Every Cleveland Browns fan knows that the running game begins and ends with Nick Chubb. The other two capable running backs, Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson had contracts that expired at the conclusion of the 2022 NFL season. Both backs were not resigned by GM Andrew Berry and so it was assumed that they would find employment elsewhere going into 2023.
Johnson would eventually ink a one-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
And now here it is the end of April on the eve of the NFL draft and Hunt remains unsigned by any other NFL club.
Which is odd because he has proven to be a valuable commodity with Cleveland. But the heart of the matter is that the franchise cannot afford to pay him his alleged worth going forward.
And, they have no intentions of doing so.
Simply put, the team just cannot afford to pay him. And honestly, Hunt was not used to the capabilities that paid him $6.25 million this past year as basically a part-time player. On the other hand, Johnson became a special teams ace instead of Chubb’s primary backup. In the past when Chubb had become injured, the entire running attack depended upon either Hunt or Johnson filling Chubb’s void.
Going into free agency, Hunt was expected to be a first-week signee. The problem was this year’s free agent running back group was very crowded with players such as Miles Sanders of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Chicago Bears’ David Montgomery, Buffalo Bills starter Devin Singletary, Baltimore Ravens back Kenyan Drake, and Leonard Fournette of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And then suddenly, several starting running backs became available such as the Dallas Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott and Austin Ekeler of the Los Angeles Chargers.
As players such as Sanders and Montgomery quickly became snatched up during free agency, other running backs lingered in the unemployment line with salary demands that so far haven’t been met. Perhaps their expectations were too high, or NFL general managers are playing a waiting game hoping for a much better deal in order to assist their salary cap bottom line.
These guys would almost assuredly be signed by a new club, but are still unsigned and currently available.
One of these talented backs just so happens to be Hunt.
The Browns had already made contingency plans for Chubb’s backup with the advancement of last year’s fifth-round rookie Jerome Ford. He is slated to have a cap hit of $950,537 this upcoming season. This is very doable for a backup running back that will only spell Chubb and may even increase a slight jump in per-game carries.
However, would the Browns retain Hunt if he has no suitors? And if so, at what salary? Surely the organization is not interested in having a secondary running back that makes north of $5 million a year in a strictly part-time role with part-time production numbers.
Hunt’s stats in 2002 included 123 rushes for 468 yards with just three touchdowns. A former stud in the passing game, he had a mere 35 catches for 210 yards and an additional score last year. This is a player that once had 53 receptions in a single season and rushed for 1,327 yards in his rookie year.
So, the athlete is more than capable of getting results.
Is it the system? Could it be the number of snaps he shares with a workhorse such as Chubb? Has the tandem ride-share program completely stymied Hunt’s production? Or has he peaked despite being just 27 years old?
Remember when Hunt demanded a trade because he wanted a larger role in the offense? That spilled over into this past season. He has later deemed a cinch to be moved at the NFL trade deadline, which then came and went.
Better yet, are the Browns even interested if they could get him at a discount?
Beat writer Terry Pluto of cleveland.com gave his theory on what Cleveland’s plans may be going into 2023:
“I kept hearing from the Browns that Hunt was ‘slipping’ in terms of his speed. The Browns want to break in Jerome Ford into the Hunt role. They believe Ford brings extra value because they like him as a kickoff return man.”
Oh, and Ford will play for cheap.
So far, free agency has not been Hunt’s friend as he has not announced his new address. As talented as Hunt is, almost every Browns mock draft has Cleveland selecting a young running back in the later rounds. Currently, this is considered one of the few gaps left to fill.
A youthful prospect looks at a $750,000-a-year job playing with the NFL shield on the back of his helmet as a blessing. As a guy going into his seventh season, Hunt would scoff at those numbers. Even a deal in the $2 million a year range.
Yet, here is Hunt languishing away – a player that already knows the Browns’ playbook and is completely healthy.