PFF ranks Browns backfield in the middle of the pack

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 27: Duke Johnson /

The Cleveland Browns backfield may not be very high in Pro Football Focus’ preseason rankings, but they have the potential to change all that.

The Cleveland Browns were a bit of a mess on offense during the 2016 season.

But one area where the team excelled was in the running game, which finished second in the NFL with an average of 4.9 yards per carry, the highest total for the franchise in 50 years.

It may be a hard concept to grasp for some, but the Browns were effective in running the ball when they chose to do so last season. It wasn’t readily apparent, however, because the Browns trailed so often that head coach Hue Jackson was unable (or unwilling) to commit to the run.

Related: Browns rushing average hits 50-year high

That’s why it is somewhat fair that Pro Football Focus has Cleveland’s backfield in the middle of the pack in their position rankings, with the Browns checking in at No. 15:

"The backfield duo of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson should provide HC Hue Jackson with plenty of options as Crowell had a mini breakout 2016 and Johnson has established himself as an up-and-coming receiving back. Crowell started 2016 on a tear as he sported an impressive 69.8 elusive rating forcing 15 missed tackles on 81 touches while averaging 3.77 yards per carry after contact. He regressed as the Browns went pass-happy when trailing most of the season, but still finished the season with the league’s best breakaway percentage as he gained 47.5 percent of his yards on 15 or more yard runs. Johnson averaged the third most yards per route run at 1.86 and sported a 72.5 elusive rating as he forced 34 missed tackles on just 126 touches, including the second most (21) in the receiving game."

The Browns do have a few things going for them heading into 2017, meaning that, when all is said and done, that position ranking may very well be much higher.

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First off, the team has rebuilt the defense extensively, starting with new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who brings a much-needed approach to town. The draft also brought first-round selections Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers, and the defense will have Jamie Collins for an entire season.

The Browns also rebuilt the offensive line – no more Cameron Erving at center is a win on all counts – with J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler joining incumbents Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio to create what may be one of the league’s best units.

The quarterback position may still be in flux as Jackson sorts through Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler and DeShone Kizer, but it is unquestionably better than last season, which can only help the run game.

Finally, running back Isaiah Crowell is in a contract year and will be looking to put up the kind of big numbers that result in a big payday, and Duke Johnson is a bit underrated as a runner even though he averaged almost five yards per carry last season. (And for a little guy he packs a mean stiff arm.)

The potential is certainly there for the running game to succeed, and it all sounds good on a late day in July. But no one knows for sure if Jackson will stick with the run when things start to go south come the fall.

Next: PFF taps offensive line as NFL's second best

But if he does, Browns fans shouldn’t be surprised if come the end of the season the team puts up another top rushing year.