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Lamentable is an unsuitable word to describe the past several months in Cleveland. Tragic seems more appropriate. From the Indians’ embarrassing futility to the nationally televised “Please Jim, call me Jesus” LeBron James divorce from the Cavs, the local sports faithful have experienced a summer filled with sadness.

Despondent feelings may soon continue. 

Based on the Chihuahuas’ recent string of toothless seasons, Dawg Pound members better buy Kleenex in bulk. Chances are slim they will surpass last year’s humiliating five wins. The defense, which ranked 29th overall a year ago, is sketchy at best. And the addition of Jake Delhomme(notes), albeit an upgrade over bumbling Brady Quinn(notes), doesn’t exactly enhance stability at the quarterback position. As Carolina fans can attest, the inaccurate veteran would struggle hitting Godzilla dressed in fluorescent orange from 10 yards out.

However, despite their lack of vertical potency, the Browns do pack a vicious bite in a category that would make Jim Brown proud: running the football.

Although Cleveland rushers averaged a mere 4.2 yards per carry in ’09, the offensive line is brimming with talent. Anchored by former first rounder Joe Thomas(notes), Cleveland’s Boss Dogs can and will displace mounds of opponent flesh with relative ease. If the passing game is at least semi-competent, wide rushing lanes will be created with regularity.

Montario Hardesty(notes) surely stands to benefit.

The rookie from Tennessee is a ground-pounding pit bull. A self-described “three-play back,” he’s an instinctual between the tackles grinder equipped with terrific vision, patience and power. He doesn’t possess the intoxicating speed of a Jahvid Best(notes) or C.J. Spiller(notes), but he’s no tortoise either (4.49 40-yard dash). Watching highlights from his days high on Rocky Top, the second-round pick is also an accomplished receiver. The every-down label is fitting.

Self-proclaimed fantasy pundits will argue Jerome Harrison(notes) is the Browns back to own. The diminutive rusher’s spectacular finish to ’09 was the primary reason why many owners reached the pinnacle of their leagues. That is, for the five fanatics that actually received the memo from the fantasy gods. Recall over the final five weeks he totaled an astounding 709 yards and seven scores, including a record-shattering 298 total yard, three-TD explosion against Kansas City in Week 15. After such a stirring stretch, Harrison supporters remain steadfast he will emerge the starter.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

It’s clear Mike Holmgren sees Harrison as a change of pace, not a bell cow, back. Remember the Browns moved up to draft Hardesty and the youngster worked exclusively with the first-team offense throughout OTAs and minicamp. Although he’s been sidelined with a knee injury since early August, the coaching staff’s confidence in him as the primary carrier remains obvious. From the Associated Press:

Coach Eric Mangini said Hardesty had a good grasp of Cleveland's offense before getting hurt.

"The thing with Montario that I'm really comfortable with is he knew the system pretty well in OTAs," he said. "He's been studying it just as hard, even though he hasn't been on the field, he's been just as diligent here during training camp.

"Look, he's a rookie, but the early impression is that he is not going to need a ton of reps in order to be effective in completing his assignments just based on my exposure to him and how he's worked. I hadn't looked at the position that way where you just throw a guy in and let the instincts take over, but there's obviously a huge component to that at the running back spot."

Every year, lucrative running back diamonds are unearthed after pick 100. Two years ago, Chris Johnson, Steve Slaton(notes) and Pierre Thomas(notes) were mined from the darkest recesses. Last year, Jamaal Charles(notes), Rashard Mendenhall(notes), Ricky Williams(notes) and Fred Jackson(notes) greatly exceeded draft day expectations. Hardesty, who currently sports a 107.7 ADP (RB41), just might be 2010’s difference-making late-round leviathan. Asserting himself as the starter in the Browns’ final preseason game appears likely. Running behind a fortified wall, he could puncture the RB top 20 by year’s end even with a very difficult slate.

The pain and anguish Cleveland fans have suffered through this summer is unspeakable. However, for a handful of games this fall, Hardesty may temporarily lift the unfortunate city’s cloud of sports sorrow.

Fearless Forecast (14 games): 208 carries, 915 rushing yards, 27 receptions, 236 receiving yards, 7 total touchdowns


Image courtesy of the AP

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