The 2019 version of the Cleveland Browns will have one distinct quality: the backfield will be absolutely one of the NFL’s best and deepest squads.
Which harkens back to other Browns periods when the club had Bo Scott coupled with Leroy Kelly (1972); or Mike/Greg Pruitt with Charles White in 1980; Earnest Byner, Kevin Mack plus Curtis Dickey (1986); 1994’s Eric Metcalf, Tommy Vardell and Leroy Hoard; or way back in 1950 with Marion Motley, Dub Jones and Ken Carpenter.
Of course, those were in an era when most teams ran the ball almost exclusively, and the Browns did just that. Coaches Paul Brown, Marty Schottenheimer, and Bill Belichick all had these pristine backs in their wheelhouse and brutally used them against the rest of the league with the pass as an afterthought.
And suddenly, for 2019, the Browns have another situation where they have a plethora of excellent running back talent.
In all likelihood, second-year man Nick Chubb of Georgia will become the starter. He had decent numbers in his rookie campaign rushing for 996 yards on 192 attempts, with eight touchdowns and an impressive 5.2 yards per carry average. Chubb (5-foot-11 and 227 pounds) was also very useful in the passing game with 20 catches for 149 yards and an additional two touchdowns. He is known as a decent blocker and needs more work in this regard. If not for a guy named Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants, Chubb would have been selected the running back on the 2018 NFL All-Rookie Team.
Last year, Cleveland had traded for running back Carlos Hyde from the San Francisco 49ers and then drafted Chubb in the second-round. The organization was so impressed with Chubb’s abilities and progress that they shipped Hyde off to the Jacksonville Jaguars after only six games. The former Georgia standout was named the starter and finished the year with nine starts. He currently holds the franchise record for the longest touchdown run from scrimmage when he broke off a 92-yard scamper in the Week 10 home win over the Atlanta Falcons.
The Cleveland Browns have had their fair share of quality running backs, and in his rookie season, Chubb breaks a 59-year franchise record previously held by Bobby Mitchell in 1959 (90 yards) with his 4.52 speed. The new record and the victory began a season-ending spread where the Browns won five of their last seven games; and totaled more than 300 total yards in three games while cruising to more than 400 total yards in the other four.
One can only imagine if Chubb could have taken on Barkley’s numbers if he would have been the starter in Week 1 as Barkley had done. Chubb was a workhorse at Georgia and shared playing time with Sony Michel and earlier Todd Gurley, the sensational back with the Los Angeles Rams. He got better as the season wore on with his increased opportunity and, of course, gaining NFL experience against bigger, faster players.
One of Chubb’s strengths appears to be his vision. On that record-breaking run, he hit the hole between right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Chris Hubbard as designed, then saw that Falcon safety Damontae Kazee was coming up from center field. He instantly darted to his right which created a more extreme angle to defend. Once he caused Kazee to miss the tackle, his only obstacle was cornerback Desmond Trufant. As Browns’ wide receiver Antonio Callaway points his blocking intentions, Chubb smartly cuts once again toward the field numbers in order to outdistance any trailing Falcons. His second level afterburners are impressive.
Duke Johnson Jr.
As a veteran player, Duke Johnson Jr expects playing time. When Hyde was brought in, and then the franchise drafted Chubb, Johnson had to wonder what happened to make management’s desire to bring in more talent in the backfield when he is a perfectly healthy and productive player. He has had hamstring issues in the past.
Like Chubb, Johnson (5-foot-9 and 210 pounds) was not a first-round draft pick but was taken in the third-round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of Miami. At the time, the offense featured Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West as the running backs, with Shaun Draughn as a backup after earlier trading third overall pick Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts.
Johnson is an outstanding receiver and a great blocker.
In his rookie training camp, Johnson re-injured his hamstring and after a good camp was named the backup running back behind Crowell. Displaying things to come, his first professional touchdown came off a 34-yard pass from quarterback Josh McCown. At the conclusion of his rookie season, he amassed more receiving yards than rushing. That same scenario occurred in his second and third years.
