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Player Faceoff: Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland

Two staffers go head-to-head and discuss Isaiah Crowell

The staff members at Footballguys are full of opinions. In a Faceoff, we allow two members to voice their opinions on a specific player. One picked the high side, and the other took the low side.

High Side: Justin Howe

I’m targeting Crowell fairly consistently in 2017 drafts, though it’s not because I see a lot of upside in him. He wasn’t much of a prospect in 2014, going undrafted after uneven college production and a good-not-great combine. He plays on a terrible team that will struggle to win five games and won’t be on the goal line often. And he splits his backfield with a talented pass-catcher. I’m not sure he carries the ceiling of a top-eight back. And while these are all legitimate narratives, I still see a nice, sturdy floor for a number of reasons, and I don’t agree with the wide-running belief that his 2017 is destined for a production dip.

First, let’s define a fair set of expectations for Crowell. He’s currently being drafted as the RB14 in both standard and PPR formats, and his ADP is climbing incrementally. That does seem a tad high for a timeshare back – he’s coming off the board right alongside proven workhorse backs like Todd Gurley and Lamar Miller, after all. But it’s definitely not unreasonable. Crowell ended 2016 as the PPR RB14, so he’d need to dip noticeably to fall below that value bar. And while I don’t foresee a massive jump in production, I don’t think he necessarily needs one to justify the ADP. His tier is flush with uncertainty, even in those workhorses, yet Crowell still holds a rock-solid floor for volume and usage. The team didn’t add any real competition for his role, and Duke Johnson looks definitively entrenched in his passing-game role – his rushing usage dipped mightily in his second season. For better or worse, Crowell is locked firmly into the Browns’ lead rushing role. He claimed 71% of Cleveland’s running back carries last year, a number that should stay relatively static, and despite Johnson’s presence he drew a respectable 53 targets (14th-most among running backs). I simply can’t imagine Johnson suddenly coming on as a volume runner, nor can I imagine an upstart camp body eating into his workload.

Much of the 2017 concern with Crowell is over his inconsistency, which is fair: He only finished RB18 or higher eight times last year. Critics point to the fact that he finished below 30 rushing yards in seven games, and he went touchdown-less 10 times. But I’m expecting at least a modest uptick in both volume and productivity in his second year under Hue Jackson. Jackson is, without argument, a running-game guru; over his seven seasons as a head coach or coordinator, his offenses have finished top-7 in rushing attempts in four of them. Consider that last year’s Browns finished 31st in rushing volume, a mark that will almost certainly swell in 2017. Add 20-25 running back rushes, and Crowell will blow past last season’s 198 carries. And from an efficiency standpoint, we can certainly expect a boost if dual-threat rookie DeShone Kizer wins the starting quarterback job as expected. Running-threat quarterbacks can steal some volume from their lead running backs, but typically boost their efficiency to an appreciable degree. Crowell’s volume outlook for 2017 may be questionable, but his chances at churning out another 4.8 yards per rush should increase alongside Kizer.

To me, Crowell looks like an upper-tier RB2, and a perfectly fine pick in the third round of a draft. I do feel he brings less value than many of the receivers and tight ends in that range, but in terms of running back options, he’s one of my top choices there. I’m fine with opting for Lamar Miller or Leonard Fournette instead, as both carry sexier ceilings, but their floors are a bit off from what Crowell can boast.

Low Side: Devin Knotts

Statistically, Isaiah Crowell had his best year of his career and there is a lot of excitement heading into 2017 that he will be able to build off of those numbers as the Browns have enhanced their offensive line in the offseason. This excitement is currently causing Crowell to be drafted as a low-end number one fantasy running back. One thing that you need to be careful with is just looking at the overall statistics for Crowell, as his stats were highly inflated due to a week 17 game where the Steelers had absolutely nothing to play for and Crowell had 19 carries for 152 yards rushing.

The biggest problem with Crowell is not the player, but instead, it is Hue Jackson’s offense where they are quick to abandon the run if the running game is not working and the team gets down early. In 2016, the Browns ranked second to last in terms of total rushing attempts and Crowell had 10 games where he had less than 15 carries and five games less than 10 carries. The lack of carries played a big factor in Crowell only finishing in the top 12 of running backs three times during the fantasy season (weeks 1-16) which was tied for 20th with Terrance West, C.J. Anderson, Jonathan Stewart, Rob Kelley, Derrick Henry, and Bilal Powell. This is simply unacceptable for someone who is currently being drafted where Crowell is being drafted. The Browns are still a few years away from being a competitive team so the risk of them getting behind early and abandoning the run is very high.

Another problem facing Crowell is the uncertainty of the quarterback position. Crowell caught a surprising 40 passes last season which was more than his first two seasons combined in the NFL. Looking forward to 2017 and it appears that Brock Osweiler may get a first chance at being a starter in the Browns offense. If he does get the first chance as a starter this would be a big negative for Crowell, as both C.J. Anderson and Lamar Miller saw severe drop-offs in both receptions and yards-per-catch when Osweiler took over as the starter. Later in the season, it is likely that the Browns will turn to DeShone Kizer completed just 21 passes to running backs last season and has a tendency to throw the ball deep even when a receiver is not open. Crowell simply has too much risk for where he is currently being drafted to deal with the week to week volatility.