In today’s NFL, it is a pass-happy league. It used to be the run was utilized to set up the pass, but now offenses don’t employ fullbacks while the running back position is by committee.
It wasn’t that long ago that clubs were known for their superstar running backs like Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson. O.J. Simpson or Eric Dickerson. To be factual, these guys were the faces of their respective franchises. Folks came out to see them play and perform well. Fans bought their football cards and held onto them as cherished memories.
A look around the league in 2022 is very evident that teams draft quarterbacks who can toss the ball 40 times a game while receivers are now being signed to bigger contracts just like the running backs used to get.
The Tennessee Titans are a good running team. So are Atlanta and Indianapolis. If you take out Lamar Jackson, is Baltimore a substantial running club? No matter, because this franchise has always put up great rushing numbers since he was installed as the starting QB.
Cleveland fans are used to seeing the Browns run the ball. And the Browns run the ball very well.
Their entire offensive line including the backups was scouted, timed, measured, examined, and discussed surrounding their run-blocking skills. You do not come to Cleveland to learn to run block - you come to Cleveland to learn how to enhance your run blocking skills. After all, the Browns possess the league’s best offensive line coach in Bill Callahan.
A glance at their roster reveals the Browns are loaded at the running back position. We all know that there is only one football per game and every back wants their share of carries.
Currently, Cleveland has numerous running backs: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D’Ernest Johnson, Demetric Felton, and Jerome Ford. The practice squad also lists John Kelly.
Calling Ohio home
Nick Chubb (5’-11”, 227 pounds) came to Cleveland as a second-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft. In Round 1 Cleveland had taken QB Baker Mayfield and CB Denzel Ward. They had the very first pick in the second round and selected OG Austin Corbett. Two picks later, Chubb was taken.
How the Browns received Hunt (5’-11”, 215 pounds) has its own story. He was a third-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017 and subsequently earned the starting nod. Hunt then became the league’s leading rusher, was named NFL Rookie-of-the-Year and made the Pro Bowl. The following year he was leading the league in rushing again when the video surfaced regarding him physically abusing a woman. Despite his success and his value to the team, eventually, the Chiefs outright cut him and moved on.
Browns GM John Dorsey had been the GM with Kansas City previously and was the one who drafted Hunt. He inked Hunt to a one-year deal despite an ongoing and active investigation. Eventually, Hunt received an eight-game suspension as a Cleveland Brown. In 2020, Hunt was signed to a two-year extension.
Johnson (5’-10”, 208 pounds) was a four-year starter at South Florida and had a very good college career. After going undrafted in 2019, he went to a rookie minicamp with the New Orleans Saints but wasn’t signed. When the Alliance of American Football began its maiden season, Johnson inked a deal with Orlando coached by Steve Spurrier. That league lasted only eight games during which Johnson rushed for 372 yards with an additional 220 gained in the passing game.
When the AAF folded, Johnson was the third leading rusher, but he got his yardage in 40 fewer attempts that the two ahead of him. Plus, Johnson averaged 5.81 yards per attempt, by far the most of any running back plus had more receptions for the position.
The Browns covet running backs who can contribute to the passing game and signed Johnson to a one-year contract. He impressed in training camp and has made the final roster every year since.
Felton (5’-9”, 190 pounds) is in his second year and plays receiver just as often as running back. Cleveland selected him in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL draft. At UCLA, he was named Second Team All-Pac 12. He had 1,101 career rushing yards but also had 958 receiving yards. That versatility along with being a return man is what endured him to the Browns’ coaching staff.
Ford (5’-11”, 215 pounds) is a lot better than his draft status of being taken in the fifth round of this year’s NFL draft. He was highly recruited out of high school and signed with Alabama. After two years, he left for Cincinnati. In his senior year, he gained 1,319 yards and scored 20 total touchdowns. He also had 21 receptions for 220 yards.
Originally a sixth-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams, Kelly (5’-10”, 208 pounds) has been with Cleveland since 2020 in some capacity mostly on the practice squad.
One too many featured backs
It is fully understood that Hunt could start for just about every NFL club. Johnson could also be an NFL starting-caliber back given the right situation. Ford is the Browns’ backup in waiting and will vie for snaps sooner than later before he landed on IR this season. He appears to be the eventual backup and will get a lot of snaps going forward.
