There’s no shortage of big names on the Cleveland Browns’ offensive depth chart at the skill positions.
Odell Beckham Jr., Kareem Hunt, Nick Chubb, Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry and even David Njoku are names that will get just about any fan in Cleveland excited.
But the Browns could have something special brewing in their backfield that no one saw coming in second-year running back Dontrell Hilliard.
Hilliard has taken advantage of his time in the spotlight at the Browns OTAs, impressing his coaches.
“When Freddie (Kitchens) asked me to join him, he had high praises for Dontrell,” Browns running backs coach Stump Mitchell said. “He’s got to believe that he belongs and we expect him to come out every day and make plays. I think what he has to understand is that he has to believe in himself as much as we believe in him. Now, he’s getting an opportunity. This is huge for him, and he’s having one heck of a spring training camp.”
Hilliard has gained some extra reps thanks to the absence of Duke Johnson Jr.
Johnson — a third down specialist for the Browns — requested a trade after Kareem Hunt was picked up in the offseason, seeing his role in the offensive shrinking to an insignificant size. He hasn’t attended any offseason activities with the team.
Last season, Johnson had 40 carries for 201 yards to go with 47 receptions for 429 yards and three touchdowns. In his three previous seasons with the Browns, he had over 500 yards receiving, earning him a reputation as a lethal target out of the backfield.
Nick Chubb has the starting role secured, but Hunt is suspended for the first eight games of the season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. The former Kansas City Pro Bowl back, was previously placed on the commissioner’s exempt list last fall following news that he was involved in an altercation with a woman at a Cleveland hotel.
Hunt’s absence for the first half of the season leaves a hole on the depth chart behind Chubb in the No. 2 running back spot. With his performance, Hilliard is making the Browns’ decision to trade Johnson easier by the day.
Hilliard was acquired as an undrafted free agent a year ago out of Tulane and spent the first month of the season on the practice squad. After being elevated to the active roster, he appeared in 11 games, did not receive a carry. He did catch nine balls for 105 yards and will be in the mix to return kicks.
Mitchell has not been shy about heaping praise on to Hilliard. After all, the best ability — especially this time of year — is availability.
“Everything,” Mitchell said when asked what he likes about Hilliard. “His mindset, first of all, that he belongs here, that he can get things done. His ability to run routes, his ability to catch the ball. Just being quite frank with him about where he needs to be mentally, he needs to reach the point where we see he’s at skill-wise. And I think he’s climbing that ladder.”