The Cleveland Browns in the Andrew Berry/Kevin Stefanski era have always had one thing: a great running back room with plenty of depth.
And now? Eesh…
The Browns are lucky to have Nick Chubb, one of the league’s superstar running backs. A former second-round pick, he has been voted to four Pro Bowls and is one of the Top-3 rushers each season.
Kareem Hunt gave Cleveland a huge peace of mind over the past few years. A former Pro Bowler and the NFL’s leading rusher in 2017, Hunt had experience and pedigree. Behind him was the emerging and competent D’Ernest Johnson. When Hunt and/or Chubb (5’-11”, 227 pounds) went down due to injury, Johnson filled in with very good production.
Both Hunt and Johnson finished their two-year contracts. Hunt wasn’t re-signed and Johnson was allowed to test the free agent waters and signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. This left the Browns without the security blanket in the running back room they had always had for the past three seasons. Suddenly under Berry’s watch, it is uncharted territory for the franchise.
Part of the reason Hunt and Johnson were allowed to find employment elsewhere was the play of Jerome Ford, last year’s fifth-round draft pick. He showed he was capable of getting more reps with the first-team offense and did a terrific job with kickoff returns.
As long as he is healthy.
Herein lies the problem and says it all. A very good compliment runner to Chubb – as long as Ford is healthy.
His 4.46 speed is a huge plus and he runs like a punisher similar to Chubb. Ford (5’-10, 210 pounds) is a bell-cow back who has good balance and athletic ability but lacks creativity and vision. He is also very strong with soft hands just like Chubb. Ford is a mismatch with linebackers and is explosive.
Ford needs to be more patient with blockers and not run up their backside. He can also be unpredictable in finding the right crease in whatever gap he shoots through. And he can be inconsistent with reading the front in protection.
But he is a talented back with great speed and will help in the passing game whether blocking or swinging out as a safety valve option.
In Week 4 last year, he suffered an ankle injury that landed him on IR for five weeks. In training camp, he hobbled off the practice field on August 7 with a minor hamstring thigh sprain. Going back to his college days, he had an ankle sprain in his sophomore year and a Pedal ankle sprain Grade 1 in his senior year.
Needless to say, durability is a concern with Ford. If Chubb was to go down, which he has in the past, Ford and his weak ankles suddenly become the catalyst of this offense for however many games.
Gone are the days when Cleveland simply plugged in Hunt or Johnson and the offense still plugged along.
Behind Ford is the new guy to Cleveland, Pierre Strong, Jr. He was a rookie last year with the New England Patriots. They selected him one round earlier than Ford in Round 4. The Patriots really liked his progress after only one season, but had an offensive line depth issue and made the trade with the Browns with a backup RB for a backup OT.
Strong was used primarily on special teams but had 10 carries for 100 yards and one touchdown. He also had seven receptions for 42 yards.
Ford and Strong represent the future of Cleveland’s running game if Chubb can’t go. Does that feel any sort of comfortable? Or is that a scary thought?
The Browns favor their running backs who are of that dominant bell-cow variety and have good speed coupled with a mix of weight and height. What they typically look for are sturdier backs who can take - and give - punishment, block well, are good receivers, and have the ability to gain yardage after contact.
What happens if…….?
There was a time when the Browns employed two running backs that gained over 1,000 yards each in a single season. No, not drinking while writing. Wait….no it’s true about these lads.
Back in 1985, FB Kevin Mack and RB Earnest Byner had gained 1,104 and 1,002 yards, respectively. This concept was supposed to be what could have occurred with Chubb and Hunt as occupants of the Browns backfield. Except, what rarely happened was them being on the field at the same time whereas Mack and Byner were a tandem backfield.
Except for his rookie season, Chubb has eclipsed the 1,000 threshold every season. Last year was his best output with 1,525 rushing yards.
But did you know that Chubb has a 63% chance of injury this season with a projection of missing two games? That is considered high risk.
Last year he played through a rib injury in Week 17. In 2021, he suffered a calf strain which resulted in being out for two games. The year before it was a Grade 2 MCL knee sprain in Week 4 against the Dallas Cowboys which placed him on the IR/return list. He missed four games and then returned after the bye week. In college, he had a complete knee blowout which included a torn PCL, MCL, LCL, a dislocated knee and suffered cartilage damage.
Not that Chubb is considered injury-prone. But the point is very obvious: running backs get hit and can be hurt on any given play.
