If you have been paying any attention to the early days of Cleveland Browns training camp, a storyline worth watching play out has already developed at the running back position. After shocking many by selecting Miami Hurricane standout Duke Johnson in the third round, the fans already knew the position was going to be one to watch—but things are getting even more intriguing by the day.
Though it is only the first week of August, the Browns have already suffered two injuries at the position. The aforementioned Johnson is out with a hamstring injury, and one of the “baby backs” from a year ago, Terrance West, is sidelined with a calf injury. With those two injured and Glenn Winston already out with an injury, the front office was forced to go out and add camp bodies—inking Jalen Parmalee and Tim Flanders to deals.
With the additions of Parmalee and Flanders, the Browns currently have eight running backs in camp.
When you look at the list above, many are anticipating the trio of Crowell, Johnson and West to get the bulk of the carries. However, reports have surfaced that Draughn may have passed West on the depth chart due to his maturity—and if this is the case, things could get real interesting over the course of the next week or so with Johnson and West nursing injuries.
Head coach Mike Pettine stated the following of Draughn, “He is (earning more snaps). He is a quiet kid and that’s how he is on the field. He just does his job. There is not a lot of flash there. Like a lot of guys, he very quietly fills the grade sheet with pluses.”
Signed by the Browns back in December, Draughn has been impressing the coaching staff throughout the offseason. He was an undrafted rookie out of North Carolina back in 2011, failing to make the Washington Redskins regular season roster following the final round of cuts. He was signed to the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad in October, and spent the rest of the 2011 and 2012 seasons with the Chiefs. From there, he spent time with Baltimore, Indianapolis, Chicago and San Diego before signing with Cleveland.
During the course of his career in the NFL, the 6’0” and 205-pound back has registered 73 attempts for 254 yards and two touchdowns. He has also caught 24 passes for 158 yards. On top of his rushing and receiving duties, Draughn has spent time on special teams—registering 33 kick returns for 763 yards-mostly with Kansas City.
Now, we have all heard this story before. Journeyman running back impresses the coaching staff with his work ethic, only to be cut due to other talent on the roster—and this can certainly be the case again. However, there is something that Pettine said above that stands out to this writer. “He is a quiet kid and that’s how he is on the field. He just does his job.”
Now, that may not be an intentional dig at West—but it most certainly applies. West has always been a “talker” off the field, especially when the team selected Johnson in the draft. His social media ways have drawn the ire of many fans, and you better believe the team notices these things as well. Not to mention he spent time in the “doghouse” last year which cost him carries during the 2014 regular season. In fact, one local Cleveland talking head is even reporting he is on “thin ice,” though I find it difficult to put stock in anything he says these days–so I’ll let you judge the source and report.
If anything is certain with the running back position right now, it is that Crowell should emerge as the No. 1 back—barring injury or something crazy happening. Crowell racked up 607 yards and eight touchdowns last season on 148 attempts, but ended the season on a dull note as he recorded just 27 carries for 78 yards in the team’s final three games.
Crowell emerged after being signed as an undrafted free agent out of Alabama State (started his career with Georgia), but he is far from a sure thing at the position as well. His checkered past aside, the second-year back had fumbling issues last year—fumbling three times, losing two of them. One of the most emphasized things by Pettine since day one has been ball control, and with a quarterback like Josh McCown under center the Browns absolutely cannot lose fumbles from the running back position. Crowell will need to prove able to hold onto the ball if he wants to run away (pun intended) from the competition for the starting job.
The wildcard in all of this was supposed to be Johnson, however his injured hamstring changes things in a big way.
Disappointment could easily be heard in Pettine’s voice when discussing how the rookie is missing valuable reps and learning time due to the injury, which clearly shows the team had/has big plans for the rookie this year. With his ability to catch passes out of the backfield and add a dynamic element to the offense, Johnson was supposed to eat into the touches of Crowell and West early in the 2015 season. But if he cannot make it back on the field for a week or two, he may find himself behind the curve of the players already well-versed in the offense, and most importantly, the protection schemes.
When things shake out at the running back position, it would be a shocker to see a depth chart that did not have some variation of Crowell, West and Johnson at the top of it—especially given the fact that general manager Ray Farmer traded up to get West last year. But if Draughn is truly impressing the staff and things with West are as bad as the rumors (emphasis on rumors) say they are, you never know. The Browns need players they can depend on for 16 games, not potential distractions off the field and in the locker room.
Roster Projection: Crowell, Johnson, West, Draughn
Cut Projection: Winston (practice squad potential), Lundy, Parmalee, Flanders