What's Going to Happen in the Cleveland Backfield? - Footballguys

The Footballguys staff offers thoughts on the Cleveland running back situation

Cleveland has one of many backfields where the roles are not clearly defined. Since running back is one of the most important positions in fantasy football, it's wise to get as clear a picture as possible on every backfield.

Early in free agency, Cleveland signed Carlos Hyde to fill the hole left when Isaiah Crowell departed. Hyde's role was unclear through much of the run-up to the 2018 NFL Draft as Saquon Barkley was commonly thought of as a target of the Browns. When Cleveland passed on Barkley, Hyde's stock soared. That excitement was dampened when Nick Chubb was selected in Round 2. How do these two back co-exist? What kind of split is expected? Also, will Duke Johnson Jr still be their primary third-down weapon out of the backfield? Everyone expects improvement from the Cleveland offense, but can these three backs all be viable fantasy options?

Jason Wood: Our Sigmund Bloom used to be fond of saying talent wins out in rookie drafts. But in recent years he's acquiesced a bit and started weighing fit, too. I've always felt fit and role were critical, and that's why Nick Chubb's landing in Cleveland was so disheartening.

After the draft, I suspected Duke Johnson Jr could be the odd man out. A talented receiver, the new Browns regime could view Hyde as a veteran insurance policy and Chubb as the 3-down centerpiece of a rebuilding offense. Unfortunately, Johnson signed a 3-year, $15mm extension in June which makes it clear the team has plans for Johnson in 2018 and beyond.

With Johnson armed with an extension, his role as the main receiving back would seemingly be intact. Which makes Hyde and Chubb in a battle for 1st and 2nd downs, on a team that has far too much hype surrounding it. There is no way Jarvis Landry, Josh Gordon, Tyrod Taylor, Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson Jr, and Nick Chubb all produce enough this year to justify their respective ADPs. Something has to give.

Daniel Simpkins: I don't think people really know what they are looking at with Nick Chubb. He has all the best aspects of both Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson Jr wrapped up into one total package. He's a great receiver like Johnson and a fantastic between-the-tackles option just as Hyde is. When you can deploy a player with dual ability and the defense can't predict what you are going to do based on your personnel, doesn't it make sense to use that player over guys who do one thing well and telegraph your intentions? New offensive coordinator Todd Haley had a back like that in Pittsburgh in Le'Veon Bell. I think he's smart enough to understand what he has here in Nick Chubb and ride him. If they want to win more than one game this year, they'll go to Chubb sooner rather than later.

Devin Knotts: Jason and Daniel, I wouldn't be so sure that Chubb is a three-down back. He wasn't used on third downs at Georgia and he only caught 13 total passes in his final three years at Georgia. Sony Michel played more of the receiving role at Georgia.

Duke's role is going to be diminished solely because they have more weapons in the addition of Jarvis Landry, Josh Gordon's return, and David Njoku's potential emergence.

Regarding Hyde/Chubb, for 2018 I think Chubb will be the lead guy, but the Browns have a tendency to completely abandon the run in the second half when they're losing as Isaiah Crowell had just 21 carries in the fourth quarter of games last season.

The Browns have very little committed to Hyde and realistically can release him after this season as his contract escalates after this year. This makes me think he's more of an insurance policy for both Chubb and Duke as Hyde is reliable in the passing game.

Justin Howe: I can't get the slightest bit excited over Carlos Hyde. He's an oft-injured, one-dimensional back who never seemed to fit in a 49ers offense desperate for some kind of an engine. Kyle Shanahan clearly didn't value him too highly, even before letting him walk; the team shifted into a two-man attack with Matt Breida down the 2017 stretch. Hyde overjoyed his long-suffering fan club last year with 59 receptions, but I'm not expecting him to ever sniff that kind of versatility again - and certainly not to usurp Duke Johnson Jr on passing downs. Hyde is a disaster in the passing game; he's never averaged more than 6.0 yards per reception, and last year he dropped more passes than any other running back in the league.

I fully expect Hyde to cede most early-down work to Nick Chubb, maybe by the start of the season. Chubb isn't an elite prospect - he's not fast, and he doesn't catch passes. But he does possess active, Jerome Bettis-like feet on the interior, and his power is impressive. He looks a lot more like a dependable, ball-control runner than the limited, oft-injured Hyde. And while Hyde got guaranteed money, Chubb pulled solid draft capital of his own (an early second-round pick). Chubb doesn't ooze upside like some of his rookie counterparts, but his path to workhorse (and fantasy RB2) status is clearer to me than to most right now. It wouldn't be an upset at all to see him threaten 1,000 yards and 7-9 touchdowns.

Still, neither lead runner has any clarity right now. The only one we can project with any safety is Duke Johnson Jr, and he's a screaming value in PPR leagues. Upside-minded drafters are consistently opting for guys like Chubb, Hyde, Ronald Jones, Kerryon Johnson, and a host of other youngsters. Volume-minded guys are laying up with C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Williams. But Johnson is just one-year removed from a PPR RB11 finish, and his role doesn't appear threatened. Even a moderate drop-off leaves him squarely on the RB2/flex radar on most weeks - and one of Hyde and Chubb won't be able to claim that by Week 2 or so.

Matt Waldman: There are some important points raised in this conversation. Depending on what you believe about running back play -- and especially running back evaluation - some of these points need to be challenged. Mainly that Chubb isn't an elite prospect, isn't fast, doesn't play on third down, and doesn't catch passes.

