Last season, Carlos Hyde began the season as the Browns’ starting running back and did a respectable job, grinding out 5 touchdown runs and an average of 3.4 yards per carry. During his reign as the team’s starter, though, rookie Nick Chubb blew fans away when he had 3 carries for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Raiders in Week 4. Before long, Hyde was shipped to the Jaguars, and Chubb went on to have an outstanding rookie season.
The team’s running back situation got even more complex this offseason. With Chubb entrenched as the starter, the team rolled the dice to sign Kareem Hunt, essentially getting the best running back in the NFL for free (talent-wise). Their other talented back, Duke Johnson, was fumed by reports of the team wanting to trade him, and made his displeasure known. What is the outlook for the position this year?
1. Nick Chubb - Starting RB
Height: 5-11 | Weight: 227 lbs | Age: 23
Experience: 2 years | College: Georgia
Regardless of the fact that the Browns added Hunt, their No. 1 running back this season should unquestionably be Nick Chubb. As a rookie, he carried the ball 192 times for 996 yards (5.2 YPC) and 8 touchdowns. He also impressed with his pass-catching ability, hauling in 20 passes for 149 yards and 2 more touchdowns.
Chubb has it all, and was graded by Pro Football Focus as the best-performing running back in the NFL last year. His yards after contact (4.47 yards) ranked 1st in the NFL. Just think for a second about how crazy that statistic is — after first contact, he still averaged more than most running backs in the NFL. His elusiveness was also one of the highest that PFF has seen in the past decade:
The big question mark for the regular season will be how the team handles Chubb’s workload for the first eight games of the season — because when Hunt is ready for the second half, the team will heavily lean on both guys. Until then, do you put all your eggs in Chubb’s basket as a workhorse? Or, do you still find ways to utilize Duke Johnson not just as a receiver, but a ballcarrier?
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. Duke Johnson - Receiving RB
Height: 5-9 | Weight: 210 lbs | Age: 25
Experience: 5 years | College: Miami
The Duke Johnson situation will be one of the big stories heading into camp. The questions range from “will he still be with the team?” to “how will he be utilized on offense?” Last year, when Freddie Kitchens, it was the latter question that I kept asking. And while Johnson’s utilization improved a bit under Kitchens, it wasn’t as much as I thought it would be. Instead of complaining about it like I did when Hue Jackson was head coach, I lived with it because Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb were both killing it, and the team was winning. At the end of the day, winning is all that matters.
Johnson remains a very productive back. Even though he saw a career-low 40 carries last year, he still averaged 5.0 yards per carry. His receiving numbers were also down, but to no fault of his own. This is still the same back who had a franchise-record 74 receptions in 2017. There may not be as many receptions to go around when you think about the likes of Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, and David Njoku, but I refuse to believe that Kitchens doesn’t look at Johnson’s background and think, “I’ve got a handful of plays each game where he can make defenses pay in a major way.” From PFF:
Johnson’s career receiving grade (90.9) ranks fifth among the 44 running backs with at least 100 targets dating back to 2015. He also ranks second in forced missed tackles per reception (0.338), seventh in yards per route run (1.73) and fourth in percentage of receptions resulting in a first down or touchdown (44.0%) on the list.
Regarding his status with the team, I hope that Tony Grossi is right and that Johnson changing to Drew Rosenhaus can actually help cool trade talks down. Johnson insisted that when it comes time for training camp and playing, he will still give it his all with the club, and I believe that. Also, if the team were going to decide to trade Johnson, a better time to do it would be at the half-way point of the season — right before the trade deadline, and right before Kareem Hunt is eligible to play. At that point, it wouldn’t be about trading a disgruntled player, but rather getting compensation for a player when you have an embarrassment of riches at the running back position.
Final Roster Odds: 95%
3. Kareem Hunt - Suspended RB
Height: 5-11 | Weight: 216 lbs | Age: 23
Experience: 3 years | College: Toledo
Kareem Hunt will serve an 8-game suspension to begin the regular season, but will be allowed to participate in training camp and the preseason. Hunt will be eligible to debut in Week 10 against the Buffalo Bills. A rookie in 2017, Hunt exploded right off the bat for the Kansas City Chiefs, rushing for 1,327 yards (4.9 YPC) and catching 53 passes for 455 yards. Last year, he was well on his way to matching those numbers before word of his incident broke out, causing the Chiefs to immediately release him. Here is an example of the type of excitement Hunt can bring:
Hunt knows he’s on a short leash with respect to any personal issues that may arise. He will also face the challenge of needing to stay in shape and acclimated with the Browns’ offensive playbook while missing over two months of the season. I’m curious how the Browns’ coaching staff will utilize him during training camp. On one hand, I would say that they should over-prepare him to try to get him as much familiarity with the system as possible, before he’s idle. On the other hand, maybe those reps would be better suited for a guy like Dontrell Hilliard, who might be needed (if an injury happens) in those first eight games.
Working both Chubb and Hunt into the game come November will be something Kitchens has to work out, but that should be the definition of a good problem as opposed to a bad one.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
In Part 2 of our running back preview, we’ll look at the other backs on the roster.
Would you trade RB Duke Johnson?
This poll is closed
Yes, during training camp
Yes, right before the trade deadline
When Kareem Hunt’s suspension is over, how do you utilize Nick Chubb and Hunt?
This poll is closed
Chubb is still the workhorse
Basically a 50-50 split
Hunt becomes the workhorse