By Nate Ulrich and Ryan Lewis
Beacon Journal sports writers
BEREA: Running back Dion Lewis is third on the depth chart, but there’s a good chance he’ll be thrust into a starting role when the Browns open the preseason against the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Trent Richardson, the team’s No. 1 running back, practiced Tuesday, but he did not participate in team drills, a sign he’ll likely sit out against the Rams. Richardson missed two practices last week after being kicked in the right shin, the same one in which he suffered a strained muscle in the spring. He returned to practice Monday but had only three carries in team sessions.
Last week, Richardson vowed to play in all four preseason games, but he also made it clear he would defer to Browns coach Rob Chudzinski, who has yet to officially rule out anyone for the exhibition opener.
“We’ll talk to all the players that are in that situation,” Chudzinski said when asked about Richardson. “Whether they play or don’t play, we’ll first assess it and do the smart thing. And then we’ll communicate that with them.
“I’ll give you details tomorrow on specific individuals as we get more medical information.”
Chudzinski said most of the starters will play Thursday for about a quarter.
“We’re going to play our starters, for the most part, for about a quarter,” Chudzinski said. “That may vary from individual to individual. We’ll get our second group in there for the second quarter and third quarter. Some of them will be done at halftime. Some will go forward in the third quarter, and then in the fourth quarter, we’ll get some of our third group in there.”
Second-string running back Montario Hardesty continued to sit out Tuesday and won’t play Thursday. He has missed most of training camp with an injured hamstring tendon.
With Richardson and Hardesty dealing with injuries, Lewis has taken center stage. And he hasn’t disappointed.
“He’s had a good camp,” Chudzinski said. “He’s really showing a lot. He’s been a playmaker and shows good vision, running skills, good demonstration of catching the ball. So I’m looking forward to seeing him in the game.”
Last week in a red-zone drill, Lewis caught a pass from quarterback Jason Campbell in the flat and gave undrafted rookie safety Kenronte Walker a juke that caused him to crumble to his knees in front of the goal line as Lewis jogged into the end zone. This week, he has received plenty of work with the first-team offense, displaying his quickness by darting through holes.
“Going against them is definitely making me a better player,” said Lewis, a fifth-round draft pick in 2011 who has yet to start an NFL game. “They’re better players. Not that there’s no good players on the second-team defense, but when you go against the first-team defense, they’re revved up a little bit more, so you definitely get a good look against them.”
The Browns traded backup linebacker Emmanuel Acho to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for Lewis on April 11. Lewis is eager to convince the Browns that they made a wise decision, and the preseason is an important phase of his mission.
“It’s real important,” Lewis said. “It’s live game action, and it’s a lot faster than practice. So these next four games, I’m looking to go out there and work hard and keep trying to get better.
“You’ve got to show the coaches that they can trust you. I feel like every day I’m getting better at the little things and cleaning up the little details and knowing my blocking assignments. So I feel if I keep doing that, the more the coaches are going to trust me, and the more I’ll be able to play.”
Special teams will be vital for Lewis. He and safety Johnson Bademosi share the top spot for kickoff returners on the depth chart.
“The more you can do, the better chance you have at staying around,” Lewis said. “So I’m just doing whatever the coach asks me to do, kick return, punt return.”
The 5-foot-7, 195-pound Lewis served as the Eagles’ primary kickoff returner as a rookie in 2011, but he was replaced last season by cornerback Brandon Boykin. Lewis conceded his missed the job.
“Obviously as a competitor you always want to do something you feel you can do,” Lewis said. “I didn’t do it last year, so hopefully this year I can come out and have a strong showing.”
The Browns certainly would welcome that.
Undrafted rookie safety Josh Aubrey has gotten more run with the first-team defense this training camp than expected, but he’s still not satisfied.
Starting strong safety T.J. Ward missed three consecutive practices with a sore hamstring. Ward returned to practice Monday but hasn’t participated in team drills since, meaning he might sit out the preseason opener, even though he insisted Saturday that he “definitely” expected to play.
Bademosi practiced in Ward’s spot Tuesday alongside free safety Tashaun Gipson. But Aubrey has also taken snaps at strong safety with the first-team defense in recent practices.
“I wish I could get a little more action, but as far as coming out and trying to execute every day, I can’t be mad with where I’m at,” Aubrey said. “I don’t know how it’s going to be when the starters get back. For me, I just want to make sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to do every time.”
The Browns agreed to a five-year contract with long snapper Christian Yount, whose deal was scheduled to expire after the 2013 season. Financial terms were not immediately disclosed.
“I’m blessed to be here, and I’m excited to be a Brown for as long as they’ll have me,” Yount said. “My agent told me the team wanted to work something out a little bit ago, and I’m really happy we got it done.
“I understand this is a business, so you can’t take anything personal when a team decides to go in another direction. But I’m not going to lie. This is something I really wanted to happen. I’m grateful that it did.”
Yount, who’s been the team’s long snapper for the past 21 games, is now under contract through the 2017 season.
“At that position, you have to be perfect,” Chudzinski said. “He’s proven he has been a valuable part of the team. You never know how valuable those guys are until you don’t have one that can get the snap back, and I’ve been there before. We’re happy to have Christian as a part of our organization for a long time, and he’s earned it.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.