DraftBrowns.com Staff Writer: Justin Higdon
In 2010 while Browns head coach Rob Cudzinski was Norv Turner’s tight ends coach in San Diego, diminutive running back Darren Sproles carried the ball only 50 times, but was a major factor in the passing game. The Chargers running backs caught 126 total passes as a unit, with Sproles accounting for 59 of those. Chud and Norv are back together for the first time since that season, and their offseason activity suggests that finding a back to fit the Sproles role is near the top of the post-draft to-do list.
The Chargers made Sproles a fourth round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft and he made early contributions as a return man. However, he did not begin to flourish on offense until Turner became the team’s head coach in 2007. By 2010 Sproles was a key cog, and those 59 receptions led the team.
Fast forward to 2013, and Cleveland appears to be looking for its own version of Sproles. Prior to the draft, the Browns traded backup linebacker Emmanuel Acho to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for seldom-used running back Dion Lewis. Immediately following the draft, Cleveland signed Youngstown State’s Jamaine Cook as an undrafted rookie free agent. Then, after bringing him in for a tryout this past weekend, the team inked Robbie Rouse of Fresno State to a deal and added him to the 90-man roster.
The three new additions are practically clones of Sproles in terms of size and short area quickness. Coming out of Kansas State, Sproles measured in at 5’6” and 187 pounds. Lewis checks in at 5’7” 193 pounds, and Rouse at 5’6”190 pounds. Cook is a little bigger than the rest, at 5’9” and 209 pounds. In the three-cone drill Sproles was clocked at 6.96 seconds. Rouse was timed at a virtually identical 6.97 seconds at the scouting combine, but improved to 6.80 seconds at his pro day. Lewis performed the drill in 6.90 seconds, while Cook’s 6.76 second time was the fastest of the group.
Like Sproles, who caught 57 passes during his final two college seasons, all three newcomers contributed significantly in their teams’ passing offenses. Lewis has just three catches in two NFL seasons, but had 52 in two years at Pitt. Cook caught 64 passes in three years as a starter for the Penguins. And Rouse caught 63 as a senior, and 95 over the past two seasons.
With veteran Josh Cribbs on his free agency tour and not expected back, the Browns may also be hoping that whoever fills the Sproles role can also return kicks. Lewis ran back 31 kickoffs for the Eagles two years ago for a modest 21.6 yards per return. The longest return of his career so far has been 33 yards. Cook returned 32 kicks in college, but averaged under 20 yards per return. Rouse didn’t return any kicks at Fresno State, but does have some experience in the role dating back to his high school days. The Browns had a solid return unit under Chris Tabor in 2012, and have brought him back to run special teams with the new staff. It won’t be surprising to see him working with the three new backs and trying to find a spark among them.
In the early going, Lewis probably has the edge to win the job. He is the only one with NFL experience and the Browns gave up something (albeit, a player who would have had a hard time making the team) to acquire him. If he can avoid boneheaded behavior in the future, he may finally earn some significant playing time. Cook’s relative size advantage makes him intriguing, but he lacks the straight-line speed teams generally look for. Still, he has a strong lower body and has shown explosion and quickness in drills. Rouse may have the longest odds, but has already beaten some by parlaying a tryout into a contract. The coaches have obviously seen some things in the rookie mini-camp that piqued their interests. It has become evident that the Browns would like a change of pace back to catch passes and lighten the load for, or draw attention away from Trent Richardson. The developing three-way duel for the Sproles role may become one of the more hotly contested battles on the roster this summer.