The NFL has evolved over the years to become a passing-dominant league - just ask anyone - and running backs have subsequently fallen out of favor across the land.
Except, of course, in Cleveland where the Browns currently boast a running back room that is the envy of the other 31 teams.
It’s not that the Browns are not interested in passing the ball, they certainly signaled their intent during the offseason by trading for quarterback Deshaun Watson and wide receiver Amari Cooper, it’s just that the Browns have a different approach when it comes to the running game.
This, in turn, is going to bring about an interesting next few months as general manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski work to figure out what the running back room will look like this season and beyond.
The unquestioned leader of the group is Nick Chubb, who has quietly - at least outside of Cleveland - established himself as one of the top three running backs in the league. His role on the team is fully set and unquestioned.
After that, however, Berry and Stefanski are going to have some hard decisions to make.
Kareem Hunt’s value to the offense was on full display last season when he missed nine games with injuries. Hunt takes Cleveland’s offense to a different level given what he adds in the passing game, and the Browns were clearly not the same when he was out of the lineup.
The issue with Hunt is that he is entering the final year of his contract and is set to earn a base salary of $1.35 million, a roster bonus of $4.9 million and a cap hit of $6.25 million. Hunt will be a free agent after the season, and with Chubb already signed to a contract extension, and more extensions either kicking in next season or looming down the road, it is conceivable that Berry could look to move Hunt before the season and get something in return, rather than see him walk in free agency with only a conditional draft pick to show for it.
But if things break right this fall the Browns should be viable contenders in the AFC, so the feeling here is that the value of having Hunt on the roster and keeping the offense as loaded as possible outweighs the risk of having him leave after the season.
If/when the Browns decide to keep Hunt for another season, they could look to move D’Ernest Johnson, who is set to make $2.4 million this season after Cleveland placed a right-of-first-refusal tender on him in March. The deadline for Johnson to sign the tender has come and gone with no official word, but it seems likely that he will be back since his agent did not release any news about a new team.
The problem with getting rid of Johnson is that he proved to be a valuable insurance policy in 2021 as he took over as the lead back in three games while Chubb and Hunt dealt with injuries.
In those games Johnson put up:
- 146 rushing yards and a touchdown against the Denver Broncos in Week 7
- 99 rushing yards against the New England Patriots in Week 10
- 123 rushing yards and a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 18
That is a nice security blanket to have in case something happens to Chubb or Hunt as the Browns would not have to worry about the season going off the rails with Johnson in the backfield.
This brings us to second-year running back Demetric Felton and rookie Jerome Ford, the club’s fifth-round selection in this year’s NFL Draft.
Felton flashed some potential in his rookie season as a bit of a Kareem Hunt-light as he had 205 yards of total offense on just 25 touches with a pair of touchdowns.
As for Ford, he led the American Athletic Conference in rushing yards last season with 1,319, and his 19 touchdowns are tied for the most in program history at Cincinnati.
Combine the potential of what Felton can bring to the passing game with the potential of what Ford can do in the running game and the Browns might have a serviceable backup tandem to Chubb and Hunt.
There is also the extra wrinkle that Berry has yet to cut one of his draft picks since taking over as general manager in 2020.
It seems unlikely that the Browns will carry five running backs on the roster, but it is also hard to see who might not make the team behind Chubb as everyone brings something of value to the table.
Which, when you think about it, is actually a good problem to have because it means the Browns have moved past the stage where basically anyone who showed up in Berea with a pair of cleats was almost assured of a roster spot.
Have your say, Browns fans.
If you had to cut/trade one of the following running backs, who would it be?
This poll is closed