Some still live in a world where Atari owns the video game market, Members Only jackets are the epitome of male style, and sub-4.5, 40 times are an essential metric for running back prospects. Acceleration, stop-start quickness, and measures of short-area explosion are far more important athletic measurements for running backs -- and even wide receivers, but that is a subject for another time.

Unless you're measuring running backs who will run toss plays unchallenged to the edge and can guarantee that will happen at an unprecedented rate, speed without any stop-start or change of direction is about as important as defining a writer's skill based on his ability to complete a crossword puzzle. Every running back I've seen in the NFL has to contend with offensive linemen and 11 defenders who force them to vary their stride pace, stride length, change direction, and sometimes stop their feet entirely. The backs who are really good at this tend to be the best runners.

It is important to note that a 4.52-second 40, which Chubb ran, isn't sub-par speed for a top running back at all. A runner with this speed not only maintains separation from most defensive backs once he's reached top speed, he even pulls away from some of these players.

More important is 20-shuttle and 3-Cone times. Vertical leap is also a good indicator of explosive muscle behavior. In these areas, Chubb posted excellent results. His 20-shuttle -- a strong indicator of acceleration, which is far more important than 40-time -- is only 1/100th of a second slower than Saquon Barkley. His vertical is an impressive 38.5 inches. Chubb is only six pounds lighter than Barkley.

Barkley grew and worked his way into becoming this caliber of athlete during his collegiate career. Chubb's metrics are slightly lower than they were when he began college because of a knee injury suffered two years ago. In other words, Barkley recently developed into a freakish athlete; Chubb was one in high school and despite the injury, is still not far from Barkley.

Chubb is still fast and still has elite quickness. Todd Haley, who has worked with a couple of elite running backs like Le'Veon Bell and Jamaal Charles, got to speak with Chubb during the draft-day phone call. The first thing he said he told Chubb was, and I'm paraphrasing, you know that I like backs who can take it the distance from anywhere? You're my type of back.

As for his third-down usage and pass catching, this characterization is based on quantity rather than quality. If you watch Chubb during his freshman year at Georgia, you'd see him targeted on short and intermediate passes that required him to make plays against tight coverage, with his back to the passer, and using his hands to secure the ball.

The reason he wasn't used as often on passing downs has more to do with Georgia's desire to use all of its running back depth chart so they would remain with the team. Sony Michel is an excellent back in his own right and the Georgia staff used each back to his greatest strengths. Unfortunately, people conflate the idea that if Michel is strong as a pass receiver that Chubb is weak, instead of the more accurate take that Michel was a better fit for the role.

Michel and Barkley were the two best pass protectors in the class. However, Chubb is not far away. This is where folks judging players based on volume can miss important details of actual skills that show up on tape -- even if the exposures are enough to make the box score scouting look reliable. Moreover, Chubb's understanding of blocking schemes and footwork that shows up in the real world of the football field is better than any back in this class.

These types of characterizations are common to at least 1-2 excellent runners who were teammates with other top backs. Miami had depth charts where Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, and Frank Gore overlapped. Garrison Hearst and Terrell Davis had overlap. Joe Cribbs was the reason William Andrews -- the only player Walter Payton said he would ever be a fullback for --played fullback at Auburn. Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown were another tandem.

So let's not write off Chubb as a plodder who can only function on two-downs, when the evidence is to the contrary. While likely that Chubb will have to begin in a three-way committee this year, we know Hyde's contract is friendly for the Browns to get rid of him.

Johnson gives Cleveland a player who can work the slot and deliver from the backfield. While unlikely that Chubb will earn a feature role as the every-down option for the next two seasons, I wouldn't call this situation a death knell to the future possibility.

The safest way to invest in this backfield is a selection of Johnson. The upside pick is Chubb. Let's remember that the Bills had a terrific rushing attack in 2015-2016 and the reasons had has much to do with Tyrod Taylor and scheme design as it did LeSean McCoy. Taylor led a triple-option attack in Buffalo that forced opponents to honor Taylor's legs and open creases for McCoy that would otherwise be closed off.

Expect Todd Haley to use Taylor on boots and various option plays that force the defense to slow its pursuit to the running back due to the potential of Taylor gashing them when he keeps the ball. DeShone Kizer was a mobile quarterback but not nearly on the same level as Taylor. Let's not forget Taylor's low-turnover style and veteran ability to get the Browns into ideal plays based on pre-snap looks that Kizer wasn't as capable of doing.

Even without Joe Thomas, this ground game should improve with Taylor under center. If Chubb earns the job outright this summer, you'll have to elevate him and I'd expect top-15 production from both Chubb and Johnson if that happens.

If not, expect Chubb to gradually earn more playing time until he becomes a viable fantasy starter during the final four to six weeks of the season.

Andy Hicks: The Cleveland Browns have an abundance of talent at the running back position this year, which makes analyzing the situation tricky for fantasy situations. Both Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson Jr were signed for three years, but Cleveland can get rid of one or both without massive damage to their cap for 2019. For the 2020 season, I would be surprised if both these guys were still on the roster. That leaves the rookie Nick Chubb who had such a high pick invested in him. I would be very surprised, given where the Browns are and what they are building that Chubb is thrown in straight away. Hyde is an NFL quality starting back and Duke Johnson Jr is such an excellent option in his role. If we look at how Tennessee has handled Derrick Henry, we can expect to see similar with Chubb in Cleveland. The wildcard is how quickly Chubb becomes ready to take on a full load. Most rookies take a little while and if the Browns are patient we won’t see the rookie in full flight until the 2019 season at the earliest. If however, he is clearly the best back by a significant margin, it may come earlier.

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