32 Questions: Cleveland Browns
Thirty-two teams, 32 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NFL team. Be sure to check out all 32 questions.
Is Jamal Lewis a fantasy starter, or is he a bye-week fill-in?
To the window
By the window
That is where I'll be
Through the tulips
A generation ago, when Tiny Tim sang these lyrics, he spoke for everyone. Now he just speaks for Jamal Lewis.
Ever since Lewis emerged from prison two seasons ago -- and not-so-incidentally emerged from ankle surgery -- he's been a tap-dancing fiend. Ravens fans know what I mean. Countless times Lewis took the ball forward to the line, evidently didn't like what he saw, and hesitated, dancing in place, waiting for something. Once a bull-rusher with good speed, Lewis was relegated to the status of a 3.4-yards-per-carry, slow-as-molasses, slightly-less-hefty Ron Dayne.
Things have only gotten worse for Lewis this offseason. He moved from the Ravens and their above-average offensive line to the Browns and their below-average one. He moved from Steve McNair as his starting quarterback to some combination of Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and rookie Brady Quinn. And he went from a team whose offense could afford to be conservative and run a lot because of its terrific defense to a team whose defense has been so bad, there's been little choice but to abandon the run early. Lewis isn't good at catching passes anymore, so there's every chance he'll be off the field on third-and-long this year, in favor of, say, Jerome Harrison.
Is there any good news? Well, Lewis claims his ankles feel better this summer than they've felt at any time in the last two seasons, and that he's making cuts we haven't seen him make since 2003. (Of course, what's he gonna say, "I really still stink"?) In addition, there's very little backfield competition, so Lewis will get carries. Finally, the Browns do seem committed to revamping what's been a bad offensive line for as long as the franchise has been back in Cleveland.
They offered Eric Steinbach one of the largest contracts an offensive guard has ever signed, luring him from Cincinnati, and of course they famously passed on running back Adrian Peterson to select tackle Joe Thomas out of the University of Wisconsin. LeCharles Bentley won't be back anytime soon at center, though Hank Fraley was OK filling in for him last year. Seth McKinney didn't play at all in 2006 because of a neck injury and was subsequently released by Miami, but he can be a passable guard if he stays healthy, while the right tackle spot is still a little ugly, depending as it does on Ryan Tucker or Kevin Shaffer. Other than McKinney, there's a ton of money invested here, and Lewis had better hope for a pretty major return on investment.
The thing is: I can't imagine the holes through which Lewis will run in Cleveland are going to be any better than the ones in Baltimore. Having bone spurs removed from his ankles might help Lewis cut a little harder, and maybe even make him a tad faster, but will surgery help him dance less? I tend to think not. Amazingly, this is a running back who'll only be 28 years old when the season starts, but there's no question over the last two years he's run like he's well over 30, and it all can't be explained away by ankles. Plus Quinn is going to be under center for a large chunk of the year, on a team that's going to be behind a lot. Why would defenses do anything but focus on Lewis?
In fairness to Lewis, this is a pretty unwinnable situation for any running back; Adrian Peterson's prospects would be shaky here, too. But the fact remains: Lewis just isn't very good anymore. He can get some cheap touchdowns from close in, and maybe he'll be worth starting in the flex position on your fantasy team. But until further notice, I say there are at least 30 fantasy running backs better equipped to help you this year, which means unless you're in the deepest of deep leagues, Lewis has no business being an RB2 in your starting lineup. Let someone else fall for the name recognition and the false promise of a new situation.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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