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Can Montario Hardesty win the starting job in Cleveland?

The decline in talent around these parts in the last decade has been well documented.  As the years have gone on, that decline has manifested itself in the NFL, where former Vols are a little harder to find and have become especially scarce in starting lineups on the offensive side of the ball.  In a world where many fans view the sport through the lens of fantasy football, the list of ex-Vols who will be taken in the early rounds of your draft contains only two names.

One is Peyton Manning, who makes us all look good.  The other is a tight end.

No disrespect to Jason Witten, who does his job as well as anyone else in the league.  But all of a sudden you look around, and there are no marquee running backs or wide receivers from Knoxville in the NFL.

For most of the last two decades this wasn't the case:  Reggie Cobb, James Stewart, Charlie Garner, Jamal Lewis, and Travis Henry were all 1,000 yard rushers in the NFL.  But Lewis said he would retire at the end of last season, and Henry's off the field choices led him to the same conclusion.  So if you want to cheer for former Vols at the position, you're left with Arian Foster and his respectable 254 yards as an undrafted rookie...and that's it.

It's much the same at wide receiver, where Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington have been the second or third option (at best) on every team they've played for, and three years into Robert Meachem's career he's looking at the same thing in New Orleans.  All respectable, just fewer chances to stand out.

And on the whole, the Vols can claim several of the game's best defensive players, from Albert Haynesworth in the present to Jerod Mayo and, we hope, Eric Berry in the near future.  But with Berry, I was so worried about him getting drafted by a franchise like Detroit, Oakland, or even Cleveland:  teams that seemed like they were so far away from being competitive that Berry - a lock to come in and be counted on right away - could play really well and still be lost in obscurity.

But for a second round tailback just looking for a chance to make his mark?  Cleveland may have been the best possible place for Montario Hardesty to land.

The aforementioned Jamal Lewis spent the last three years with the Browns, but did not play in the final five games of the 2009 season.  That paved the way for Jerome Harrison, who had 7 carries for 9 yards in Week 14 against Pittsburgh, and 34 carries for 286 yards in Week 15 at Kansas City.  In the final three weeks of the season, Harrison got 106 carries for 561 yards.  He'd been with the Browns since 2006, but still elicited a "who?" from most fans when he dropped those numbers in December; 43% of Harrison's career yards came in those three games.

So the prevailing thought would be that Harrison gets the starting job with Lewis out of the picture, and RB/FB Peyton Hillis (ex-Razorback coming from Denver) will also get some touches.  Dawgs By Nature says they can't imagine Harrison not being the starter.  And since they know a wee bit more about the Browns than I do, I'm inclined to go with their opinion.

However, it is worth noting that ESPN Insider's Draft Analysis claimed Harrison isn't an every-down back (despite the 30+ carries in the final three games), and said "Hardesty's combination of size and speed will make him the most logical starter immediately."  (Originally pointed out in our draft day thread by golfballs03)  The National Football Post gave Cleveland the highest grade of any team in this year's draft - and the Browns sacrificed several picks to trade up to get Hardesty in the second round.

There's a significant size difference between Harrison (5'9" 205) and Hardesty (6'0" 215).  And for UT fans, there are no questions about not only Hardesty's ability, but his desire:  we touched on all of this in his senior day profile (with video highlights), but Hardesty was one of the most patient Vols in recent memory, and made his opportunity more than count in 2009:  1,345 yards, the fourth best total in school history.  Hardesty played hurt, he never fumbled, and when this team needed him the most, Hardesty put them on his back.

Hardesty won't be expected to come in and be a star right away like Eric Berry will...but let's also point out that the RBs taken in the second round of the two previous drafts were Matt Forte, Ray Rice, and LeSean McCoy.  The value at that position the last two years has been very good.

And what's more, the vast majority of both NFL and college teams give a significant number of carries to more than one back.  And looking at Cleveland's situation, Hardesty may not even have to take the starting job from Harrison to have a chance to make an instant impact.

Eric Berry is a unique individual, and Dan Williams will have a chance to make an impact for a team that played in the Super Bowl two years ago.  But don't sleep on Hardesty's opportunity - Cleveland's quarterback situation (Jake Delhomme!  Colt McCoy!  Seneca Wallace!  Featuring Mohammed Masssaquoi's 34 catches as the team's leading receiver!) should again mean a heavy emphasis on the running game - last year Cleveland ran the ball 498 times, 6th most in the NFL, and was dead last in the league with only 2,076 passing yards (more than 300 yards worse than the Jets in 31st).

There should be lots of carries to go around, and an instant opportunity for Montario Hardesty to get a bunch of them.  We loved cheering for this guy last year in Knoxville.  And in a league suddenly devoid of former Vol RBs, we may get a chance to see a lot of him right away in Cleveland.