Ford may be ready next season for this role. In essence, his play early this season showed that he can become the backup as well as a complimentary back to Chubb. This has made both Hunt and Johnson expendable.
On August 7 this year, Hunt requested a trade to which the club declined his demand. He is in the final year of his two-year deal and will be an unrestricted free agent after this current season.
It does not appear that Felton will become any major portion of the running back room. He is destined to play receiver more and running back less. He was used as a return man but had minimal success and has since been pulled from this responsibility.
Chubb is the undisputed starter. The only question that remains is who should be his primary backup. Right now, that is Hunt. It could be Johnson. The job shortly might be Ford.
So, if Chubb is the starter and most weeks leads the league in rushing, Hunt is an NFL starter just not starting in Cleveland, and Johnson is also a starting back who isn’t getting any playing time, why do the Browns hang onto this trio?
Why not trade one? Could they trade a pair? And if so, what should they expect to receive in return?
Chubb’s cap hit this year is $5.213 million. In 2023, that number jumps to $14.850 million. Hunt’s cap hit is $6.250 million. Other cap hits for the current year: Johnson - $1.217 million, Felton - $865,285 and Ford - $785,357. Kelly makes $10,000 a week on the practice squad but has seen action on the active roster.
Chubb is in the middle year of a three-year extension. Hunt and Johnson’s contracts are up after the season. Felton is in the second year of his rookie four-year contract. Ford signed a four-year deal.
If both Hunt and Johnson have deals that end this year, and Ford is the future of this room as Chubb’s backup, doesn’t it make sense to try to move both of these players while they have quality value?
The NFL trade deadline is November 1.
After Cleveland traded with Houston for QB Deshaun Watson, the Browns are draft pick-poor for the next few seasons. Hunt could gather a second-round pick, or perhaps a third with a sixth-round selection added in. Johnson could be traded for a fourth and a seventh.
Hunt is a valued portion of this offense so far. The possibility of him being moved might become more relevant after the games of October wind down and the 2-5-0 win-loss record is more apparent. If the Browns continue to head south as they have been, then moving Hunt might be prudent. If indeed the opposite is happening with a return of Watson looming with the verbiage “playoffs” swirling off Lake Erie, then Hunt has more value in his current role helping this offense.
Johnson, on the other hand, has been regulated to make tackles on special teams and recently against the Ravens as a kickoff returner. He has experimented at both return positions, but apparently, the punt return gig did not materialize. His snap count this season is very low for a guy who came in for the Browns and lit up the scoreboard against the Denver Broncos for 146 yards and a score and was named the FedEx Ground Player of the Week in 2020.
What Johnson’s current value to the franchise is at present as an insurance policy in the event Chubb or Hunt become injured. This is what has happened in the past and how Johnson has gotten most of his playing time. While great runners in their own style, both Chubb and Hunt have had their share of injury issues.
Currently, the Browns’ 2023 draft picks are as follows: Round 2, Round 3, Round 4 (two picks), Round 5 (two picks), Round 6, and Round 7.
Running back market
With the trade deadline in sight, teams that can smell the playoff picture are jockeying for players that can help them this season.
On October 20, the San Francisco 49ers traded their second, third, and fourth-round picks this year plus a fifth-round selection in 2024 for the rights to RB Christian McCaffrey - formerly of the Carolina Panthers.
The deal instantly will give the 49ers additional offensive punch in the NFC West that in pre-season appeared one of the best; yet so far has produced a lackluster win-loss record of 3-4-0.
Carolina was initially asking for two first-round draft picks and had three hard offers for McCaffrey of various degrees. A bidding war ensued and the 49ers came out on top. The other teams were the Los Angeles Rams and either Buffalo or Denver.
The Rams have made it known that they would be interested in trading their own starting running back Cam Akers shortly after the Panthers had made a similar declaration. So, the running back market seems to be front-and-center as far as the trade deadline looming.
Which should play out perfectly for Cleveland.
The Browns have so many positions of need such as defensive tackle, offensive tackle, safety, linebacker, and wide receiver as the most glaring. If Hunt could fetch another second-round pick with some lower-round picks included, then maybe Cleveland could snare someone like LSU DT Jaquelin Roy (6’-4”, 297 pounds) who is known for his pass-rushing abilities.
