Cleveland Browns battle royale shaping up at backup running back

The Cleveland Browns have had very good performances from D’Ernest Johnson at backup running back, but they drafted a potential replacement in Demetric Felton and have a few other options. 

The Cleveland Browns roster at running back was thought to be stable as of last month with headliners Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt sharing the heavy lifting and D’Ernest Johnson serving as their backup. Andy Janovich is the fourth back, used mainly as a blocking back.

The calculus has been upset with the arrival of Demetric Felton, who led the UCLA Bruins with 668 rushing yards after having played wide receiver for the three previous years. In addition, the Browns have veteran John Kelly, the former Ram and Tennessee Volunteer on the roster as well as rookie Tre Harbison from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte both contending for what is probably the final running back position on the roster.

However, at times last season, the Browns had five running backs on the active roster, so a sufficiently impressive showing might persuade management to overbook the running back room.

D’Ernest Johnson does not seem to require replacing. Johnson came to the Browns after having been one of the top rushers in the ill-fated Alliance of American Football (AAF) in 2019 with 372 yards and 5.81 yards per carry.

For the Browns, he doesn’t get too much playing time with two Pro Bowl talents in front of him but nevertheless, he has 5.1 yards per carry for his Cleveland career on 187 rushing yards and 81.8 catch percentage. He has also returned punts and kickoffs, with 4.4 yards per punt return and 25.3 yards per kickoff return. What more would we want the third-string running back to do?

For what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus grades DEJ nearly identical to Zeke Elliott of the Cowboys. That doesn’t mean that the two players are equivalent because Elliott is the bell cow in Dallas and thus is asked to do more.

Elliott also doesn’t get as much help from his pathetic offensive line, and that hurts his grade based on the way PFF grades. Yet old Zeke’s cap number is $13.7 mil, fully guaranteed, and D’Ernest is sitting at $850 K, zero guaranteed. Nobody is saying D’Ernest is just as good as Zeke. After all, D’Ernest has very few game reps, while Elliott is the bell cow back for the Cowboys. However, replacing D’Ernest is not exactly a high priority.

The Browns probably selected Demetric Felton on the grounds that he was the best athlete available, not because they were dying to replace Johnson, or that they had to have a hybrid slot receiver to baffle and amaze the Steeler defense. Cleveland has a full wide receiver room, too, especially if they intend to keep 3rd Round draft choice from Auburn, speedy wide receiver Anthony Schwartz.

Still, maybe the Browns have something in Felton. Tony Pauline at Profootballnetwork.com was very high on him. While acknowledging that some of his Pro Day scores were rather ho-hum, he views the ability to catch passes as a crucial advantage for becoming a third-down niche back in the NFL.

Pauline doesn’t view the 5-foot-nine-inch, 189-pound Felton as an every-down back, but does see a re-emerging trend in today’s NFL for the pass-catching third-down back. To paraphrase, in this area of the draft Pauline likes backs that have very good pass-catching skills for third-down passing situations rather than a backup who can do more things but is not an outstanding pass catcher. Felton is going to be asked to make his living outside of the tackles

“[Demetric Felton] lined up at both running back and wide receiver during Senior Bowl practices. Explosive ball carrier with a variety of ability. Patient, waits for blocks to develop, and plays much faster than his 40 time.” —  Tony Pauline at Profootballnetwork.com

If at the end of training camp the Browns decide to Keep Johnson, Felton is eligible for the practice squad. However, the Browns cannot simply assign Felton to the practice squad. They have to expose him to waivers first. Any team can claim him, and thus it seems doubtful that the Browns can sneak a sixth-round pick through waivers.

No, if they like Felton, they better carve out a roster spot for him. Just within the AFC North, both the Bengals and Steels lack depth at the position and would be likely to claim anyone who can play.

What about keeping four running backs and a fullback on the roster? At times last season, the Browns had both Johnson and Dontrell Hilliard as backups to Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt while also keeping fullback Andy Janovich. That gave them five backs on the active roster.

They did that by trying to hide third-string quarterback Garrett Gilbert on the practice squad, but he was eventually picked off by the Dallas Cowboys. That was probably a mistake, especially because they wound up waiving Hilliard anyway when they needed his roster spot in December. They also juggled the extra tight end slot (David Njoku temporarily going on IR) and took a chance with only eight offensive linemen.

It helped that Chris Hubbard can play tackle, guard, and center. The point is, yes, they could keep five running backs on the active roster, and in fact, they made it work for a while last season. But it requires a bit of finagling.

Former Tennessee Volunteer John Kelly came to the Browns after being waived by the Los Angeles Rams. He has not had many game reps, and his grades have been barely passable. Lifetime, he has only 74 yards rushing, 2.8 yards per attempt. His major contribution with the Los Angeles Rams was on special teams, with 85 special teams snaps to his credit. He is going to have to show that he has made dramatic improvement over his first three years in the league, or he will not make it with the Browns, either.

Undrafted free agent Tre Harbison III did not quite set the world on fire with a Pro Day 40-yard dash time of 4.62. Of course, whenever somebody runs 4.62, you can always point out that Emmitt Smith was supposed to have run 4.7 at the Combine, though he ran faster at his Pro Day, and apparently could run faster still if someone were chasing him. D’Ernest Johnson’s times were measured on a sundial, by the way, so by no means is Harbison disqualified.

Harbison had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons at Northern Illinois University in the Mid America Conference before graduating and transferring to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Likely Demetric Felton has the inside track on a roster spot, because he is younger and has a small guarantee on his contract. That is the reason this fan was opposed to drafting a running back in the sixth round. Nothing against Felton, but if it means D’Ernest Johnson goes on waivers, some other team is going to pick up a pretty good player. The Bengals would be a great match, in fact.

Because the sixth-round contract is partially guaranteed, the salary situation will cause the Browns to favor the rookie over Johnson, essentially penalizing the Browns if they cut Felton. Here are the financial implications of some of the main options as they are now laid out:

D’Ernest Johnson, 2021 salary  $850,000,    Zero         guaranteed  2022 RFA

Demetric Felton,  2021 salary  $700,286,    $161,144 guaranteed   2025 RFA

Scenario 1:  Keep Felton, Waive Johnson:  Browns Pay $700,286

Scenario 2:  Keep Johnson, Waive Felton:  Browns pay $850,000 + $161,144 = $1,011,144

Scenario 2 Percentage difference:  44% higher 

Scenario 3:  Keep Harbison, Waive Felton:  Browns pay $660,000+161,144 =     $821,144

Scenario 3:  Percentage difference:  17% higher

John Kelly’s numbers are the same as Johnson’s.

Thus, the Browns are incentivized to waive D’Ernest Johnson because of the way that the contracts are set up. Simply because I would prefer not to risk seeing him in a Bengals’ uniform, I would have recommended not drafting a running back in that round, had Mr. Berry sought my opinion.

If Demetric Felton’s number had come up, I would have traded the pick for a 2022 draft pick, or perhaps drafted a competitor for kicker Cody Parkey. However, Mr. Berry did not ask me for my opinion, unfortunately.