BEREA, OHIO (AP) - The Cleveland Browns are now trying to tackle Peyton Hillis.
The team is in contract negotiations with Hillis on a long-term extension, the Browns’ latest attempt to secure one their young core players for the future.
Talks between the Browns and the running back’s agent have been going on quietly for some time, but team president Mike Holmgren confirmed the meetings Friday for the first time. Holmgren said the Browns are “trying like crazy” to sign the hard-charging Hillis, who rushed for nearly 1,200 yards last season.
“We’re always trying to keep all of our good young players,” Holmgren said through a spokesman.
Following practice, Hillis seemed confident the sides would reach an agreement, but didn’t know how soon.
“When the Browns want to extend me, they’ll extend me,” he said. “I’m going to do my part and play hard and do what I can do to make myself a better player.”
Agent Kennard McGuire did not immediately return a phone message or email to the AP seeking comment.
Hillis appreciates the Browns wanting to keep him, but cautioned that talks are ongoing.
“It does mean a lot, but as the old saying goes, ‘it ain’t real unless it’s here or already’,” he said. “You still have to play like it’s your last play and you’re working for something.”
The 25-year-old Hillis is in the final year of his rookie contract, which will pay him $600,000 _ he recently got a $45,000 bump from the new CBA _ this season.
It’s not known what he’s seeking from the Browns, but there are two recent deals for running backs he may use to frame out his contract: the 5-year, $43 million ($21 million guaranteed) Carolina gave DeAngelo Williams and the 3-year, $21 million ($13.5 million guaranteed) contract Frank Gore signed with San Francisco.
Hillis is not yet in the same category as those backs, but he soon could be and the Browns have made signing core players a priority. They recently gave offensive lineman Joe Thomas a seven-year, $84 million deal and signed tight end Evan Moore to a two-year extension worth $3 million per season.
The Browns, who have roughly $16 million in salary cap room, are also working on an extension for defensive tackle Ahytyba Rubin, whose 82 tackles led all NFL linemen last season.
Rubin is grateful the Browns want to lock him up. However, he insists his focus is on facing the Cincinnati Bengals in Sunday’s opener.
“Basically I’ve just gotta go on and just do what I can do on the field, make sure I can produce out there and everything else handles itself,” Rubin said. “I love Cleveland. I’ve got friends and family here. This is where I want to be. I’ve just gotta let my agent and my play on the field handle itself.”
Hillis hammered his way to 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns and into the hearts of Browns fans last season.
He was a relative unknown when Cleveland traded quarterback Brady Quinn to Denver for Hillis, who was a fullback with the Broncos. But after rookie Montario Hardesty sustained a season-ending injury in 2010, Hillis became the feature back and his smashmouth running style endeared him to Cleveland’s blue-collar base.
During the offseason, he won a fan vote that placed him on the cover of Madden 12, the popular video game.
This is the first time Hillis has been involved in a contract negotiation, and he promised not to let it become a distraction.
“You don’t try to get in the business side of things,” he said. “If you did that, you would get caught up in it. The thing about it is, when they want to extend me, they will. I’m looking at the positive light of it. You can’t look at it negatively, and hope everything works out.”
Notes: Starting RT Tony Pashos is listed as doubtful in the final injury report for Sunday’s game. Pashos, who was in a protective left boot earlier this week, said it will be a game-time decision whether he faces the Bengals. … Browns coach Pat Shurmur said “there’s a good chance” rookie Jason Pinkston will start at left guard. Pinkston, a fifth-round draft pick from Pittsburgh, is taking over for Eric Steinbach, out for the season with a back injury. … LB Chris Gocong is listed as questionable _ a 50 percent chance of playing _ in the opener. He returned this week after missing 30 days with a neck stinger.
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