Hunt will never be the starter with the Browns. By trading him while he is at the pinnacle of his trade value, in essence, Cleveland would set him free to once again become a starter who can fully display his talents. The huge contract that he desires will never materialize as long as he is listed as RB2. Hunt led the NFL in rushing for two seasons before being ousted by the Chiefs. Yes, he was lucky that the Browns took a flier on him when no other club would. But now, he has proven himself worthy once again.
And maybe GM Andrew Berry can attach some sort of condition on Hunt which may elevate each pick’s status. No team is going to trade for Hunt and not utilize him, so this could become a bonus for the franchise.
The Browns have been using Hunt less and less each game this year. Against Baltimore, he had just five carries for four yards and one catch for four yards. He did score a touchdown. In the previous game against New England, he had a mere four carries for 12-yards with zero receptions. So far in 2022 Hunt has scored just four times in seven contests.
Johnson would be an easy move for Berry. He would be low-risk high-reward for any team who needs a second back or a club that is not satisfied with their starter. Again, if the trade is for a conditional pick it would add to Johnson’s value and make more sense to move him.
Potential trade partners?
During pre-season sessions with the Philadelphia Eagles, they oohed and awed about Hunt. At that time period, they were having running back issues with minimal production. But that has turned around now that they are one of the best teams in the league currently ranked ninth in rushing yards.
A team that has a very potent offense yet needs a good running back are the Miami Dolphins. They currently have the fifth-worst running attack yet boast the third-highest passing yardage. Opposing defenses are rushing as few as three defenders and adding more defensive backs to their scheme knowing the run game is inadequate.
Hunt would change all that and flourish in the Dolphins’ offense.
Another club that could use an infusion of talent at the RB position is Washington. The starter Brian Robinson isn’t even listed in the Top-75 of running backs. Several backups and numerous quarterbacks have gained more yardage than Robinson. That division is this year’s best so far and the Commanders don’t wish to fall further behind.
By adding Hunt, a team that would explode even more offensively is Buffalo. Their rushing attack is in the bottom half of the league currently ranked 22nd. With Hunt’s running plus his receiving talent, the potent Bills offense would simply add yet another weapon to this offensive juggernaut.
The New York Jets just lost their running back ace Breece Hall to a knee injury. They are currently 5-2-0 with playoff aspirations but have made a trade with Jacksonville for RB James Robinson.
Now whether Cleveland would want to trade Hunt within the conference is another matter regarding both Miami and Buffalo.
Yet another idea is to trade Hunt or Johnson for players of need.
The Chicago Bears have made it known they are willing to listen to offers for DE Robert Quinn and LB Roquan Smith.
Quinn (age 32) had 49 tackles last year along with 18.5 sacks en route to his third Pro Bowl. Smith (age 25) contributed 163 tackles last season and has 66 already this year. In each of his four seasons, Smith has topped over 100 tackles (121, 101, 139, 163) and is a certainty to continue that trend this year.
Imagine Roquan Smith, JOK, and Deion Jones all on the field at the same time at the linebacker position. Each one is lean, fast, and are tackling machines – something that is missing this year on this Browns’ defense.
Smith is in the final year of his contract with a cap hit of $9.735 million. It may be an analytics no-no to pay a linebacker that much, but ask the big question of: if the cheaper linebacker rates aren’t working, would paying proven high-tacklers be better?
Adding Quinn would allow the defense to move Jadeveon Clowney or Myles Garrett inside more and provide some symbolic representation of a run-stopping effort.
Another trade prospect is the Rams themselves. They have lost interest in Akers and want to move him, but at the same time bring in a capable back. With the division 49ers snagging McCaffrey, the Rams realize they don’t want to be left behind. Currently, they rank dead last in rushing. They were interested in McCaffrey and made a hard play for him, but San Fran offered more.
This means the Browns may be the next phone call for most likely Hunt. The McCaffrey trade set the bar well above what was expected, so dangling Hunt or Johnson could reap huge benefits for Cleveland.
One thing the McCaffrey trade brought forward is that the running back market may be larger than expected.
It is not known how long Ford will be out, but it has to be at least four weeks per NFL rules from the Atlanta game.
Both Hunt and Johnson have been underutilized by the Browns and possess tremendous talent. Right now is the time to make a trade for clubs that are desperate and willing to overpay.