Montario Hardesty has stepped in as the Cleveland Browns starting running back in Peyton Hillis' absence and Hardesty's play—coupled with Hillis' poor play and injuries—have made him look like the running back of the future for the Browns.
Coming into the 2011 season, Hillis was the face of the Cleveland Browns. Hillis was voted—mostly as a mockery of the democratic process instituted—as the cover athlete for Madden 2012 and he was the toast of Cleveland following his surprising 1,000-yard season in 2010.
However, Hillis has been hurt this season and played poorly when he has been on the field. Hardesty has seen the field much more due Hillis' injuries. Although Hardesty hasn't set the world on fire in his short stint as the featured back, he is a much better option in the future for the Browns.
Hillis' first missed game this season baffled the media. Who would miss a game over something as seemingly benign as strep throat? Unsurprisingly, Hillis' toughness was questioned, especially since Hillis missed the game due to advice given by his agent.
Because Hillis' agent had a part in keeping him out of the game, the media related the missed game to Hillis' unresolved contract extension issues. Whether it is true or not, the fact that Hillis will be a free agent after this season, and the fact that he is not performing in his contract year is troubling.
In Hardesty's rookie season following a wasted 2010 year in which he tore his ACL, he has looked solid running the ball. While Hardesty lacks some of the burst that he had coming into the NFL due to his ACL injury, he still has great shiftiness and one of the best spin moves in the NFL.
Which running back has the brighter future?
Detractors of Hardesty point at his paltry 95 yards on 33 carries against the Seattle Seahawks as a reason that Hillis should be the unquestioned starter at running back for the Browns. However, the Seahawks' rushing defense leads the NFL in yards allowed per carry, allowing just 3.2 yards per carry.
The one big number for Hardesty from Sunday's game is the 33 carries. Hardesty's ability to carry the ball 33 times in a hard-nosed football game shows that he can be a workhorse running back.
At the moment, Hillis does not look like the same player as last year. He currently looks like he might have been a one-year wonder. Furthermore, Hillis' bulldozing style of running will be difficult to keep up in the NFL, and he does not have the speed to outrun players if his body begins to deteriorate.
Hillis has not run for more than 100 yards in his past seven games, dating back to last season. Although it is complete conjecture, it wouldn't be surprising if Hillis' bumps and bruises from the constant beating he took during his tough runs last year have caused extra stress on his body, resulting in his drop-off in production and hamstring injury.
Rookie running backs often improve a great deal after playing their first full NFL season. Hardesty should improve a lot during the offseason, especially if he can gain back some of the burst he lost from his ACL injury and focus on catching the football out of the backfield.
With Hillis in line to be a free agent following this season, there is no doubt that the Browns should let him go if he demands an expensive, long-term contract. Hardesty will be better than Hillis in the future and the Browns cannot afford to get stuck with a potential flash in the pan like Hillis for an extended amount of time.
It's obvious that Hillis is not a lost cause just yet. He still has time to prove that he is a solid NFL running back, but he only has ten more games to show that he is worthy of a pricy contract.
However, Hardesty will be a good NFL running back, and the Browns already have him under contract through the 2013 season.
There's a reason why bruising running backs in the vein of Mike Alstott have gone by the wayside. Their style of running is unsustainable in the current climate of the NFL, and Hillis appears to be another example of that.