Cleveland must be prepared to run the ball heavily. A repeat of last year in that situation would be disastrous. 

An offensive backfield featuring Tate, West and Crowell—and potentially Lewis and Ogbonnaya—should be enough to take the Browns' run game out of the league's basement this year. They have a good mix of experience, speed and power that will form an impressive committee for Shanahan.

Running the football is no longer an afterthought in Cleveland; these backs, working together, could produce the best rushing attack in the NFL this year.