The Browns know who they are as an offensive team: run the damn ball. And the running back room reflects this aspect.
This team is chock full of exceptional running backs in the spirit of Cleveland Browns of ole with tandems such as, Kevin Mack/Earnest Byner, Ernie Green/Jim Brown, Greg Pruitt/Mike Pruitt, Marion Motley/Dub Jones, Leroy Kelly/Ernie Green, Leroy Hoard/Eric Metcalf, and the greatest NFL running back tandem of all time with Jim Brown/Bobby Mitchell.
It is just tradition.
And now, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
But that list does not stop there. D’Ernest Johnson has tossed his hat in the ring as one of the better running backs currently on this roster. And he has proved he belongs. Or has he?
The rest of this group includes Demetric Felton, John Kelly and Jerome Ford. Let’s take a look at each player going into training camp.
Not only is Chubb the best back on this roster, but he is Top-5 in the league. Last summer he inked a three year extension for $36.6 million which included a $12 million signing bonus with a guarantee of $20 million.
As a Browns fan, is that enough? The dude is the heart and soul of this offense.
Great blocker, excellent hands, deceptive speed, awesome teammate, willingness to sacrifice and a quiet leader. Leave anything out? Hard to believe both Chubb (5’-11”, 227 pounds) and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry were both second round picks.
Chubb was the NFL rushing leader going into the final game in 2019 but was only given the ball a pitiful 13 times to which he gained just 41 yards and lost the title.
Has gotten over the 1,000-yard mark the last three years and has 92 receptions during his career with Cleveland which adds to his value. Last year Chubb converted 70 plays into first downs and his average carry netted an astounding 5.5 yards per carry.
Chubb has been named to three straight Pro Bowls and last year was honored as First Team All-Pro. This year he was named to Pro Football Focus’ Top-50 list as yet another honor.
All he needs is a rushing title and a ring. The Pro Football Hall of Fame already has his jacket size on file.
Hunt (5’-11”, 216 pounds) could start for a dozen teams in the league. That much is a certainty. The Browns are fortunate to have him as a complimentary piece to Chubb’s abilities while at the same time is another talented back all to himself.
His 4.62 speed is deceptive in that he is a very shifty player with a great center of balance. Out of his 386 yards last year he gained 221 after contact. Former NFL rushing champ in 2017 despite being a third round pick.
In 16 games played in 2020, he teetered on the 1,000-yard mark but fell short with 841 yards. Hunt has exceptional hands and is a beast after the catch.
He is currently in his final year of his current contract which was a two-year extension worth $13.25 million.
What will the Browns do after this year? Hard to say. Many media outlets have speculated that he will become trade bait at the trade deadline this year, or maybe after the season. In the past when Chubb was injured and Hunt was the featured back, he failed to produce eye-popping numbers on his own but is a great compliment to Chubb as it is.
He played on 44% of snaps on the offense last year in games that he as active so he is a valuable player. Had a calf injury that kept him out over a month and a sport hernia issue in 2019, but other than that has been durable.
There are other backs behind him that can – and have – produced well that are a lot cheaper. Hunt will need to have great numbers this season for the club to keep him.
The coaching staff loves Johnson. Great teammate and very humble.
Having said that, when placed into a starting role, Johnson (5’-10”, 208 pounds) has come up big.
In Week 4 of the 2020 season he had 95 yards on 13 carries against Dallas. In Week 7 last year against Denver, both Chubb and Hunt were injured. The whole running game depended on Johnson. He came through with 146 yards on just 22 carries and was named the FedEx Ground Player of the Week.
But when Chubb and Hunt are both healthy, Johnson is regulated to spot play and few opportunities. His snap counts have increased each season, though, from 45 in 2019 to 81 to 331 last year plus he had 24 plays in which he gained a first down.
There are those who wonder if Johnson was the backup to Chubb what his career would become. His cap hit this year is just $1.216 million so the price is certainly right.
Right now, the Browns need Johnson as insurance in case Chubb or Hunt are injured. He is also a very good tackler on special teams.
There are those who question why the Browns would draft a running back in the fifth round since this group has not only so many as it is, but so many exceptional players to boot. Where would another runner fit?
Let’s look into Ford a bit deeper.
