BEREA — Whether or not there's a reason Jerome Harrison dodged the media after Thursday's Browns OTA practice, it's fair to wonder if there's a reason Harrison changed course last week, signed an injury waiver and returned to work.
The starting job he waited so long to get very well could be at stake.
The guy who ran like crazy at the end of last season entered the offseason as a restricted free agent. Harrison got a second-round tender worth about $1.75 million, but no long-term contract.
In late April, the Browns moved up in the draft to select Montario Hardesty. When the team took to the field for practice sessions in late May, James Davis -- whose promising rookie season was cut short by injury last year -- was also back in the mix.
Harrison was not present, an absence that presumably can be explained by his unhappiness with his contract situation. But after missing the first week of the OTA sessions, he signed an injury waiver and returned to work.
He's still there this week, but Hardesty was getting the bulk of the reps with the first-team offense in Thursday's practice, the only one this week open to the media. And the head coach who's consistently praised Hardesty since rookie minicamp did so again Thursday.
"(Hardesty) has had a really outstanding camp," Eric Mangini said. "For a young guy, he makes very few mistakes. His level of maturity is one of the highest that I've been around and that's great.
That's going to give him the best chance to not only play, but to play a lot if he continues along this path.
"That's exciting to see. Again, it's with a big asterisk because we don't have pads on and they're not games and we haven't done a full evaluation, but I really like what he has done to this point."
Harrison is the only one of the Browns' unsigned restricted free agents to be with the team, and that seems like a smart career move given the number of other young players getting reps they likely otherwise wouldn't be getting.
Interestingly, it also seems the race for carries -- maybe even the first carry of the 2010 season -- seems to be just beginning. Despite Harrison's 286-yard performance in Kansas City last
Dec. 20 and subsequent back-to-back big (just not as big) games to close the year, the Browns enter 2010 looking for long-term answers across the board-- and extending Harrison a one-year tender certainly provides the Browns no long-term risk.
Like Davis did last week, Hardesty shied away from a question about whether he believes the starting job is open.
"That right there is not my decision," Hardesty said. "I've just got to come out here, work hard and continue to show what I can do on the field. If I continue to do that, then a role for myself on the team will come from doing that.
"This is just OTAs. I've got minicamp and I've got training camp. I've never done that before. I'm not really sure what to expect. I just know I'm going to come out and push myself hard every day and we'll see what comes from that come season time."
On Harrison, Mangini said "he's looked good. It's really hard to evaluate where guys are (in OTA practices). You're looking at it more in terms of assignments, technique, things like that. He's made very few mistakes, which is excellent. He looks similar to the way he looked (last year). It's just hard to project too far down the road without pads on."
Mangini said he's pleased with his running back situation, also mentioning the addition of Peyton Hillis and the return of Chris Jennings, who did some nice things after Davis went down. A week before Harrison's record-setting three-game run started last December, it was Jennings (and Joshua Cribbs) getting the bulk of the carries.
With Cribbs' specialty roles, last summer's star Davis getting back to health and the new additions, Harrison is going to have to earn every carry he desires. And though it's just early June, it appears he has a rookie nipping at his heels.
"I'm happy to be getting these chances," Hardesty said. "I'm going to definitely try to take the opportunity and make the most of it. I'm relishing the opportunity, but I don't know if it means anything or not."