And Chubb’s backup, Ford? He has a 42% (medium risk) of getting hurt this year while Strong’s projection is 33% (low risk).
It is fortunate that Cleveland has an elite offensive line to help out with as little disturbance as possible on running plays. But things happen. And do.
This is not to provide any sort of jinx or to be negative. It’s just facts.
But plainly put, the Browns no longer have the luxury of inserting Hunt or Johnson if Chubb would become hurt.
Now, it is two guys who were selected on Day 2 in last year’s NFL draft.
Total stats? These statistics are a grand total between Ford and Strong.
An average of playing in 14 games, zero starts, 18 rushing attempts, 112 yards, zero touchdowns, six first-down rushing conversions, an average of 16 yards after contact, seven receptions for 42 yards, zero receiving touchdowns, and three first-down receiving conversions.
Again, does that feel any sort of comfortable? Or is it a scary thought?
Alternatives and ideas
This is not a Jerome Ford bashing session. Nor is this an effort to be derogatory towards Strong. The coaching staff loves Ford. Dawgs By Nature loves Ford. We want to love Strong but so far all the film that has been viewed is mainly him making tackles on special teams. So, the jury is out but Berry did work out a viable trade for him, so the Browns have faith in his talents.
It’s just the most glaring aspect of the running back room is that when you get past Chubb, it is a group of inexperienced guys. That’s all.
Right now, the cap number financials for 2023 on these three backs are as follows: Chubb - $14.85 million, Ford - $870,000, and Strong - $870,000.
But take Cleveland’s first game of the season, a convincing 24-3 win over Cincinnati. Ford and Chubb were the only running backs to gain stats.
Ford gained 36 yards on 15 carries. He had 17 of that total on one run that had excellent blocking. Take away that run and he averaged 1.4 yards per carry. He actually almost ran through his own blockers on several plays.
When he was given the rock in the Red Zone, he fumbled and gave away a great scoring opportunity. If this continues each week, what do the Browns do?
The Browns’ offense this year was supposed to not even be dependent upon a running back, but against the Bengals, Cleveland’s best game plan was to run the ball which gained 206 yards on the ground and just 144 yards through the air. Who knows, if Cleveland trots out four receivers for most of every contest, a single RB or even an empty backfield with a lone tight end just may become the new norm.
And it just may be that the running back’s job week-after-week is to remain in to block and catch short passes over the middle or as a safety valve. Each game may actually see very few carries and more receptions. And if that’s the scheme, this may not become an issue whatsoever.
However, if the Browns want to run like 20-25 times a game, and Chubb is out for any extended timeframe, this offense will be hurting.
What can be done? How much cap space do they have right now? According to our friends over at the salary tracking website Over the Cap, Cleveland has about $14.6 million available.
Why not sign a veteran who has NFL starts? The time to do this is now and not after Week 4 or Week 10 when every team that has lost a starting running back has cherry-picked the list.
Veteran free agents available right now are Leonard Fournette (age 28), David Johnson (31), Mark Ingram (33), J.D. McKissic (30), and former Browns Dontrell Hilliard (28) and Hunt (28).
Running backs released on the final cutdown on August 29th include Kenyan Drake (age 29), Benny Snell (25), Corey Clement (28), Devine Ozigbo (26), Damien Williams (31), C.J. Marable (26), James Robinson (25), and Trey Sermon (24).
Players signed to an NFL current practice squad include Royce Freeman - Rams (age 27), Godwin Igwebuike - Falcons (28), Melvin Gordon - Ravens (30), and La’Mical Perine - Chiefs (25).
Nobody is saying call up the Indianapolis Colts and work out a deal for disgruntled RB Jonathan Taylor. But all the above names indicate that the Browns can bring in a capable veteran backup who isn’t going to learn as he goes along but has value in already being an NFL starting-caliber running back.
And since these guys are not signed and the 2023 season is upon us, there are going to be some cheap talented RBs who would love nothing better than to come in on a one-year deal for say, $1-$3 million with incentives that could escalate his earnings higher and be guaranteed a roster spot and bi-weekly paychecks.
There is plenty of money available to sign a veteran running back.
As the season rolls along, the above lists will become smaller. If a veteran running back as Chubb’s backup makes more sense, then now is the time to choose the best one.
The entire NFL just witnessed the New York Jets losing their most valuable asset on offense without any veteran backup. If something happens to Chubb, that could be Cleveland’s story as well.