BEREA – The words couldn’t have been easy for James Davis to say.
“The long run’s always good, but I’m going to tell you, I’d rather make a tackle on a kickoff,” he said. “Coach wants to see me tackle somebody.”
As a lifelong star running back, Davis made it to the NFL with game-changing runs. As one of about a dozen guys on the bubble to make the Browns’ 53-man roster, he’s come to grips with his current reality.
“To be on this team, a tackle probably helps you out more than a long run,” he said.
Davis has been paying attention in coach Eric Mangini’s meetings. If you’re not a star – the Browns don’t have many – you’re required to contribute on special teams. That goes double for a guy like Davis, who’s fighting to be the fourth tailback.
So in the preseason finale Thursday against the Bears, not only will Davis be trying to break loose for a touchdown, he’ll be going all out to make a play on kickoff or punt coverage.
“You definitely have to have value on special teams,” Mangini said. “That’s a big part of how guys are being evaluated.
“He’s still got some things that have to improve, but he’s looked better than last season at this time, so that’s encouraging.”
Incumbent Jerome Harrison, rookie second-round pick Montario Hardesty and preseason sensation Peyton Hillis have jobs locked up at running back. Throw in Pro Bowl-caliber fullback Lawrence Vickers, and the backfield’s pretty full.
Chris Jennings, the former Canadian Football Leaguer who had a few moments last season, and Davis are in competition for a roster spot that might not even be available. They are also battling the tight ends, receivers and linebackers for the final few miscellaneous roster spots.
That’s a far cry from a year ago.
Davis, a sixth-round pick out of Clemson in 2009, was the star of last preseason. He rushed 24 times for 186 yards, a 7.75-yard average. He also went 81 yards for a touchdown.
Things quickly turned sour. In the opener, he rushed four times for 5 yards and suffered a shoulder injury. He played one more game, carrying five times for 10 yards, then was lost for the season after hurting the shoulder worse in post-practice opportunity time.
Davis stayed with his teammates and attended meetings, which helped him learn the offense better. He also watched as veteran Jamal Lewis got hurt and Harrison and Jennings received more carries – many of which would’ve gone to a healthy Davis.
“That was probably one of the toughest moments of my life,” he said. “I thought I missed my shot to show the coaches what I really can do when the season starts. I also felt like I let my team down.
“‘Man, am I going to be able to come back from this, and how will I be able to come back from this?’ I felt all that type of pressure when I was out.
“But I just knew when I came back this year, I just wanted to attack in any way I can. I just wanted to try to get back on top like when I left.”
It hasn’t happened.
Hardesty missed the first three preseason games – he’s expected to play Thursday – but Hillis took the spot on the depth chart behind Harrison. Hillis has also assumed the role of third-down back with the first team, while Davis has strictly been used with the backups.
He has rushed 11 times for 37 yards (3.4 average) with a long of 12. He gained 26 yards on a catch-and-run Saturday against the Lions to give him 45 yards on six catches. He’s shown glimpses of the guy who finished second in Clemson history with 3,881 rushing yards and 47 touchdowns, but hasn’t made enough big plays to cement a spot.
“I know he hasn’t had the long runs, but I think he’s looked similar to how he looked last year,” Mangini said. “In the Chicago game he will really get a chance to make a strong argument.”
Davis has a couple of things going for him, besides talent. He’s one of the fastest guys on a team lacking speed, kept his mouth shut after the post-practice injury and could be insurance in the first few weeks if Hardesty isn’t completely recovered from a bone bruise in his knee.
Davis wouldn’t be guaranteed to clear waivers, so it’d be a risk to release him with the plan of putting him on the practice squad. He knows nothing is settled when it comes to the final cuts Saturday.
“I try not to think about it,” he said. “Sometimes it’s tough, but there’s 31 other teams out there. At the same time, you always want to be with team you got drafted by.”
A tackle or two would help his cause.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• WHO: Cleveland vs. Chicago
• WHEN: Thursday, 8 p.m.
• WHERE: Cleveland Browns Stadium
• TV/RADIO: Channel 3; WMMS 100.7-FM