Montario Hardesty was expected to be a huge influence on the Cleveland Browns' offense during the 2010 season.
That was, however, before an unexpected knee injury sidelined Hardesty before the regular season even got underway.
Now, free agency and training camp preparations for the 2011 season are becoming finalized, and Hardesty's return will serve as a welcome addition to a thin Cleveland depth chart.
Cleveland will likely lose their second-string running back, Mike Bell, once free agency gets underway in the coming days. Hardesty will fill a need, as he will replace Bell and hopefully become the rusher that Cleveland wished for when they drafted him in 2010.
For much of the 2011 offseason, Browns fans have been calling for the addition of a third-down running back to complement Peyton Hillis. Hardesty will likely become the front-runner for that role if he can remain injury-free during the preseason.
More importantly, the Browns' focus on adding defensive pieces and offensive linemen during free agency will become easier due to the solidarity at the running back position.
The Browns clearly need pieces on their defensive front in order to be competitive in 2011. However, the need for quality offensive linemen becomes even greater with the addition of Hardesty to the Browns lineup.
Hardesty has proven to be very susceptible to injuries during his college years and first pro season. With Hardesty and Hillis both being involved in the offense, the pressure will be consistently mounting on the big men up front.
Cleveland has been rumored to be interested in acquiring players for the right side of the offensive line for many weeks. Joe Thomas, Eric Steinbach and Alex Mack have all become consistent starters among a rotation of incapable brutes on the opposite side.
Floyd Womack and John St. Clair have shared most of the duties along the right side over the last two seasons, and have not shown the ability to be every-down linemen.
The reality that Hardesty's return will change the dynamic of the Browns' offense is an understatement. The addition of a speedy rusher opens the door for a variety of different options for new head coach Pat Shurmur and the rest of the offense.
Shurmur likes to run an offensive system where the rushers must get into the open field and create space. With Hillis more of a bruiser than an elusive runner, Hardesty will bring a completely different dynamic, and will be a much smaller target for opposing defenses.
Having a potentially talented player such as Hardesty in the backfield in 2011 can only be good for Cleveland's growing offense. Now, if Hardesty can show those talents on the field, the Browns may have a rushing attack that is among the best in the entire NFL.