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Browns watching free agent running backs sign elsewhere

Mar 22, 2012 -- 3:00pm

By Tony Grossi

Extra points …

What to do at running back?: All the hand-wringing over the Browns’ lack of action at quarterback has obscured their questionable situation at running back.

Their current depth chart features Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya. Hardesty (calf) and Jackson (toe) missed substantial time with injuries. Ogbonnaya had two good games in November when he was signed off the Texans’ practice squad.

Those three backs rushed for an even 600 yards in 2012. Total.

You’ve got to believe the Browns will bring in another back from the draft or free agency. So far they have been linked to nobody in the running back-bloated free agent market.

The back-by-committee approach so popular in the NFhas made the running back market cold. No team is going to dole out much more than the league minimum for backs approaching the dreaded 30-year-old barrier. But it’s starting to heat up for the younger ones.

On Thursday, the Bears made a surprising signing of ex-Raider Michael Bush (27). The day before, the Bengals signed ex-Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis (26) to replace unsigned Cedric Benson. On Monday, the Panthers signed ex-Charger Mike Tolbert (26). The week before, the Chiefs signed ex-Brown Peyton Hillis (26).

Under-30 backs still on the market include: Joseph Addai (soon to be 29), Benson (29), Brandon Jacobs (29) and Kevin Smith (25).

There is also the trade route. After the Texans re-signed Arian Foster, there were rumors of Browns interest in backup Ben Tate. Who wouldn’t be interested in the 2010 second-round pick? But a source in Houston tells me there is no chance of Tate being dealt.

Now the name of Jonathan Stewart is coming up after the Panthers signed Tolbert. They also have DeAngelo Williams and Mike Goodson. Stewart’s contract is up after 2012, so a trade for him would result either in a rent-a-player situation for one year or a big new contract.

Considering the Browns’ lethargic attitude toward free agency, I’m thinking they address this position in the draft.

But draftniks penciling in Alabama’s Trent Richardson with the No. 4 pick for the Browns may be disappointed. I see GM Tom Heckert waiting for the “value” pick in later rounds.

Rumor control: Chiefs GM Scott Pioli said he wasn’t overly concerned about rumors that Hillis pondered retirement last year after a nightmarish season with the Browns and considered joining the CIA. Hillis strongly denied the rumors.

Pioli told Mike Florio of profootballtalk.com, “We’re all learning in this information society today (that) there’s a lot of things put out there about people, about institutions …  rumors start and people want to say mean things for whatever reason, and you have to do your homework.”

Former Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, now with Kansas City in the same position, no doubt lobbied for Hillis. It’s also believed that Pioli sought comment from friend Josh McDaniels, who was the Denver coach who traded Hillis two years ago – and lived to regret it.

Pioli said of Hillis, “I get the sense he’s a no-nonsense guy and he just wanted a situation where he felt people wanted him, and he felt comfortable here.”

Get ready for more exciting touchbacks: In our Morning Kickoff post about possible NFL rules changes, we neglected to mention the fate of last season’s most controversial changes – the kickoff rules that reduced the number of kickoff returns in the name of player safety.

While fans bemoaned an alarming increase in touchbacks on kickoffs – followed by an annoying number of TV commercials – the league was delighted with the results and will keep the rules in place.

“It achieved its objective,” said Rich McKay, chairman of the league rules committee. “Kickoffs were down tremendously, as far as percent of returns. The average start line went down, and we were really concerned with how that would affect offense. But player safety overrode that concern.”

McKay said concussion injuries on kickoff returns were down 40 percent, yet scoring per game (44.6 points) was the highest in 46 years.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

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