RB turns persistence into 1,000-yard seasons

Tough and tenacious, powerful and punishing, Reuben Droughns was precisely the kind of player Cleveland Browns head coach Romeo Crennel wanted at tailback in his debut season.

A six-year NFL veteran who knows something about perseverance, Droughns exemplifies the work ethic Crennel demands of his players. And as much as any of the 27 other players on ESPN.com's 2005 "The Unheralded" team, and probably more than most, Droughns exemplifies what the squad is supposed to represent.

"I like to think of myself as a guy who had to wait his chance and who took advantage of it when the opportunity finally came," Droughns said. "Sometimes you appreciate things a little more when you have to work hard to get them. That's why the success that I've had the last couple years means so much to me. I had to scrape and claw my way up the ladder."

Even with a second straight year topping the 1,000-yard rushing mark, Droughns is still climbing and, truth be told, might never reach the top rung. He will probably always be regarded more as a persistent back than a premier one, which isn't all that bad, and which makes him an ideal fit for "The Unheralded" team.

ESPN.com didn't select captains for the team, but if it had, Droughns certainly would have been on the short list of candidates. In discussions with general managers, coaches and players around the league, he frequently was cited as a blue-collar veteran whose performance exceeds expectations.

And that is what the ESPN.com team was designed to honor -- players of common profile who have performed uncommonly well.

"I don't know if I think of myself as an unsung kind of player," Droughns said, laughing, "but, you know, everyone's got a little ego. But it's nice that other people see me as a hard worker and a guy who had to overcome some odds. To me, it's probably more important what your peers think about you than what you think about yourself. It definitely means something when other players hold you in a certain regard. And these last two seasons, sure, people look at me differently now."

Until these last two seasons, Droughns was about as anonymous as a veteran can be in the NFL, a role player working hard to draw a paycheck.

Chosen by the Detroit Lions in the third round of the 2000 NFL draft after a successful career at the University of Oregon, he spent his entire rookie year on injured reserve because of a shoulder separation sustained during the exhibition season. Droughns was released by the Lions early in his second season, bounced to the Miami Dolphins' practice squad, was re-signed by the Lions and cut again, and eventually signed in the spring of 2002 with the Denver Broncos, who promptly moved him to fullback.

And fullback is where Droughns, who also played on special teams, stayed for two seasons, until early in 2004 when the typically tailback-rich Broncos turned to him out of desperation because of a spate of injuries at the feature-back position. It was a leap of faith by the Denver coaching staff, given that he had carried only 40 times for 97 yards the previous three seasons, but Droughns leaped at the chance to return to tailback.

"In my heart," recalled Droughns, "I knew I was still a tailback. I mean, when I was playing fullback, well, you're just trying to keep your [roster] spot and get a paycheck, and do everything you can to impress people with whatever chances you get. But I can remember the day when [head coach] Mike Shanahan and [offensive coordinator] Gary Kubiak came up to me and told me I was playing tailback, and Shanahan said, 'We feel like you can do this.' And I thought, 'Yeah, I know I can, too.' And then it was just a matter of [seizing] the opportunity."

Starting in 15 games, more than double the seven starts of his first three years, Droughns rushed for 1,240 yards and six touchdowns on 275 carries. But with the Broncos loaded again with backs in the offseason, Droughns became superfluous and was dealt to the Browns in a March 30 trade that sent defensive linemen Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers to Denver as part of a defensive makeover.

The tailback depth chart in Cleveland wasn't much less crowded than the one he left in Denver, with Droughns joining Lee Suggs and former first-round choice William Green in the battle for the starting job. Fact is, Green is probably a better pure runner, but his off-field problems of the past sometimes overshadowed his abilities. Suggs possesses terrific skills that allow him, it seems, to effortlessly get to the boundary. But his physical gifts are usually hindered by his physical gimpiness, as injuries have stalled his career.

So enter Droughns, the kind of human battering ram Crennel and offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon, who had been an assistant in Detroit when Droughns was there, wanted in the first place. Extraneous in Denver, the five-year veteran has been extraordinary for the Browns, starting in every game and carrying 280 times for 1,156 yards. Droughns became the first Browns player to rush for 1,000 yards since 1985.

He has been the centerpiece of a fairly no-frills offense, a team leader and an egoless teammate in a locker room that Crennel and first-year general manager Phil Savage tried hard in the offseason to upgrade in terms of character.

The kind of self-made player of which "The Unheralded" team is largely comprised, Droughns' only deviation from selflessness came in the spring when he briefly boycotted offseason workouts as he sought to have his contract enhanced. When the Browns balked, Droughns returned to work in fairly short order and showed up at training camp on time, and the contract issue hasn't been raised again.

Working under the deal Droughns signed with the Broncos, he had a base salary for 2005 of $950,000, and his scheduled base for next season is $1.15 million. At those rates, he is one of the league's best bargains and is fast becoming one of its worst-kept secrets.

Droughns is also a notable pragmatist, a guy who realizes that, to get to Hawaii, he's got to pay the freight himself. Even if his future never features a Pro Bowl spot, though, he is content with having made a name for himself among his NFL peers. Not quite a household name, even after consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, Droughns can live with the reality of his situation.

Which is that he's made himself into a really good player.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.