Before last season, the Browns inked Johnson to a three-year, $15.61 million contract extension that proved they wanted him to remain a Cleveland Brown and had big plans for him in the passing attack. During the season, Hyde was traded, which should have opened the door for Johnson to become the starter and earn his newfound money. But, instead, it was Chubb who became the featured back, and although Johnson was still utilized in the passing offense, he only had 40 rushing attempts for 201 yards and zero touchdowns.
He publicly questioned why he was not being used more.
Shortly after the Browns signed Kareem Hunt, Johnson’s representatives requested that general manager John Dorsey trade Johnson to a team that would use him more and so that he could get acclimated to his new team. Since then, every sports writer who even sniffs at a Cleveland Browns story has given their take on whether the club should keep Johnson or indeed move him. Dorsey has bluntly stated that the organization has no plans to trade the talented back.
It would be insane for the Browns to part with a talent such as Johnson. For one, he knows the offense and is a valuable commodity. For another, Hunt has been suspended for the first eight games of the season. In today’s NFL, long gone are the days of the single running back who gets 25 to 30 carries a game. So for the first eight games, Dorsey is guaranteed Chubb/Johnson as his primary ballcarriers. Plus, while at Georgia, Chubb had a significant PCL injury which cost him almost a full season.
It’s one thing to have two capable backs viewed as starters. It’s another to trade one player away, the other gets hurt while the third is still on league suspension. It would make great sense that once the season kicks off and the Browns start winning quite a few games, that Johnson could finally reap the rewards of him sticking out years of futility in Cleveland. This year should be the beginning of huge rewards for a player who has stuck it out in his four seasons donning an orange jersey.
The Browns also do not want to start a trend on the team when one player is disgruntled and abruptly demands a trade. Players will get upset periodically, and the franchise certainly cannot just cave in and ship somebody off they desperately need.
On Johnson’s first day at the start of mandatory minicamp June 4 after skipping the entire voluntary program, he addressed his trade issues:
“I only want to be somewhere I’m wanted. If you don’t want me here, there’s no need to keep me or force me to be here. To be fair, my thing is I’m big on loyalty. I’ve felt as I’ve been loyal to this organization through it all, and the moment the loyalty stops, it stops on both ends. It’s not a one-way street. It stops on my end. I think it showed with my actions and the way I’ve carried myself through two horrible seasons, and then, after the worst of the worst, I re-signed here. I’m not a fortune-teller. I didn’t know a couple years later we’ll assemble one of the best teams on paper. No, I was committed to this organization and to the city. I won’t be a disgruntled employee. I won’t be causing scenes and losing focus on what’s really important. I’m here to do a job, and I’m going to do that job for as long as I’m here. Me being upset and me still wanting to be traded is not going to stop me from coming out here and performing at a high level.”
A player such as Johnson can make plays in space and has the moves to make even the best tacklers miss. He can line up in the slot on occasion and is an exceptional pass catcher. The Browns need Johnson to become productive and provide needed depth at a key position to this offense.
The wildcard this year obviously is former Kansas City Chiefs standout Kareem Hunt. Everyone is aware of the trouble he got himself into with that viral video that cost him his job with the Chiefs. But truth be told, Hunt (5-foot-11 and 216 pounds) is an exceptional running back. He was a complete steal when the Chiefs selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Toledo.
All he did in his rookie year was rush for 1,327 yard on 272 carries, average 4.9 yards per carry, and score eight touchdowns on the ground plus another three through the air. His 53 receptions for 455 yards are equally impressive. Hunt was named to the 2017 NFL All-Rookie Team, led the league in rushing and was elected to the Pro Bowl. And all the while working on third-round pay. Hunt was on pace to break for almost 1,200 yards his sophomore campaign and had already recorded 14 touchdowns when the video surfaced and he was subsequently canned by the Chiefs. In 27 total games – all as the starter - he had a single fumble.
Although Hunt has participated in the Browns off-season programs and will partake in training camp as well as the four preseason games, when his suspension has concluded he would not have played in an actual game situation for a solid year.
