To the naked eye, last year's fourth-round running back Andre Brown looked ready to challenge DJ Ware and Gartrell Johnson for the third spot behind Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.
He appeared to move well during minicamp, both north-south and toward the perimeters. He flared out and looped over the middle for passes, which he caught with assurance. They even let him throw an option pass that, with any luck given its rather ugly outcome, will never see the light of day during the season. Still, he got out there pretty well for a guy coming off a torn Achilles tendon.
That's the problem, though. On the surface, he looked like he was all the way back. But behind the scenes, there have been struggles. And that's not to mention that no running back in recent memory has ever come back from a blown Achilles to make a significant contribution. Brown, however, is confident he can be the first.
"Other than getting my football legs back under me, everything's fine," Brown said at last week's minicamp.
Well, that's his opinion, anyway. There have been some setbacks, such as a fall in the shower in November that cost him 2 1/2 weeks of rehab. And there has been residual soreness and swelling at various points in the offseason program.
So one can easily understand if offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride isn't necessarily counting on Brown to unseat either Ware or Johnson, even though Brown may well be the best pass-catcher out of the backfield right now.
"It's hard for me to tell physically," Gilbride said of Brown's progress. "Soreness-wise and everything else, I think he'll tell you he's still got a ways to go. It's more of the fact that he missed the whole season. It's like starting over. So right now, he's making a few more mistakes."
Brown blew out the tendon in early training camp, before he even had a chance to take a snap in a preseason game. So, he is more like what Brown describes as a "Super Rookie." Given last year's experience, he said he'll just be happy making it through the preseason this year. He'll have plenty of opportunities for reps, since Jacobs and Bradshaw will probably be one-practice per day guys throughout camp. And there will be chances at kickoff return, where Brown worked in minicamp.
It's all a matter of his Achilles standing up to the beating, and being able to absorb a system he studied, but never really played in.
"I just want to get back and get comfortable playing football," Brown said. "Being able to play in my first NFL game, that's a big goal."
Being able to throw in the 6-foot, 224-pound Brown in as a change of pace over the quick Bradshaw and powerful Jacobs would certainly help the cause. Jacobs called him a tweener -- "quick with good moves."
But Brown has a lot to prove before that happens.
"Physically, he's back," Jacobs said. "But he got hurt so early, he never had a chance to grasp everything mentally that you've just got to understand if you're going to play.
"But he listens. He's a great classroom guy. But when the bullets start flying, you forget. But I think he's done a lot better than people thought he'd do."
He's not far enough along to make his offensive coordinator comfortable, however.
"There are a few more mistakes right now than we could afford if we had to put him in," Gilbride said. "We couldn't afford to put him in right now. Hopefully, as the training camp goes and the exhibitions go, those things will disappear."
Given that running backs tend not to come back from Brown's type of injury at all, the fact that he's this far along is a good sign. It's up to the player now to keep the arrow pointing up.
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