2009 Fantasy Football Sleeper Pick: Jerome Harrison of the Cleveland Browns

Midwest Sports FansAnalyst IAugust 6, 2009

Last year, there were a few common collective refrains heard from Browns fans:

  1. Dammit!
  2. Catch the ball Braylon!
  3. Son of a bitch!
  4. Man I hate the Steelers.
  5. Get the ball to Jerome Harrison!

I’m sure there were others, but those are the first five that pop into my head; and it is the last of those five that I am going to deal with this morning, because it could have a decidedly positive impact on your fantasy football teams this year.

Last season, the Browns were expected to have a dynamic offense after what seemed like a breakout 2007 season. Unfortunately, 2007 began to look more and more like an anomaly—the function of a weak schedule and low expectations—with each passing week.

Sure, injuries played some part it. Mostly though, the Browns simply shot themselves in the foot time after time with dropped passes, poor execution, unimaginative play calling, and an overall dearth of offensive leadership.

But there was one bright spot: Jerome Harrison, the diminutive running back who got very few carries, but always seemed to do something productive with the ball when he got it.

Jerome Harrison comes into the 2009 season as a three-year veteran, having been drafted in the fifth round of the 2006 draft out of Washington State. If you just glance at his career totals, you will likely be underwhelmed:

  • 77 carries
  • 448 yards
  • 1 rushing TD
  • 23 catches
  • 182 receiving yards
  • 1 receiving TD

A couple of years ago, that would have been a decent three-week stretch for LaDainian Tomlinson.

If you break the numbers down a little further, however, you begin to see that Harrison’s overall lack of production is not necessarily his fault. A player can only do so much with the chances he is given, and Harrison has only had 100 touches in his NFL career. With a 5.8 career yard per carry average (7.2 in 2008) and a 7.9 yard per reception average, Harrison has at least made the most of his chances.

And what makes Jerome Harrison a sleeper pick for 2009 is that, barring injury, his touches will undoubtedly increase.

Pat Kirwan’s Sirius NFL Radio show was at Browns training camp yesterday and I was able to catch a portion of it during my drive home. They interviewed Jamal Lewis and Eric Mangini, both of him talked about Harrison as a key part of the plans for 2009. Lewis went so far as to say what all Browns fans were saying last year: namely, that Harrison was underutilized by the previous coaching staff. Mangini spoke glowingly of Harrison’s work ethic, talent, and aptitude in picking up the new offense.

What remains to be seen is whether these positive training camp reports actually translate into additional touches for Harrison. Last year, we heard the Browns coaches speak on more than one occasion about getting Harrison more involved. Then Sunday would roll around and Harrison would carry the ball four times for 25 yards in the first half and never see it again. Honestly, it was mind-boggling.

There are a couple of reasons why I think Lewis and Mangini were doing more than just paying lip service to an increased role for Harrison:

Jamal Lewis isn’t getting any younger

Jamal Lewis will be 30 years old on opening day, and there are few cliches used more often in fantasy football and real football circles than the notion that running backs fall of a cliff once they reach the age of 30. Of course, the reason it is so often uttered is that the statistical evidence, for the most part, backs it up.

After a solid 2007 season in which he gained 1,304 yards on 298 carries, Lewis regressed last season to 1,002 yards. Part of the reason was that he did not get as many fourth quarter carries with the Browns often finding themselves behind in games. Another part of the reason for his decline was an almost full yard drop his average per carry.

If the Browns can throw the ball more effectively this year to open up the running lanes, and not be playing catch up in so many games, Lewis could bounce back to have a better season. However, with 2,399 career carries there is only so much tread left on the tires. If the Browns want their workhorse to be fresh late in the season and in the fourth quarter when they need to nurse a lead, they will have to manage his workload throughout the year and during games.

Enter Jerome Harrison.

I highly doubt that we will see a repeat of the almost 10:1 split in carries between Lewis and Harrison. More than likely, it will be somewhere in the 7:3 range, with rookie James Davis perhaps picking up a few here and there as well. Either way, the age of Jamal Lewis will compel the Browns coaching staff to throw a few carries elsewhere, and Harrison is the next in line to grab them.

Eric Mangini knows how to get the most out of quicker, undersized backs

Over Eric Mangini’s last two seasons in New York, his Jets teams featured a two-headed running back attack led by feature back Thomas Jones and his understudy/kick returner extraordinaire Leon Washington. In 2007, when he was 29, Thomas Jones carried the ball 310 times with Washington picking up 71 carries. In 2008, when he was 30, Thomas Jones’ workload was slightly reduced to 290 carries, with Washington grabbing 76 of his own. Where Leon Washington made an additional dent was in the passing game, catching 36 balls for 213 yards in 2007 and 47 balls for 355 yards in 2008.

What does this mean for Jerome Harrison?

Well let’s say that the Browns employ a similar split in touches between Lewis and Harrison as Mangini’s Jets teams did with Jones and Washington, using Harrison’s career averages per touch as our guide.

