Heading into the 2014 season, the goal of the Cleveland Browns front office and coaching staff was to re-establish a power rushing attack. In order to do this, the team signed Ben Tate away from the Houston Texans, traded up for Towson’s Terrance West and then struck gold with undrafted free agent, Isaiah Crowell.
Locked and loaded with a three-headed monster for Kyle Shanahan’s Zone Blocking Scheme, the Cleveland Browns would come out of the gate as one of the top rushing attacks in the league early in the season. Despite losing their starting center to a season-ending injury, the team would finish No. 17 in the league with 1,728 rushing yards on the season.
Their commitment to a power rushing attack went much further than their No. 17 ranking, though, as the team was No. 6 in the league in rushing attempts at 477. Browns running backs would combine for 17 touchdowns on the season as well, which was good for No. 4 in the NFL and 13 more rushing touchdowns than in their absolutely atrocious rushing performance of the 2013 season.
Though Tate was signed to be “the guy” in the backfield, he would end up accumulating just 333 yards and four touchdowns on 106 carries before being cut by the team. Thanks to the emergence of the “Baby Backs,” Cleveland decided to move forward with their young, dynamic duo in the backfield for the remainder of the 2014 season.
West and Crowell wouldn’t disappoint, as the two combined for over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns on 319 carries. A third-round draft pick, West would rush 171 times for 673 yards and four touchdowns, while Crowell had 148 rushes for 607 yards and eight touchdowns.
Flying under-the-radar to casual fans, both West and Crowell were a breath of fresh air to the team. However, they were not without their faults. West was left “inactive” for a game for reportedly being in the coach’s dog house and he struggled to get going at times in the season. And for all of the good Crowell did around the goal-line, he was often a liability due to his fumbling issues.
On top of their rookie flaws, there is another major aspect of their game that was not seen much in 2014—the ability to be depended on in third down situations. Traditionally a time when the running back is asked to pass protect or slip out to catch passes, the duo combined for just 20 catches on the season. Though it may have been a product of the offense and not the backs, the lack of targeting of the two should be a major concern heading into the 2015 season.
For this reason, it may be wise for general manager Ray Farmer to target one of the veteran running backs set to hit the market in free agency.
Many will disagree at first, because they view it as taking snaps and carries away from the younger backs—and who could disagree? The two looked as if they were ready to be 1,000-yard backs when given a full-time carry load.
But one of the important aspects with either Josh McCown, Johnny Manziel or a rookie under center is going to be providing that person with protection and a safety net—two things West and Crowell are not yet known for. For this reason, there are a couple of backs the Browns should look into that would come with a minimum investment.
The first of those backs is Frank Gore of the San Francisco 49ers.
Likely to not be re-signed by the 49ers after they drafted Carlos Hyde last season, Gore would provide the perfect veteran voice to this running back group. Over the course of his career, Gore has racked up 11,073 yards rushing and 64 touchdowns on 2,442 carries (4.5 yards per carry). What is even more impressive is that he has caught 342 passes for 2,883 yards and 11 touchdowns—despite catching just 72 passes the last four years combined.
There was a time in Gore’s career in which he was a lock to catch 40 passes per season. From 2006 to 2010, the lowest catch total he recorded in a season was 43—with his highest being 61. For those of you counting at home, 61 receptions would have been good for second on the Browns team last year.
Though many feel like his better days are behind him, Gore’s veteran presence in pass protection and catching out of the backfield would be a major addition to this team. If he is looking for an opportunity to compete for a share of carries with two younger guys, Gore would be an absolute perfect fit with the Browns.
The second free agent running back the Browns should look into is Shane Vereen of the New England Patriots.
A favorite of head coach Bill Belichick, Vereen finally came into his own in their running back by committee approach over the last two seasons—especially as a receiver out of the backfield. Though he rushed just 217 times for 907 yards and seven touchdowns in his four seasons in New England, Vereen was able to catch 107 passes for 1,023 yards and seven touchdowns.
Thanks to his speed and shiftiness, the 26-year old is a nightmare to cover for opposing linebackers—just ask the Browns. In 2013, Vereen toasted Craig Robertson and the Browns attempted coverage to the tune of 12 receptions for 153 yards. He also rushed for a touchdown in that game.
Though he has been stuck in the committee approach the Patriots have employed over the years, Vereen has a lot to offer a young running back group like the one in Cleveland. And if he is interested in continuing to make his money as a third-down back, there would be a home for him with the Browns.