Hunt is a stud. He is only 23 years old. He is an excellent receiver and is very shifty. He has a broad frame and very muscular legs. He tends to chip block instead of creating a full frontal wall, but that can be worked on. He is very hard to tackle with just one man and is determined to not go down with elite balance. If Hunt can pick up where he left off without the rust attached, the Browns would have added just one more cherry to their party.
For the time being, Dontrell Hilliard will take reps as the team’s third running back. The undrafted free agent signed in 2018 was named Second Team All-AAC his senior year at Tulane as an engineering student. He had a decent preseason last year and was the featured back in the final exhibition game, in which he rushed for 54 yards on 18 carries and caught two passes. Hilliard (5-foot-11 and 202 pounds) was one of the last Browns to be cut when the 53-man roster was formed, but was instantly signed to the practice squad.
One month later, he was elevated to the main roster where he returned kicks and played on special teams during 11 games. He runs a 4.4 40. With Duke Johnson a no-show during the off-season workouts, Hilliard used that opportunity to shine and show that if indeed Johnson is later traded, he will stick as the number three running back and certainly be in the conversation for valuable playing time if only on third-down passing downs. He is currently listed as the starting kick returner.
Running backs coach Stump Mitchell had this to say about Hilliard’s work and improvement during Duke Johnson’s absence:
“All I know is that Freddie (Kitchens) and Coach (Todd) Monken have expressed how much they want Duke to be a part of this team. There’s things that we want to do. We’re still trying to do those things, but now, we’re trying to do them with Dontrell and he’s looking pretty dadgum good. Now, that guy has to take advantage of the opportunities, and Dontrell (Hilliard) has been doing a hell of a job in taking advantage of the opportunities.”
Another Miami product, Trayone Gray (6-foot-2 and 240 pounds) played sparingly in college until his senior year in which he played in all 10 games as a fullback and special teams ace. He is also 23 years old and signed as an undrafted free agent in May of 2019. He had ACL surgery in 2016, but has been clocked at 4.44 and 4.37 in the 40. He has unquestioned blocking abilities.
After the AAF closed shop, D’Ernest Johnson was signed off the league-leading Orlando Apollos’ roster. Johnson (5-foot-10 and 204 pounds) played college at South Florida and became the Apollos starting running back plus was their punt returner. He had 372 yards on 64 carries - an amazing 5.81 average per carry - with two touchdowns in a pass-happy Orlando offense. His quarterback was Garrett Gilbert, who is also competing for a roster spot with Cleveland. In the passing game, Johnson had 22 receptions for 220 yards and a single touchdown catch. His best 40 time was 5.16.
With quarterback Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb coming into the fold in 2018, plus wide receivers Antonio Callaway, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, as well as tight end David Njoku, the Browns have not only the nucleus of a powerful, exciting offense, but young guys who should stay together for years and years. And if you add Kareem Hunt to that mix, the outlook appears even better if he can pick up where he left off.
The Browns have proven depth at running back, which will lead to some difficult decisions during each game. Everyone wants the rock, but unfortunately there is only one football. If the Browns running backs can remain healthy and head coach Freddie Kitchens can somehow keep them happy, then whatever contributions each player makes will only lead to team success.
And that is the eternal question: will these players be satisfied in certain games not being the star of the show? Will each be happy with minimal touches one game while becoming the workhorse in other contests? Somebody has to shine and it largely depends on the opponent and whom their defense is keying on. It’s also probable that not everyone will suit up each game despite having zero health issues.
Right now, there just doesn’t seem to be enough room in the backfield to satisfy the desire of every player to perform at their max and not become the determining factor week-in and week-out. The more playing time for these young guys will ultimately make them better players, better receivers and hopefully better blockers. Each player has great speed and is young.
Kitchens play calling will be very interesting going forward. A bevy of great backs to plug in as the needs progress is an incredibly interesting problem for any coach to possess.
And with the Browns for 2019, someone’s finally in charge that identifies the things this high-powered offense can thrive on, and then puts them in a position to do the things they do best. It really isn’t rocket science.
Dorsey has brought in all the pieces for the offensive backfield to become successful. Chubb, Duke and Hunt are locks, Hilliard is a man on the rise, while Johnson and Gray each have promise.
Let’s “Sauce it up!”