  • 74 carries at 5.8 yards per carry = 429 yards
  • 42 receptions at 7.9 yards per reception = 331.8

Considering that Harrison scored 1 TD in his 34 carries last year, along with 1 TD in 12 receptions, extrapolated out over the touches listed above we could optimistically pencil Harrison in for 5-6 TDs.

Now, is around 750 total yards and five to six TDs going to make Jerome Harrison as fantasy stud? Not at all. And with more touches, he likely won’t be able to maintain a 5.8 yard per carry average. However, I think there is a good chance that Jerome Harrison could see more than 74 carries this year, and that he could still be in the 4.8-5.2 yard per carry neighborhood. And obviously if Jamal Lewis goes down with any type of injury, Harrison’s workload will only increase.

And I definitely believe that he will eclipse ESPN.com’s projection of 459 total yards.

Jerome Harrison has always produced when given the opportunity

This fact often gets lost when people look at Jerome Harrison and just see a 5′9", 218-pound back. In college, Harrison set the Washington State single-season rushing record with 1,900 yards. He also broke the Pac-10 record for consecutive 100-yards games with 16.

Yes, Harrison is slighter of frame than most backs, but did you know that he is actually the same height and almost 10 pounds heavier than Emmitt Smith was during his playing days? This is not to say that Harrison is anywhere in the class of Smith—obviously—but Harrison should not just be dismissed off-hand as a guy without the ability to carry the load for the Browns.

Smaller, quicker backs like Steve Slaton, Chris Johnson, and Darren Sproles have proven as recently as last year that even though NFL defensive players get bigger by the season, smaller running backs with quickness and productive pedigrees can find significant success in the right situation.

It is good to have two backs in today’s NFL, and I think the Browns can have one of the more underrated backfields in the NFL in Lewis and Harrison if the offense rebounds to become a respectable unit in 2009. But if Lewis ever were to go down, I would feel comfortable that Jerome Harrison could produce with 15 to 20 carries per game and that he could be a solid No. 2 RB or weekly flex starter.

As it says above, he’s always produced when given the opportunity.

With that said, I can’t help but think that when Mangini and new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll look at the tape of last year’s team they are going to realize that only one player on offense consistently made plays when he touched the ball. That player was Jerome Harrison, and it sure would have been nice if the previous regime had realized it; or, if they did realize it, if they’d actually been proactive in getting him more touches throughout the season.

With the success that teams like Tennessee and Miami had last year splitting time between two backs, I actually think that Harrison could and will get more touches than what is projected above. I would not be at all surprised to see him get 100 to 125 touches, approach 1,000 total yards, and find the end zone six to seven times.

Jamal Lewis will no doubt get the bulk of the goalline touches and TDs, but Harrison’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and make people miss in space will make him a valuable commodity inside the red zone on screen and swing passes. If he can find the end zone on a few of those passes, six to seven TDs is not an outlandish projection in my estimation.

You don’t want to leave your draft with Harrison slotted to be a starter. However, once the bye weeks roll around, he will have some value as a capable flex option who will get touches and have the potential to get you double-digit fantasy points in any given week. And if you’re in a PPR league, Harrison’s ability to grab two to three catches per game at least ensures that you won’t come up empty at a spot  in the worst case scenario.

So the question is where should you target Jerome Harrison in your drafts. Clearly, he is not a guy you want to even think about in the first half of a draft, nor do you need to. Harrison is not in Yahoo!’s Top 40 running backs for 2009 and doesn’t show up until No. 76 in ESPN’s running back rankings. His value obviously increases somewhat in a point-per-reception league, where he shows up at No, 192 overall in the ESPN PPR rankings.

Here is the guide I will be using when it comes to Jerome Harrison, and obviously specific rounds will depend on the number of teams in your league and how your league doles out points. (And, since I am in leagues that have other Browns fans, I may have to jump on Jerome a round or two earlier than normal.)

  • If I draft Jamal Lewis somewhere in rounds 5 or 6, I am definitely grabbing Harrison by round 14 as an essential handcuff.
  • If I am in a PPR league, I am targeting Harrison somewhere in the 13 to 15 range, depending on the other RBs and WRs available.
  • In a non-PPR league in which I do not need Harrison as a handcuff, I will try to grab him in the last couple of rounds, earlier if there has been a run on second-tier, non-starting running backs already.

Remember that fantasy football championships are won many times by the guys you draft in the later rounds that far exceed their expected or projected value.  The later rounds are a great place to take chances on players who are one injury away from putting up big numbers, especially when the guy in front of them is a 30-plus running back.

Last year, for example, I rode mid- and late-round draft picks Chris Johnson and Steve Slaton to a fantasy title. While Jerome Harrison is not going to approach the production of either of those two guys, he does have the potential to give you ninth or 10th round value with his current role in the later rounds of the draft. If he gets the chance to start at any point this season, he could potentially offer third or fourth round value.

Stack a few of those guys together, along with a solid performance at the top of the draft, and you have the makings of a team with depth that can withstand the inevitable injuries you’ll endure, which will allow you to be competitive on a week-in, week-out basis.


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