Spotlight: Montario Hardesty

posted by Jason Wood on Aug 9th


Jason Wood's thoughts

Jerome Harrison is the 2009 recipient of the Drew Bennett Award. Fantasy award veterans know that to be a reference to the former Tennessee Titans receiver who came out of nowhere to grab 28 receptions for 517 yards and 8 touchdowns. Unfortunately, Bennett never again amounted to much in fantasy circles - he finished WR38, WR43, WR75 and WR173 over the next four seasons.

Harrison gets the award for what he did from Weeks 14-16; which are the critical playoff weeks in most leagues.

Game Opp Rush Yds YPR TDs Recs RecYds YPC TDs
14 KAN 34 286 8.41 3 2 12 6 0
15 OAK 39 148 3.79 1 0 0 0 0
16 JAX 33 127 3.85 1 2 20 10 0

For the fun of it, let's pro rate that three-week tally over a full 16 games:

  • 565 carries
  • 2,992 rushing yards
  • 5.3 yards per rush
  • 27 rush TDs
  • 21 receptions
  • 171 receiving yards

And that folks, is why pro-rating a few games is an exercise in futility. What's ironic about Harrison's heroic late season push is that it came primarily thanks to a massive workload. 30+ carries in three straight games is an unheard of feat in the modern era. And it's even more unheard of for Jerome Harrison, a back who most people (including some of his coaches) have always doubted his ability to take a pounding.

Harrison was drafted in the 5th round of the 2006 draft out of Washington State. He was a junior college transfer but led the nation in rushing in his senior year. Scouts projected Harrison as a 3rd down back at the next level, because they didn't feel he could break tackles or take a pounding in between the tackles. He was, however, praised for his natural receiving ability, yet in Cleveland he's only caught 57 receptions in four years.

In 2006, he rushed only 20 times and sat behind both Reuben Droughns and Jason Wright. In 2007 and 2008, he rushed 23 and 34 times, respectively, this time mainly as a backup to Jamal Lewis. Last season Jamal Lewis started the season atop the depth chart, but Chris Jennings (63) and Josh Cribbs (55) also had their moments. But it was a war of attrition and Head Coach Eric Mangini finally had no choice but to put the ball in Harrison's hands.

Despite Harrison's strong finish, at no point has the team hinted that he'll get a chance to be a full-time workhorse this year. Mike Holmgren has taken control of the franchise and is reshaping the roster, but Eric Mangini and his coaches were held over and have this season to prove that last year wasn't their fault.

With Jake Delhomme under center (yikes!) and a cadre of young, inexperienced receivers, this is a team that HAS to be able to run the ball effectively to have any hope of remaining competitive. Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert have kept Harrison, Chris Jennings and James Davis from last year's roster, but added Montario Hardesty in the 2nd round. Hardesty is physically imposing (6'0", 225 pounds) but has found it hard to stay healthy, with three knee surgeries under his belt already.

2005 - Played two games and hurt his knee leading to a medical red shirt
2006 - Played 13 games but started only 5, rushed for just 384 yards and 4 TDs
2007 - Played in 10 games, 0 starts, for just 373 yards and 3 TDs. Missed three games with bad ankles
2008 - Played 11 games, but only 1 start. Had just 76 carries on the season for 271 yards
2009 - Hardesty FINALLY stayed healthy and ran for 1,345 yards and 12 touchdowns

So what's Eric Mangini going to do? Hardesty's skills have been on display from the first day of rookie camp through the early part of training camp. He was running with the first team a majority of the time. And then he hurt his knee, again. What the team is calling a "tweak", Hardesty is now expected to rest for most of training camp, if not longer. That's a real shame because his talents were burning bright. Now the attention turns back to Harrison. Will he FINALLY get the chance to prove he deserves the #1 role?

Other Considerations

Offensive Line - The Browns offensive line isn't generally considered one of the league's top units, but this group has talent. The left side of the line can hold its own with anyone: LT Joe Thomas, LG Eric Steinbach and C Alex Mack. It's the right side that's a concern: RG Pork Chop Womack and RT Tony Pashos.

Passing Game - The Browns need a balanced offense because no one individually is potent enough to overcome defensive attention. There's nowhere to go but up as the combination of Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn combined for the league's worst passing attack (2,076 yards and 11 TD passes). But it's hard to imagine some combination of Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace or Colt McCoy being anything more than a one-year transition until whomever the Browns draft in the 1st round of the 2011 draft. And the starting receivers have a grand total of 41 career receptions.

The Schedule - There will be no late season heroics from either Hardesty or Harrison if Clayton Gray's Ultimate Strength of Schedule proves accurate. According to Clayton's analysis, the Browns RBs face the 3rd most difficult playoff schedule (Weeks 15-17).

Positives

  • The Browns offensive line is better than people give it credit for
  • Hardesty is a huge, powerful runner who is a perfect fit in a one cut and go system
  • He's been the star of the RB corps since the first day of rookie minicamps

Negatives

  • Hardesty has had three knee surgeries already and is currently sitting out with a tweaked knee
  • He lacks a second gear in the open field
  • The Browns passing attack may be so bad opposing defenses will be able to key on the run

Final thoughts

Montario Hardesty looks the part. For four seasons at Tennessee he walk the walk for long, missing significant chunks of time. But last year, it finally came together and he was one of the SEC's top producers. That was enough to land him in the 2nd round for the rebuilding Cleveland Browns. It seems Mike Holmgren, Eric Mangini and the other Browns personnel execs don't believe that Jerome Harrison is enough in the backfield, and they would like nothing more than to see Hardesty grab the RB1 role and never look back. This preseason was shaping up exactly that way, until Hardesty "tweaked" his knee. Now Harrison is back running with the 1s. The Browns aren't going to be a very good team and it's likely that this unit will share the wealth. Even the 3rd tailback is probably going to get work. If I were in a dynasty league, Hardesty would be an intriguing high risk/high upside option. But in redraft leagues, I'm probably avoiding the Browns skill players including Hardesty.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

