Jamal LewisJamal Lewis having big season, but does this warrant big money over big years?

Jamal Lewis has been everything the Browns were hoping he could be, and then some. The questions over what Jamal had left in the tank coming into this season were fair. After all, despite being young in years, he was old in experience. In an offensive system in Baltimore that never featured a QB capable of being anything more than a game manager, Jamal was heavily used in Baltimore, and with no threat of a passing game, opposing defenses ganged up on Jamal. When you add this to Jamal’s natural bruising, overpowering running style, it adds up to a lot of hard mileage. It’s like the difference between a car with 50,000 highway miles and a car with 50,000 inner city stop and go miles.

The Ravens were doubtful enough of Jamal’s skills that they moved on to Plan B and brought in Willis McGahee and let Jamal Lewis walk out the door. The Browns, desperate for a feature back, decided to sign Jamal to a one year deal and let him prove that there was still life in him. The move has paid major dividends for both the Browns and Jamal. The Browns have been able to ride Jamal’s late season resurgance into a  possible playoff run. Jamal, meanwhile, has been able to prove that he can still be an integral part of a playoff caliber team.

Jamal has proven to be an old school hard nosed RB in the mold of the great RBs in Browns history. He has endeared himself to the fans, and the fans have endeared themselves to Jamal. Of the Browns fans, Jamal has said,

“I love the fans here. They’re totally different [than in Baltimore].”

“Just due to the history they have here with the Browns. The history goes way back and you can tell. They are louder, but just the fan support period. Being on the road, you see a lot of Browns jerseys in the stands. We need that support.

“It translates [to the field] because we want to go out and play hard and win. It’s great. That’s what we owe our home record to.”

This Browns-Jamal marriage is starting to look like a perfect match. But the real question is, should the Browns sign Jamal to a long term deal after this season? Phil Savage has his work cut out on this one.

Jamal has said recently that he’s be perfectly content signing a string of 1 year deals to keep playing for the Browns. The Plain Dealer’s Bud Shaw, though, isn’t so sure he really would, writing:

“Negotiations with Jamal Lewis can’t be as easy as he made them sound recently when he suggested coming to terms was no more complicated than a page out of a children’s book.

See Jamal run. See Jamal sign.

Quoth the ex-Raven: “Hey, I’ll do one-year deals all day long.”

If this were true, of course, Phil Savage would tell Lewis to pick a day, any day.

Today’s not good for you, Jamal? Then how about tomorrow?

Morning. Noon. Night. Three a.m. Just call ahead.

Savage would send a car. All he’d ask is for Lewis to tell the driver to step on it and don’t stop if Lewis’ agent stands in front of the limo like that protester in Tiananmen Square.

Lewis says he isn’t necessarily looking for a one-year deal. No one would. But he wouldn’t flat reject it. All in all, he trusts his agent will put him in the best position.

There’s always that catch.”

I’m not so sure it’s quite that simple. Sure, if Jamal wants a one year deal, the Browns would give it to him. But part of the GM’s job is also to look at the team’s future. The Browns can’t afford to be caught with their pants down if Jamal were to suffer a serious injury or if he were to no longer be productive next season.

No matter how you look at it, Jamal is having a big year. In terms of RB Score (after Week 14), Jamal ranks 11th in the NFL in RB Score per game. Using Football Outsiders’ metric DPAR (defense-adjusted points above replacement), Jamal ranks a surprisingly low 19th in the NFL. But if you go by the only stat that really matters, rushing yards, Jamal is 7th in the NFL with 1,084 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. He is on pace to finish with 1,239 yards, making this his best season since his Herculean 2003 season in which he rushed for an astounding 2,066 yards.

Some legit questions remain, though. Perhaps his low DPAR ranking is telling us something. If you look further, prior to rushing for over 100 yards in 3 of his last 4 games, Jamal had only topped the century mark once, Week 2 against the Bengals. Another concern with signing Jamal to a long term deal is his high number of career rushing attempts. Despite being only 28 years old, Jamal is already 28th in NFL history in attempts with 2,073 carries, just ahead of Roger Craig, Gerald Riggs, and Herschel Walker. Granted, LaDainian Tomlinson is ahead of him in carries and shows no sign of slowing down, but the only other active RBs with more carries are all guys well past their prime (Edgerrin James, Warrick Dunn, Fred Taylor, and Shaun Alexander). The active RBs just behind are also mostly guys past their prime (Ahman Green, Ricky Williams, Clinton Portis, Thomas Jones, Travis Henry, Rudi Johnson, Deuce McAllister, Michael Pittman). The fact of the matter is, rushing attempts are historically a pretty good way to gauge how much a RB has left, and Jamal is in the company of guys who are running out of gas.

Of course, if the Browns are really going to even think about not re-signing Jamal, there needs to be a replacement in mind. With no first round draft pick and the need to draft defensive players anyway, the Browns would need to turn to the Unrestricted Free Agent market (because the Browns do not have a 1st round pick, they cannot sign a Restricted Free Agent as they lack the required compensation). The top UFA’s next year will be Michael Turner, Julius Jones, Fred Taylor, Justin Fargas, and Chris Brown. The question is, which of those guys would you rather have than Jamal Lewis next year?

The only RBs that I think the Browns would consider would be Fred Taylor and Michael Turner. First off, Taylor probably isn’t going anywhere. It’s hard to fathom Jacksonville not hanging onto him for another year (despite the emergence of Maurice Jones-Drew). Michael Turner is going to be the desired prize of every team in the free agent market. He is going to carry a heavy price tag, despite the fact he has not proven he can be a feature back and carry the load by himself.

Ultimately, with no sure fire alternatives, I would expect the Browns to try to sign Jamal to a 2 year deal with a team option for a 3rd year. This will give the Browns a relatively affordable option at RB who will give the team some stability while they look for the long term solution at that position. There’s no real reason not to bring Jamal back at least for one more year. The Browns will almost certainly talk to Michael Turner and see what kind of deal it will take to sign him, but with such a shallow RB pool, I think his price tag will be too high for the Browns. The bottom line is, I expect to see Jamal as the Brown’s starting RB next season.