The Cleveland Browns have four good running backs and might keep all four. There’s plenty of work to be done.
The Cleveland Browns do not have a two-headed monster at running back with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, nor do they have a three-headed monster with D’Ernest Johnson added to the mix. They have a four-headed monster because Demetric Felton is a pretty good change-of-pace back who can also play slot receiver.
Below are some basic stats from the running back room. In addition to the usual ones (from Pro Football Reference), DPD lists the total snaps that each back was on the field for, plus total yards from scrimmage per snap.
A totally new stat is an extrapolated stat, total yards for scrimmage per 500 snaps. This stat asks the question, assuming the back could hold up for 500 snaps and play at the same level, how many yards from scrimmage would result? Devonta Freeman’s 501 snaps on offense in 2021 was good for 22nd among running backs, to give you some idea of how many that represents.
Hence for rookie Demetric Felton, who actually played only 130 snaps, it represents a major extrapolation, but for Nick Chubb, with 482, it was about the right number.
Player Snaps Att Yds Tgt Rec Yds RRTD Ctch% YScm TYFS/snap TYFS/500
Demetric Felton 130 7 24 21 18 181 2 85.7% 205 1.58 788
Kareem Hunt 234 78 386 27 22 174 5 81.5% 560 2.39 1197
D’Ernest Johnson 331 100 534 25 19 137 3 76.0% 671 2.03 1014
Nick Chubb* 482 228 1259 25 20 174 9 80.0% 1433 2.97 1487
Total snaps 1177 413 2203 98 79 666 19 80.6% 2869 2.44 1219
Some fans may feel that the running back room is too crowded and the Browns definitely need to trade someone to create playing time for someone else.
That is a fictitious problem. Before talking about the rushing workload, let’s consider that the Fab Four were targeted 98 times total. However, down the road in Pittsburgh, Najee Harris was targeted 94 times all by himself. The Browns backs collectively had a better catch percentage (80.6% to 78.7% for Harris) and gained more yardage (666 receiving yards compared to 467 receiving yards for Harris).
It’s not like the Browns wide receiving corps was setting the world on fire last season, so what was the problem with using the running backs as receivers? The numbers prove that the running backs were all studs compared to the wideouts. Much ado was made about the lack of chemistry between Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham, Jr. But equally inexplicable was the failure of Mayfield to throw to Nick Chubb.
Was it part of the game plan to avoid throwing the ball to Nick Chubb each week? The average reward for targeting Nick Chubb was a completion percentage of 80% of the time and an average gain of 6.96 yards per attempt (that is per attempt, not per completion). Was there something wrong with that? Apparently so, because Mayfield seemed loathe to ever try it.
No one is saying that our rookie Demetric Felton is comparable to Steeler rookie Najee Harris, who was a true workhorse with an amazing 980 snaps and1,667 yards in for 1.70 TYFS per snap. Harris would also have been more productive playing behind Cleveland’s offensive line. Nevertheless, Felton produced yards at a decent rate when he was on the field. 1.58 TYFS/snap and 788 yards per 500 snaps were more than adequate when he had the opportunity to play.
Again, no one is saying that they are comparable players, but the numbers do say that the production was there to justify a role for Felton as a third-down, situational back. The other three guys in the running back room were even more productive than Harris, and of course Chubb earned his third straight trip to the Pro Bowl last season. Hunt was a Pro Bowler in 2017. Johnson was not at that level but was nevertheless very productive when called upon.
Browns running backs should have led the NFL in total yards from scrimmage, especially with the quarterback having an off-year. That implies a number significantly higher than 3,000 yards. It shouldn’t matter whether the job gets done via rushing yards or receiving yards, just make the yards whatever way that works. It also means that the team has to quit throwing lame passes to wide receivers who can’t catch the ball or who can’t get enough yards to move the chains.
The Browns had that strong running back corps in 2021 and that weak wide receiver group, but would not admit it. They wanted to throw the ball all day long to Jarvis Landry and Austin Hooper and win through the air, but it just did not happen the they wanted.
It also needs to be asked whether Felton should stay at running back or moved into the slot. With a catch percentage of 85.7%, almost everything they threw to him was caught, so why not throw a few more balls to him? Felton did not have the opportunity to move into the slot while Jarvis Landry was on the team, because that was Landry’s best role. However, moving running backs, and specifically, Felton and Kareem Hunt, into the slot receiver role is very realistic now.
Nor did the Browns run the ball as often as they should have in 2021. Their run/pass ratio was actually higher in 2020, despite having a viable Mayfield in 2020 and a much less effective version in 2021. One of the most disappointing games was the Arizona game, in which Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were both injured. Rather than letting D’Ernest Johnson play, the coaching staff played Hunt even though his calf injury had not fully healed.
Of course, he aggravated the injury and missed more time. Apparently, the coaching staff was not sold on Johnson at that point, and were afraid to play him, even in garbage time. That was a huge error in judgment, and it cost the team. When he gained 146 rushing yards versus Denver, it was like, duh, maybe he can play!
From then on, the coaching staff was less bashful about using him. Felton, by the way, tacked on an additional 13 yards in two carries that game, and practice squad back John Kelly turned in an identical stat line just to underscore the point.
However, by far the most disappointing game of the season came against Green Bay, when the Brown ran the ball only 25 times versus 36 pass attempts and five sacks, or 41% rush attempts. The Browns averaged 8.8 yards per carry but were intimidated into not running the ball more often. Green Bay fans were silently offering prayers of thanks to the Cheesehead in the sky that the Browns could be that dumb. If that is not the definition of a dysfunctional offense, it will do until a better one comes along.
The point is that the Browns had plenty of unused carries and pass receptions from their running backs that they chose to not take advantage of in 2021. That was dumb, and it cost them. They should be receptive to increasing the rush attempts and pass targets for their running backs.
There’s no reason to consider getting rid of players due to some imaginary excess. The Browns needed more carries last season, not fewer, and they definitely needed more catches out of the backfield, not fewer.
If the Browns need a replacement for Jarvis Landry, and right now it appears that they do, they could start by planning for about 500 additional snaps from a combination of Kareem Hunt and Demetric Felton in the slot. If Chubb is allowed to catch passes again, That would yield an additional 60 catches and 600 receiving yards between the three of them.
There is zero need to get rid of a running back just to get rid of a running back. Does the addition-by-subtraction plan for improving the team make sense to anyone? That’s not to say that the Browns would not listen to a deal for Hunt. But it had better be a very nice deal, with a big fat juicy draft pick.
With the talent they have on the current roster, the Browns could run the ball about 55% of the time. If they did that, they would have more overall yardage and touchdowns because their passing game was poor last season. If Hunt and Felton get additional time in the slot this season, they could easily generate additional pass receptions.
Chubb should be able to double his receptions just be having a quarterback who does not have a paranoid agenda to avoid throwing to him.