At 5’-11”, 220 pounds, this is the perfect body proportions for a bruising back. Alabama is known for sending so many good running backs into the NFL and this is where Kelly began. He then transferred to Cincinnati and did not become the full-time starter until his senior year. There he busted out for 1,319 yards with 30 touchdowns. Yes, 30. The appeal for the Browns coaching staff is that he is a very good receiver with his 21 catches for 220 yards and a score.
Ford is a well-built running back with speed (4.6) and has a nose for the end zone. Great hands that can make catches well outside his frame. 2021 First Team All-AAC.
Issues? Has had some fumbling problems which is a huge minus. Ford is also inconsistent in reading the front in protection. Another concern is he needs to get more separation following his blockers with runs up the gut. This has caused too many tacklers to be able to reach around his blocker and secure a hand grab.
The thought process on taking Ford is he is a lot like Hunt who is in his final contract year. If the front office moves on from Hunt via a trade or simply does not re-sign him during the off-season, Ford could either become his replacement with a full season under his belt or would be the third RB behind Johnson.
The versatile Felton has been utilized at both receiver, running back as well as kick returner during his rookie season. And a quick look at the depth chart shows he is listed this year at all three positions.
Felton was a very capable return man in college and the coaching staff really likes this kid. They enjoy his plug-and-play abilities when the injury bug rolls around. His return stats last year were not very good so the club invested into a pure returner with Jakeem Grant.
In 2021 he had just seven carries but was targeted 21 times with 18 receptions. It will probably depend on which receivers step up this year as to where Felton fits especially the slot and WR3, but running back will probably become fewer and fewer snaps. Basically he is like that offensive lineman that can play all five positions when needed.
It is not a given that Felton will make this year’s roster. He will have to prove his worth in training camp.
You have to give it to Kelly as he keeps hanging around. Speed is not the issue with him as his best 40 time was 4.5. Then again, he was clocked 4.64 at his Tennessee Pro Day.
Special teams is his calling for now. He is a sure tackler and can get downfield in a hurry. But in college he had success in his junior year with 778 rushing yards on 189 attempts and scored nine touchdowns. Most impressive was his receiving numbers with 226 catches for 1,077 yards and another nine scores. You know the Browns love pass catching running backs.
Kelly was drafted in the sixth round by the Los Angeles Rams in the 2018 NFL draft and spent two seasons there before being cut three times then signed to their practice squad the same number. In training camp of 2019, he made it to the final cutdown before being waived.
The Browns signed him to their practice squad and later penned a reserve/futures deal. Last year he landed on the practice squad again and was brought up in mid-October and played in four games with two carries.
With the additions of Felton last year and the club drafting Ford this past April, it is difficult to imagine Kelly making the final roster and is a probable practice squad addition once again.
The only fullback currently on the roster is Stanton (6’-2”, 250 pounds). Last year he proved his worth and the club subsequently waived the veteran Andy Janovich who was a bit pricey coming over in a trade with Denver. Janovich is now with Houston.
A former college quarterback who also played in the XFL2, Stanton has been on-again, off-again on the Browns practice squad. In January he signed a reserve/futures deal. Except for a knee issue in college, Stanton has been very durable. He is a beast at blocking and on special teams. Last year he played in four games with three carries among 14 offensive snaps and 29 special teams snaps.
His salary this year is just $825,000 so the money paid to keep him is negligible. The question will remain whether a new offensive scheme led by Deshaun Watson will need a fullback for its running game. It is very possible that one of the tight ends can play this role if needed instead.
The Browns kept five runners last year, one being fullback Andy Janovich. FB Johnny Stanton is in this year’s camp and is anybody’s guess as if he will make the final roster. It is likely the coaches will use a tight end in fullback situations instead of keeping another back which would then free up another position of need to add a player such as cornerback or the offensive line.
Including Felton, last year the Browns kept four running backs plus Janovich. In 2020, that number was three backs plus Janovich. If Stanton is cut, it is likely that the coaching staff will only keep three in this group.
Chubb, Hunt and Johnson are guaranteed spots. Could Felton be grouped with the receivers bunch? If so, then the competition is down to the rookie Ford and special teams ace Kelly if a fourth back is kept.
One thing for certain: no other NFL club has as much talent in the running back room as the Browns. Would love to see more formations that feature both Chubb and Hunt in the same backfield like the old Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner days.