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NFL free agency: 3 ‘best guess’ destinations for Kareem Hunt

Talented back should be in somebody’s camp by July

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When the NFL free agency period began back in mid-March, it was assumed that Cleveland Browns’ running back Kareem Hunt would be one of the first running backs signed. Yet here it is in mid-May and Hunt still remains unemployed.

In early 2020 the talented back signed a two-year extension for $13.25 million. Last season was the final year of his contract in which he made $6.25 million. Because of starting running back Nick Chubb’s huge deal, the Browns could not afford to pay two backs to large sums who were sharing carries.

In 2023, Chubb will earn a base salary of $10,850,000, while carrying a cap hit of $14,850,000. That means the franchise is not interested in carrying another back with huge numbers.

Just like any relationship, there were ups and downs. In late summer last year, Hunt requested a trade. The Browns declined. At the trade deadline, he was a certainty to be sent to another team for a draft pick and Berry was said to be ready to deal him, but that opportunity came and went. Later Hunt asked for another extension but to no avail.

At the season’s end, the relationship ceased as he was an unrestricted free agent. There wasn’t any shouting, pointing fingers, or throwing dishes. It just ended. During this time with Hunt still available, there have been articles suggesting that Cleveland just may want him back on a reduced salary. The tell-tale sign that this will not happen is when his jersey Number 27 was given out to defensive back Mike Ford.

Although before the NFL draft Browns GM Andrew Berry stated regarding re-signing Hunt:

“I don’t know that we’ve necessarily shut the door on anything. I mean we’re not playing games until September, so we’ll remain open-minded to anything that can help the team. We like the (running back) room that we have. That wouldn’t exclude us from adding someone this upcoming weekend at that position, but we just got to see how the board shakes out.”

Which in every mock draft Cleveland was expected to draft a young buck in the RB room – but did not. They did sign rookie Hassan Hall of Georgia Tech as an undrafted free agent.

Now that Hunt is free to sign with any NFL club, he has his sights set on a multi-year deal that will give him some playing and residential stability. He would want in the neighborhood between $5 and $7 million a season.

The fact that Hunt shared the backfield with Chubb only means that he has a lot of life left on his wheels. Last year he had 492 snaps (41.9%) compared to Chubb’s 660 (56.22%). These numbers are typical of the past three seasons. Hunt’s carries remain about the same for this three-year span, but his receptions have dropped off which is what he does best. In 2021 he had just 22 catches with 44 this past season.

New Orleans Saints v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Keep in mind he is just 27 years old. But he did not have a great 2022 as he ended up with a career-low Pro Football Focus overall grade of 67.0.

There remains an interest in Hunt, don’t let the lessening of stats and playing time appear otherwise. What has hurt his market value is the fact that right away in free agency several key running backs were signed early to clubs who were running back poor.

Devin Singleton signed with the Houston Texans. Jamaal Williams inked a three-year deal with the New Orleans Saints. The Chicago Bears kept David Montgomery in-house to the tune of $18 million. Former Philadelphia Eagles RB Miles Sanders broke the bank by signing a four-year $25 million deal with the Carolina Panthers.

The fact that these teams which desperately needed a starting back signed them within the first two weeks only crimped Hunt’s efforts. Suddenly, he is considered one of those “bargain” players as his value is spiraling downward. His contract expectations obviously have diminished while the huge contracts that Sanders and Montgomery received are a vision that has clouded.

The worst situation for Hunt is to remain unsigned as NFL training camps commence with the hope of signing with a club that loses their running back for the year. In that scenario, Hunt’s annual cash value may increase, but there is little chance he would receive a multi-year deal which would place him in the same unsettled situation again the following season.

But there are opportunities for him to still find a new home going into 2023. His versatility is his greatest asset.

Where is his most likely landing spot, and what should he expect for a dollar amount?

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Denver Broncos

The Broncos have had interest in Hunt. Their starter Javonte Williams is still recovering from a torn ACL. The franchise has added Samaje Perine this offseason during free agency and has hosted XFL standout RB Jacques Patrick. None of these would fill Hunt’s shoes who would take over and become the starting back right off.

What Hunt wants, besides a good payday, is to become a prominent role in the offense. New head coach Sean Payton is an offensive mind and has always had that one lead back involved in his game plan.

Jeremy Fowler of ESPN recently stated on SportsCenter that the Broncos were ‘a team to watch’ in regards to signing Hunt.

What may blow this up for Hunt are his contract demands plus his viewpoint of his current abilities. There is a two-way street with contract negotiations as Hunt has an oversized view of what he is worth.

But Denver needs Hunt’s talents. It is just a matter of whether they will pay his price.

SB Nation’s Mile High Report is running a Broncos reader survey on whether Denver should pursue Hunt with results revealed on Friday.

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Arizona Cardinals

As far as his abilities in the passing game, Arizona is probably Hunt’s best fit and they are interested.

Johnny Venerable was on the PHNX Podcast recently and stated on the subject of the Cardinals’ interest in Hunt:

“They like him. If conversations haven’t happened yet, I think they will happen in terms of just reaching out and just getting a feeler. Now does that mean you’re going to sign Kareem Hunt to a two or three-year deal and mirror the James Conner deal? No. Kareem Hunt’s getting a one-year contract.”

If that is true with the Cardinals, regardless of their offense and the need for his receiving traits, Hunt will want at least a three-year deal so that he can get dug in with their playbook and offensive scheme and set his roots.

Remember Arizona’s new OC is Cleveland’s old QB coach Drew Petzing, so the offensive familiarity is there from the start. Petzing is expected to have an offense that is very similar to what the Browns have been running for the past three seasons.

As it is right now, the Cardinals have James Conner as their starting back, plus journeyman Corey Clement and the youngster sixth-round pick Keaontay Ingram. They also inked UDFA Emari Demercado shortly after the draft. The nearly 30-year-old Conner is injury-prone which has impacted his production. While healthy, he will need a complement back who is better in the passing game.

The obvious is the fact that the Cardinals OC is familiar with Hunt and Hunt with him and his new system.

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Baltimore Ravens

Yes, this would be a huge blow to the Browns with Hunt playing in the division.

The Ravens already have a good set of backs with J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. However, both are entering contract years this season, plus both players are injury-pron.

Dobbins is certainly a home run hitter. But his injury history plus his injury probability may have the Ravens thinking of an insurance back. Hunt would fit QB Lamar Jackson like the glove he was meant to be especially with his 3.5 yards after contact per attempt.

By signing Hunt, Baltimore would add another weapon to its passing game on an offense that has been significantly improved in personnel since last season. Jackson would love Hunt as his check-down back and his excellent backfield blocking.