For the Browns, the most talked-about positions this offseason have been wide receivers and defensive linemen. Those two areas are the ones where the Browns needed the most help and have weathered the most frustration and controversy in recent years.
We don't have all that much to say about running backs because, well, there's not much drama there for the Browns. Hillis got the Madden cover. That was the most we've heard about the ground game since the 2010 season came to a close.
Unfortunately, the situation at running back is not as solid as it may seem. Hillis is undoubtedly fantastic, and the roster has a fair amount of depth, but how much of that depth is actually serviceable? That's a very big question mark.
And the most vexing aspect of that is Montario Hardesty. Exalted in video from his college days showing his superior talents but cursed with exceptionally poor health, Hardesty appears to be, for now, the most valuable member of the Browns roster who has yet to actually prove he has any value at all.
So what can we expect out of Hardesty in 2011? Obviously, considering his injury record, there's no way to make any concrete predictions, and since a torn ACL kept him off the field his rookie year in 2010, we don't even have any past precedent.
Unless, of course, you count what we saw from him in his college career at the University of Tennessee, which was both beyond impressive in showcasing his immense talent and at the same time a huge warning sign that he couldn't stay healthy.
What, then, might that mean for Hardesty's future as a member of the Browns? There are no absolute answers here, only educated guesses. Still, it's an issue worth examining in the hopes of making some predictions for whether the Browns should be looking for another alternative at RB and whether you should hang onto that Hardesty rookie card.
Let's start with the bad news first. Hardesty's time on the IR during his rookie campaign in 2010 dated from an injury to his ACL during the final game of the preseason. He had missed most of camp prior to that with a bone bruise to his knee.
But the worst part of his inauspicious beginning with the Browns was that it carried a nasty sense of deja vu for Hardesty and the Browns. The ACL injury that required surgery and cost Hardesty his rookie year was in fact the same injury he suffered his freshman year at Tennessee.
If the first ACL injury wasn't perceived as a red flag by the Browns prior to the 2010 draft, the second one should have made them realize that they ought to have seen it as one. ACL injuries are often recurring, even with surgery.
It's a bad injury for a running back in particular because the movements they have to make to do their job properly are especially stressful to something like a surgically-repaired ACL.
And it wasn't just the ACL injuries that put Hardesty in the high-injury-risk category. Hardesty had had three knee surgeries before he finished college. Before his senior year, injuries allowed him to have just six starts total, and he never saw more than 107 carries in a season.
And yet, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. In his senior year, he started 13 games and rushed for 1,345 yards. In other words, in the Browns defense, he did at least look healthy in the season leading up to when he was drafted.
Indeed, the Browns must have seen something special in him to overlook the injury history and be convinced on the basis of just one full season that Hardesty was something special; after all, they traded a third-round pick and two fifth-round picks to the Eagles to move up to the end of the second round to grab him.
Quite a gamble to make on a guy who had been healthy for all of one year and who had racked up more knee surgeries before he attained legal drinking age than many NFL players amass in their entire professional career.
When seen only in that light, the move to draft him seems downright ridiculous. But as always, there's more to it than that.
The dynamic duo of GM Tom Heckert and team president Mike Holmgren obviously saw something in him that made them think he was worth rolling the dice on. Whatever your opinion of Hardesty's chances, you have to respect that Heckert and Holmgren know what they're doing.
They've proven it over and over again. Certainly, they'll make some mistakes (even the best front offices always do), and Hardesty may well be a very expensive one of those. But then again, he may not be.
It pretty much all hinges on his health. There aren't many people who would doubt his pure talent; whether he'll ever have a chance to demonstrate that in the NFL, though? Debatable, erring on the side of grim.
If Hardesty can stay healthy (or at least healthy enough to be on the field more games than not), we can expect great things from him. He should be able to ease the burden on Hillis, allay concerns about depth at RB that might be needed to spell Hillis when he's worn down or (god forbid) if he should be injured, and just put on a good performance in his own right.
If he's free of injury, I'd expect a decent number of touchdowns and yardage that won't rival Hillis', but will certainly be respectable. I'd also expect Hillis to fare better over the long haul since he wouldn't have to carry the entire running game alone.
Want proof? Check out some video of a healthy Hardesty his senior year at Tennessee to see what he's capable of.
At the end of the day, though, what we've all come to expect most is that Hardesty will be injured again and miss a significant amount (if not all) of 2011. There is no way to say for certain if that's true, but it's definitely pretty easy to back up the argument.
Hardesty could be the missing piece of the Browns offense that winds up being the final ingredient for success.
Or he could wind up being the next Lawyer Tillman-esque draft bust, a guy with huge potential that he never had a chance to realize because he can't stay injury-free for more than a few weeks in a row.
At this point, it's anyone's guess.
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