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Deciphering Todd Haley’s plan for Browns’ running back rotation

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We examine Todd Haley’s tendencies in managing running back rotations with a little help from our friends at Football Outsiders.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Browns have been non-committal in their stance on who the team’s primary running back will be in 2018.

From what we have seen so far through two preseason games, and throughout much of training camp, it appears Carlos Hyde will get the first shot at primary ballcarrier duties, with Duke Johnson spelling him in passing situations and as a change-of-pace back. Meanwhile, rookie Nick Chubb has worked exclusively with Baker Mayfield’s second-team offense.

All we have heard from the team is that they plan to ride the “hot hand” at running back. Running backs coach Freddie Kitchens sees his apparently stacked backfield as a strength, not an area of concern.

“Ultimately, all three of those guys can run our running game,” Kitchens said earlier in the summer. “Duke can do a few more things in the passing game. Ultimately, we feel like that is a position of strength. Coach (Bill) Parcells taught me a long time ago, do not turn a position of strength into a weakness.

“You would like to keep it a strength, and we are fortunate that is where we are.”

But what does that really mean in terms of figuring out who is going to dominate the team’s rushing attack focus this season?

We spoke with Aaron Schatz (check out Football Outsiders to purchase their up-to-date football almanac before the 2018 season kicks off) to try to figure out how Todd Haley might rotate these three talented backs this season.

As Schatz immediately pointed out, Haley’s experience in Pittsburgh isn’t very helpful because Le’Veon Bell was fed the ball “non-stop,” and he has, when healthy, pretty much “been the most workhorse-like back in the league.”

Duke Johnson figures to be involved significantly into each week’s game plan, so Haley is not likely planning to heavily ride either Hyde or Chubb, even if one gets hurt.

To get a better idea of how the rotation will play out, Schatz looked back to Haley’s tenure in Kansas City, beginning in 2010 where he managed snaps between Thomas Jones, Jamaal Charles, and then eventually mixed in Dexter McCluster in 2011.

This, according to Schatz, was the first and last time Haley has dealt with this kind of triple-threat in his backfield.

But in 2010 he still divided the carries pretty evenly, leading to Jones and Charles finishing with 245 carries for 896 yards, and 230 carries for 1,467 yards, respectively. This split continued throughout the season despite Charles averaging over 6 yards per carry and finishing with 7 yards per touch. Jones also ended the season with just 1,018 all-purpose yards to Charles’ 1,935.

At the time, Jones was 32 years old while Charles was still a young and promising back at 24 years of age. This tells us that Haley seems to prefer a veteran, at least initially, despite his young back’s success.

The Chiefs, by the way, finished first in the AFC West with a 10-6 record after the 2010 season.

Things got interesting in 2011 with McCluster’s arrival. That season Charles was injured and Haley proceeded to split rushes evenly, with three different running backs finishing with 110 carries each. Schatz notes McCluster’s presence was the only time in the last decade Haley has had the luxury of having an explosive player in the “receiving back role” who was “so heavily dependent on receiving from the running back position.”

There are unique differences between Haley’s management of Kansas City’s rushing game and the current Browns group. Barring injury, this season looks more similar to 2010 than it does 2011 because of Charles’ absence. But based on the tendencies he has shown to this point, it’s likely Hyde is going to get the first crack at primary ballcarrier duties, with Johnson sprinkled in the mix in passing situations and taking a chunk of his carries. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t some kind of a role for Chubb.

Things may very well shake out similarly to last season in terms of splits between Isaiah Crowell and Johnson, but with Chubb taking some of the presumably increased workload Haley will bring to the position. Browns running backs totaled just 293 rushing attempts last season—206 for Crowell and 82 by Johnson—with all but five coming from the pair. In Pittsburgh last season, the Steelers totaled 390 rushing attempts, with the lion’s share being toted by Bell. Rookie James Conner carried the ball only 32 times despite posting a solid 4.5 yards-per-carry average.

So if Hyde is hot, and stays healthy—a big if, as he has missed a lot of time with injuries during his four-year career, and played hurt for much of it—it appears Haley is more inclined to ride with his veteran player over the more inexperienced Chubb, no matter how successful he might be in his limited opportunities.

Hyde looked great last week against Buffalo, and he is coming off playing an entire 16-game season for the first time in 2017. If he continues that momentum and stays healthy it looks like he will lead the Browns in carries this season.

But remember, Johnson is a playmaker and will get his touches, so don’t bet on Hyde leading the league in rushing attempts, or yards, as he indicated he’s hoping to accomplish earlier in camp. Then factor in some presumably limited carries for Chubb, and we can make a best guess at what the rotation will look like.

As things sit today, I expect Hyde to carry the ball around 220 times, Johnson to get about 100, and Chubb to finish with around 70 carries.