|Trent Richardson, shown working out in June, is back on the Browns' practice fields. (US Presswire)|
Cleveland's rookie running back returned to practice Monday for the first time since undergoing knee surgery on Aug. 9, a strong sign he will play in Sunday's season opener at home against Philadelphia.
With his dreadlocks flowing out of his orange helmet, Richardson took some snaps with Cleveland's first-team offense during the portion of practice open to the media. He had a black rubber sleeve on his repaired left knee, which has been operated on twice since he helped Alabama win a national championship in January.
After the workout on a warm, humid morning, Browns coach Pat Shurmur sounded optimistic about Richardson's chances of facing the Eagles.
"If he's ready to go, he will be our starter," Shurmur said. "Trent looked good. He was in team [drills]. I knew he'd be out here and he did a good job. It was his first day back in practice, so we did what we could do. Trent looked healthy running around."
Shurmur wouldn't say when a decision will be made on Richardson making his pro debut.
"Each person is different when they come back from injury," he said. "We'll see as we go. All along I've been hopeful that he'd be there.'
The Browns will have their only practice in full pads this week on Thursday, when they will work primarily on short-yardage situations. Richardson missed Cleveland's four exhibition games and it will be important for him to take some hits before getting on the field against Philadelphia.
Richardson was not available for comment. A team spokesman said the 22-year-old will likely speak with reporters Wednesday.
The No. 3 overall pick in April's draft, Richardson had been doing rehab, including some light contact work, behind the scenes since his operation.
After stretching with his teammates, Richardson was taking part in some passing drills when Shurmur pulled him close for a brief chat, perhaps reminding his young star not to overdo it. Moments later, running backs coach Gary Brown called out a play and quizzed Richardson about his assignment.
"What's the key on the chip [block]," Brown asked before complimenting Richardson for answering correctly.
With low expectations for a team featuring 15 rookies and facing a brutal schedule, the Browns will need Richardson to take on a heavy workload this season. But because he missed so much time during the preseason, they will likely limit his carries in the first few weeks.
However, once Richardson is rolling, Browns cornerback Joe Haden said there may be no slowing him down.
"He can be as good as he wants to be," Haden said. "He can definitely be an All-Pro. He has everything you need to be a good running back. He's big, he can catch, he can pass block and he's an every-down back."
Haden said trying to bring down Richardson in the open field can be scary.
"Oh, man. I'm not a fan of trying to tackle him," Haden said. "I played against him with Florida and he gave me a stiff-arm one time and I was good after that."
Richardson had torn cartilage removed last month by renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews, who also did the Feb. 3 procedure on the knee.
Browns president Mike Holmgren said the team did not know Richardson would need a second operation when it drafted him.
"The first we knew about it was in camp," Holmgren said. "He's a hard-working guy. He started saying, 'It hurts. There's a little ache there.' It was swelling up a little bit. It's a good thing we caught it. It was obviously the right decision. Everything is on track.
Holmgren said the Browns intend to ease Richardson back and will not overload him in the first few games.
"When I've been in this situation before with players, when it's close, and we're really kind of counting on him, if he hadn't had the surgery, he was going to touch the ball a lot," he said. "But now you have to be careful. The worst thing we could do is rush him before he's ready. "
Haden said he couldn't talk about his possible NFL suspension for reportedly failing a drug test. Haden said, "I honestly don't know" when asked if he'll play in the opener. It's possible Haden is keeping quiet because he's appealing the suspension. Haden said his teammates have been supportive. "Everyone's cool," he said. "You just keep going, keep playing, keep practicing. With my teammates, it's like nothing has been going on." ... Starting S Eric Hagg was sent home before practice with stomach flu. ... TE Benjamin Watson expects to play in the opener despite missing most of the preseason with a leg injury. ... TE Jordan Cameron missed practice with an undisclosed injury. He was one of six players on exercise bikes. ... The Browns released LB Solomon Elimimian from the practice squad and re-signed DL Brian Sanford.