MrTwo94 said:

Wow. Here's a risky situation. You've got a decent incumbent along with a promising rookie on what is likely an awful offense. If you draft one, you just might catch lightening in a bottle if Delhomme has a career resurgence and one of these two guys gets a majority share of the carries. Hardesty was the one drafted by the new regime, so IMO he's the one to gamble on (if you are set on taking a gamble on the CLE running game). He's had injuries but really, if you're counting on the CLE offense then that's the least of your concerns. At an ADP of 103, maybe not a horrible gamble. Low risk, medium reward. Harrison has an ADP of 71. I'd much rather roll with a guy like Caddy or Bradshaw around there.

Even if the Browns really surprise me and get 450 rushes out of their running backs, I'm perplexed by their current stable and expected workloads, so projections are really just poor guesses at this point. Hillis, James Davis, and Jennings should all see some action, one would think.

baconisgood said:

Warning- Browns Homer.

If there is something to like about the CLE RB situation its the Holmgren/Mangini combo. When Mangini got to the Jets he quickly built an o-line and brought in a guy to be his ball carrier. Even though Leon Washington was on the roster (and had done some good things in NY Mangini's first year) TJ go 338 and 326 touches with Mangini there. Holmgren took a below average running game in Sea and in 2 years turned it into an above average game (his running game wasn't nearly as good in GB though).

The first draft pick under Mangini was a C, this year they added a late 3rd rounder to the line and a couple of FAs. I see the potential for the Browns pounding the ball a lot and the potential for one RB to get a large chunk. Best bet seems to be Hardesty due to his lower cost and the Browns moving up to get him.

Todem said:

I truly find it mind boggling that the Browns still even after last years perfromance late in the season do not want to give Jerome Harrison a clear shot at being a feature back. Every time I have seen this guy play he does nothing but make things happen. He clearly other than Cribbs is the best playmaker they have. I watched Hardesty enough in college to make a reasonable evaluation that he is not close to being an elite back. He is not anything close to a breakaway threat and is not good getting to the edges either. So I am not sold on the fact that Hardesty can be the 25 carry guy. He is more of a plodder to me an inside runner for sure. He can get the tough yards.

This has RBBC written all over it early in the year until one of them emerges. I think making a projection is very difficult. So I will bet my money on Harrison this year and project he takes over early or wins the job in pre-season.

TheDirtyWord said:

Hardesty may be a potential hidden gold mine for astute owners:

1) CLE has developed a recent reputation as a fantasy wasteland - deservedly so.
2) Everyone took notice of Jerome Harrison's late season exploits but in reality, they were the result of a) destroying KC, a team that hasn't finished better than 28th in rushing defense in 3 seasons (last two seasons have seen them give up 157.7 YPG) and b) a ridiculous amount of carries (105 in the last 3 games).

That said, aside from that KC game where Harrison did go off, he averaged 3.8 YPC in his last 2 games even though he accumulated 275 yards. So this wasn't a Jamaal Charles situation where he was eating up chunks of yardage at a time. Harrison uncharacteristically bludgeoned his way to his production. Certainly to his credit, but his production was the product of the Browns simply committing to the run game out of necessity.

Looking at those last 4 games which helped save Mangini's job, check out some of these numbers:

Rush Attempts: 181
Pass Attempts: 68 (including sacks)

...a 73/27 run/pass ratio over the course of a quarter of the season!!!!

Cleveland simply couldn't pass the ball by the end of the year against pretty weak competition (not that they had excelled in this area prior to this stretch). Their 88.5 net passing yards/game for this 4 game stretch is almost incomprehensible. Now when you see these figures, even Jake Delhomme qualifies as a significant upgrade simply because he brings a veteran presence and some mental toughness to the position.

So given that Mangini has been given at least 1 more season consider that the first two picks the Jets made during the Mangini era were D'Brickshaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold. The first pick of Mangini's tenure in CLE was Alex Mack. He didn't need a LT; he already had Joe Thomas, one of the best (if not the best) in the game. The Jets as they exist today were built on the principles at least set by Mangini on the offensive side of the ball.

The Browns have the makings of a tremendous O-Line that could, and perhaps should, pay dividends as early as this season. Even amidst a their 1-11 start, they ran the ball 317 times which would have put them at 422 for a full season. While it's not exceptional, I see this team as being committed to running the ball even prior to their ridiculous 73/27 stretch. Overall, they finished 6th in the NFL in rush attempts.

I think their 2010 schedule could lead them to 7 wins and they start off with @TB & KC. So a surprise 2-0 start isn't out of the question. But with that in mind, I could see them hitting 550 on the total rushing attempts tab for the 2010 season. This would leave plenty of work for both Hardesty and Harrison to flesh out their production in fully defined roles.

From what I saw of Hardesty last season, he seemed like a tough runner who always seemed to be a thorn in the side of the team playing him. And at 6'0 225 - Hardesty provides the physical component to a rushing attack that can now make better use of Harrison's multi-dimensional talents. While performance on the field and in games will ultimately decide workload levels, Mangini has been unabashedly gushing about Hardesty. Mangini does not appear to me to be an 'unabashed' type of guy, so the opportunity is ripe for Hardesty to make a sizable impact his rookie year. And while, folks are flocking to Matthews & Best in Round 2 & 5...you might be able to get the game level of production by waiting until 7-8 to get a solid rookie RB.


Montario Hardesty projections

RSHRSHYDRSHTDRECRECYDRECTD
Jason Wood1406004151000
Message board consensus2048135161050