Adios, Lawrence Vickers?

I find it hard to believe I’d be sitting here writing the obituary on Lawrence Vickers’ run with the Cleveland Browns, but it sure seems like the Browns are ready to move on.

The Browns used a fourth-round pick last weekend on Stanford’s Owen Marecic, a very interesting prospect who was a two-way starter on one of the best teams in college football last fall. The days of NFL teams keeping two fullbacks on the roster are all but gone — more than a few don’t carry a true fullback at all — and Vickers is headed for some level of free agency.

The NFL is first and foremost a business, even now when business is officially closed. There’s just something strange about this whole situation.

Vickers has turned out to be one of the Browns’ best and most underappreciated players since he was a sixth-round pick in 2006, and his lead blocks were a huge part of the team’s identity and Peyton Hillis’ success last season.

Marecic was drafted to play now. Both his background and his college film say that. Whether or not he’ll eventually be as good at the NFL level as Vickers is anyone’s guess. But it’s harder to guess what the Browns are thinking as Vickers played last year on a one-year restricted free-agent tender and has wanted a new contract since 2009 (or maybe even before). 

It’s hard to imagine the Browns would have to break the bank to keep Vickers. It’s understandable that Vickers might want to explore other options, but not only will he have to wait out the labor issues but if he did leave, he’d be leaving the only team he’s known and a team that appreciates his services and his style. Or at least seemingly should appreciate him.

Last year at this time, Vickers stayed home for the first three weeks of May organized team activities because he wanted a long-term contract. But he eventually showed up, then he had another very good season. Without calling around or going through the entire list, I’d guess it isn’t a stretch to say he’s one of the five most effective fullbacks in the NFL. I have to think he’s versatile enough to play in just about any offense, too.

“It’s going to handle itself,” Vickers said last spring. “It’s out of my hands. All I have to do is get on the grass and do what I do.”

On multiple occasions this offseason, Browns general manager Tom Heckert has been asked if the team extended a restricted free agent tender to Vickers before the deadline — and before the lockout, obviously. Heckert has refused to answer the question. It came up again at a press conference Saturday after the Browns drafted Marecic, and the answer was the same.

With the collective bargaining agreement expiring, teams were working under 2010 free-agency rules in extending those tenders and knowing the rules could change. There’s a good chance a new collective bargaining agreement would make Vickers an unrestricted free-agent anyway with his six years experience, but is it possible the Browns decided to move on either way?

If so, Browns fans owe Vickers a round of applause, even if it has to come at their desks and through their computer screens. He was a battering ram in 2007, when Jamal Lewis ran for more than 1,300 yards. He absolutely destroyed linebackers at the end of 2009 when Jerome Harrison went on a three-week run for the ages. And he was good again last year in opening holes for Hillis.

He turns 28 next week, he loves football and though he hasn’t caught a bunch of passes, it’s hard to imagine he couldn’t produce in the new West Coast Offense. See why it’s so puzzling?

The ill-fated fullback pass Vickers was asked to throw in his rookie year by offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon and the end zone dance he did after scoring when the Browns were getting absolutely routed at home by the Steelers are just footnotes. The Browns haven’t won (except in 2007), but he’s been very good for a long time.

This — and “this” is still speculation — happens all the time in the NFL. Teams let good players walk and have their reasons for doing so. The really good teams generally do this a year before they “have to”, but Vickers has shown no signs of slowing down. Sometimes it’s about money or chemistry, but it’s hard to believe more than a couple coaches on the new staff have even met Vickers.

The Browns haven’t had enough good players to have much experience in watching them go elsewhere willfully. If it’s happening here, Marecic had better be really good right away and Hillis had better have another big season. Otherwise this whole thing will continue to be tough to explain.

–Zac Jackson