By: Jake Leicht
Last season, the Cleveland Browns’ running attack was pedestrian. The fact of the matter was that they had a solid offensive line, but their running backs were not producing like they should have been. Isaiah Crowell was given the majority of the teams’ carries after his 952 rushing yards in 2016. The Browns’ started the 24 year old in all 16 games last season. He ended up being the 19th leading rusher in the NFL. The Browns gave Crowell 206 touches, and he responded by rushing for 853 yards on the ground but only 2 touchdowns. Crowell was in the last year of his rookie contract, and the Browns’ decided to let him sign with the New York Jets without making him an offer.
The Browns responded by signing the talented, but injury-prone, Carlos Hyde to a 3 year, $15.25 million deal. They structured the deal so that it was essentially a 1 year deal worth about $5.5 million. The Browns added Hyde to their running back depth chart that already included their stud receiving back, Duke Johnson. Johnson was on the field mostly during passing situations, but he did register 82 rushing attempts for 348 yards. He also led the team with 4 touchdowns on the ground. As if adding Carlos Hyde was not enough, the Browns also drafted University of Georgia standout Nick Chubb with the 35th pick of the draft.
With so many talented options, fantasy owners everywhere are trying to figure out which player(s) the Browns will use the most. Each of the three running backs (Hyde, Chubb, and Johnson) have their strengths and weaknesses. By understanding each player, and the Browns’ running system, I believe we as a fantasy community can make an educated guess as to which player(s) will be most useful to us next season.
Carlos Hyde will be entering his 5th season in the league this fall. Over his 4 year career in San Francisco, Hyde attained 2,729 yards on the ground and 21 touchdowns on 655 total carries. Injuries have really been a detriment to Hyde. Over his first 3 seasons, he only started 20 of the possible 48 games over that stretch of time. Hyde has had various injuries to his knees, ankles, and shoulders. According to the Sports Injury Predictor, he is considered a “High Risk” for injury this year. Hyde did manage to start all 16 games last season while ending the year with the 13th best rushing yard total in the league. He did only rush for 938 yards, only 85 yards better than former Cleveland starter, Isaiah Crowell.
After the Browns signed Hyde on the first day of free agency this past offseason, many fantasy owners probably assumed that he would be the starter this season. Hyde has the ability to make defenders miss tackles with his agility while also having the ability to run them over as well. His rare combination of size and speed made him an intriguing fantasy option for the upcoming season.
Then the Browns drafted Nick Chubb. Hyde will compete with Chubb for 1st and 2nd down carries this season. With Duke Johnson cemented as the team’s primary 3rd down back, Hyde will probably not come close to the 59 receptions that he had last season. If Hyde could beat out Chubb for 1st and 2nd down carries, and Duke Johnson were to get hurt, he could be one of the top 10 to 15 running back options in fantasy.
Those are some major ifs though. The Browns basically gave Hyde a 1 year deal. If he does not separate himself from Chubb early in training camp, Cleveland may just let the rookie take the job from him altogether. Hyde has a high ceiling in terms of production, but he also has a very low floor.
Nick Chubb is the most interesting running back option for the Cleveland Browns. He is interesting compared to Hyde and Johnson, mostly because fantasy owners know exactly who those players are. Owners know that Hyde will probably start out the season as the primary 1st and 2nd down back and end up with around 6 touchdowns based on his previous resume. Duke Johnson will be the team’s primary 3rd down back, and he will have more targets in the air than he will rushing attempts. The question is, what will Nick Chubb’s role be?
Coming out of the University of Georgia, Nick Chubb left the school having the second most rushing yards in SEC history to Herschel Walker. That is a pretty solid career. Coming into the draft, Chubb graded out as a runner with great vision and balance. He is not the quickest athlete, as he ran a 4.52 40-yard dash at the Combine. The fact of the matter is that Chubb runs angry. In an ideal world, he would overtake Carlos Hyde as the team’s primary running back at some point this season. He could even start the year as the team’s goal line back. At the same time, the Browns may want to ease him into carries, especially because they did just pay Hyde $5 million this offseason.
Here is why Chubb could get a ton of carries early and often: Todd Haley. He runs with balance and vision, as I previously stated. With Todd Haley now calling the plays, his offense revolves around running backs that thrive with quick cuts. Chubb does not have the same skill level as Le’Veon Bell, but his vision is special. Hyde is more of a thumper at running back that simply moves forward, whereas Chubb can make a defender miss at the line of scrimmage. I could see Haley falling in love with his versatility in the running game.
One problem that I have with the rookie is whether or not he can be effective out of the backfield in the receiving game. Chubb only had 31 catches over his 4 seasons at Georgia. That is obviously not what fantasy owners in a PPR league are looking for in a running back prospect. If something were to happen to Duke Johnson, I would say that Hyde would be much more likely to take over 3rd down duties than Chubb. That does put a cap on his potential for the upcoming season.
I believe that the Georgia product will have much more value in a standard scoring league during his rookie season. His nose for the end zone will probably translate very well to the NFL. Even if he were to take over the starting running back position from Hyde, he would not get too many catches out of the back field, so if I were in a PPR league I would definitely slide him down my draft board. In a dynasty league, I would have Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice rated above him, but I do think he has more potential than a guy like Rashaad Penny. I could see Nick Chubb being a later round pick on a lot of my teams for the upcoming season.
It might not be fair to put Duke Johnson in the same category as Hyde and Chubb. I cannot see any situation where the Browns would ask Johnson to get more than 70 carries this season. He is not a true running back that can run effectively between the tackles for an extended period of time. I do love him, being a Cleveland Browns’ fan myself. Duke has some dog in him. He is mean, and he has a nose for the first down marker on a game-by-game basis. Johnson is one of the best third down running backs in the league, and he has shown the ability to play the slot in early down situations as well.
Duke is a great option in a PPR league. Over his first 3 years in the league, he has averaged 80 targets a year, including 93 targets last year. Duke has caught 188 of his possible 241 targets, which is a staggering 78% catch percentage. When you consider that the Browns’ quarterback situation has been a dumpster fire since Johnson has been in the league, I actually think his receiving numbers could go up this year with Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield in the fold. The Browns did just give Duke a 3 year, $15.6 million deal this offseason, so I would not be shocked to see Todd Haley use him in a multitude of ways this year.
Of all of the Browns’ running backs on the depth chart, Duke Johnson is the guy with the most predictable role on the team. We have no clue who will start the season as the primary ball carrier between Hyde and Chubb (I would guess Hyde), but we do know that Duke will get plenty of touches to be an effective player on fantasy teams everywhere playing in a PPR league. The problem is that he is definitely not as valuable in a standard league. He averages 3 touchdowns a year, and that includes the 7 touchdowns that he had last year. Duke had 4 rushing touchdowns last year because of the team’s lack of a goal line back. Now that Chubb is in the fold, I have a hard time believing Duke gets those goal line opportunities.
How I Rank Them
Based on the information that I have gathered from sources close to the Browns’ OTAs and the players’ skills, here is how I would rank Hyde, Chubb, and Johnson in the various types of fantasy football scoring leagues.
Standard Scoring- Hyde, Johnson, Chubb
.5 PPR Scoring- Johnson, Hyde, Chubb
Full PPR Scoring- Johnson, Hyde, Chubb
If Hyde was to get hurt, which is a distinct possibility due to his injury history, Nick Chubb would jump to my number one spot in each of the scoring leagues. Again, Chubb has the most potential. Duke is the safest bet to give you a positive return on your investment. Hyde is the biggest wildcard due to his contract and inability to stay on the field on a year-to-year basis.