Hot Button: Could (and Should) James Davis End Up Starting at RB for the Browns?

Midwest Sports FansAnalyst IAugust 27, 2009

CLEVELAND - AUGUST 22: James Davis #28 of the Cleveland Browns runs throught the Detroit Lions defense for a touchdown during the third quarter of their NFL game in Cleveland Browns Stadium on August 22, 2009 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

This is the first edition of a new feature here at MSF that we are calling the “Hot Button.” We are calling it that for two reasons. First, because it will involve me or someone else analyzing an important, potentially controversial topic that is germane to Midwest sports discussion.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, it is sponsored by our good friends at American Button Machines, the button maker capital of the Internet. See the connection? I figured you would. Now on to this week’s Hot Button…

One of the most interesting stories to come out of Cleveland Browns training camp this year has been the unexpected emergence of sixth round draft pick James Davis as a potentially integral part of the Browns’ 2009 offense.

With Jamal Lewis seeming to be firmly entrenched as the starter despite his advancing age, and Eric Mangini pledging early in camp to get more touches for Jerome Harrison, it appeared that Davis would provide nice depth and a body on special teams, but little else.

Then he ran 80+ yards for a TD against Detroit’s backups and seemingly overnight there was chatter that he could end up as the starter.

Yesterday, Patrick McManamon of the Akron Beacon-Journal posed the question “Do the Browns have a running back controvery?” His answer was a resounding…maybe.

The Browns could have a couple of very interesting decisions in the near future.

One is at quarterback. Which we all pretty much know about.

The other, though, is at running back where rookie James Davis might be making a push to unseat Jamal Lewis.

Far-fetched? Perhaps.

But a certain team that makes its living running the ball extremely well in the shade of the Rocky Mountains has had great success with late-round running backs.

I am sure that all Browns fans are excited about the potential that James Davis has flashed. And Eric Mangini has spoken glowingly of his rookie, which I thought was a little unexpected but certainly nice to hear. Still, there are some reasons for caution, and no one should be writing Jamal Lewis’ Browns epitaph just yet.

First off, many a running back has had a strong preseason, especially playing in the later quarters, and not seen it translate to the regular season.

We need to see James Davis succeed against other teams’ first team defenses before we book his ticket for the Pro Bowl. Remove the 81-yard run from his impressive line against the Lions (12 carries, 116 yards, TD) and Davis’ stats look far more pedestrian: 11 carries, 35 yards. 

True, the ability to take carries to the house from long distances is a desirable trait for a running back to have, and certainly something that Jamal Lewis now lacks, but Davis’ 81-yard scamper may have been more of an anomaly than something we will see regularly.

According to his pre-draft Scouts Inc. profile, Davis’ straight-line speed is above average but not elite. While Scouts Inc is by no means the gospel, it is further reason to at least temper expectations that Davis will be regularly running up and down the field in the regular season.

Additionally, there is an important part of the running back role that many fans (myself included) forget about sometimes in our zeal to see a young guy or backup get on the field: pass blocking. Once again, looking at his Scouts Inc profile, Davis is criticized for not being great in this area:

Has shown the ability to catch the ball when facing the QB and is a solid underneath dump-off option. However, he lacks ideal experience catching the ball, he struggles to adjust to ball thrown outside of his frame and he is not a home run threat after the catch.

Shows adequate awareness in pass protection and flashes the ability to hold ground against blitzing defenders. However, he’s not very physical at the point of attack and doesn’t work as hard as he should to sustain.

This jives with reports I’ve seen and heard from people who have attended Browns training camp. Everyone has lauded James Davis for being extremely impressive as a runner, but are concerned that his blocking is not quite up to snuff.

Certainly opponents will attempt take advantage of this with blitzes, which could leave Davis as the last line of defense to protect whoever is playing QB (at least we have two!).

Thus, especially early in the season, Davis being on the field could very well be a tip-off to the defense that we plan to run the ball or throw a quick pass. This would conceivably add more defenders to the box and potentially limit Davis’ effectiveness and the offense overall. 

Now that I have said all of this, and highlighted what I see as the glaring questions/weaknesses surrounding James Davis, let me also say this: for the Browns to have a successful season, James Davis will have to be a major part of it.

We saw how poorly the Browns’ offense played last year, and how much it was hamstrung by a lack of play-makers. the Browns will need the spring that Davis appears to have in his step to put a more dynamic unit on the field in ‘09.

At one time, Jamal Lewis was an explosive runner with the ability to maul people and run away from them. Those days, however, are long gone.

While Lewis still runs hard and is a solid short-yardage back, he is slow to the hole and lacks any semblance of breakaway speed. He can churn out four to five yard carries on a good day, but rarely is going to move the chains if the distance to the marker is outside of that amount.

Having James Davis, a young running back with fresh legs and some burst, can be an excellent complement to the bruising Lewis.

Sprinkle in Jerome Harrison—whose production with limited opportunities should not be forgotten—as a runner and receiver, and the Browns have the makings of a solid running back trio that can keep eachother fresh and offer varying looks to defenses.

James Davis may very well prove to be the every down back of the future for the Browns; and what a steal that would be, getting him in the sixth round.

For 2009, however, the Browns and their fans will most likely be best served by Davis playing a role in which he gets 10-15 carries, Lewis gets a similar number, and Jerome Harrison gets eight to 10 touches (carries and catches).

So rather than a controversy, let’s call it a committee. The Giants rode “Earth, Wind, and Fire” (Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Derrick Ward) all the way to a Super Bowl and then to another solid season last year. With more and more teams moving to two- or three-back committees to provide different looks and keep legs fresh throughout the year, it may (and probably should) be something that the Browns look to do as well. 

Next season, with Lewis likely gone and a full year to evaluate Davis, we can start discussing who “the starter” is. For this year, let’s enjoy the addition of what looks like another solid backfield option and hope that James Davis is what he appears that he may be: a solid building block for the future of the Eric Mangini era in Cleveland.

Bonus James Davis fantasy projection: As stated, it certainly looks more and more like James Davis will become an integral part of the Browns running game. And we’ve all seen enough rookie running backs produce to know that you shouldn’t avoid them like you do rookie receivers. A talented running back behind a decent O-line can usually come in and have success right away. 

With Lewis and Harrison in the mix as well, however, I would not expect anything close to what Steve Slaton and Chris Johnson did last year (barring injuries to Lewis and/or Harrison).

Still, James Davis is worth drafting in the later rounds and should at least have some value as a bye week fill-in. I look for him to get 125-150 carries on the season and between 550-675 yards with three or four scores. 

Obviously if he starts getting 15-20 carries a game, he becomes a possible No. 3/flex starter or even a No. 2 depending on the matchup. But I would draft him hoping for that kind of production, not expecting it.


The Hot Button is sponsored by American Button Machines, the premier online source for button machine and button press enthusiasts, including supplies for fabric buttons, photo buttons, pinback buttons, as well as badge reels. They also sell a variety of circle cutters and will teach you how to make a button at their website or on their button making blog.