Cleveland Browns: Nick Chubb’s role will change with new quarterback

Jul 29, 2021; Berea, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) catches a pass during training camp at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 29, 2021; Berea, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) catches a pass during training camp at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb may explode with a quarterback and offense that better uses his talents.

For those of us who have been saying the Cleveland Browns are Nick Chubb‘s team and not Baker Mayfield’s, that point appears to have been made and Chubb’s role is about to change, big time, for 2022. Cha-Ching!

Regardless of whether Deshaun Watson or Jacoby Brissett opens the season in 2022, effective immediately the Browns are going to stop ignoring Chubb as a receiving target — only 43 targets in two seasons, the lowest of any significant starting running back in the NFL.

Coach Kevin Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt have emphasized two-tight-end formations and two-back formations the past two seasons. These formations are generally very compatible with the running game featuring Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt as the tailback.

The original plan was for Austin Hooper to be the Pro Bowl tight end to clear the decks for Chubb and Hunt, with David Njoku as the second tight end, and Andy Janovich seeing time as the fullback. Cleveland’s monstrous offensive line was supposed to generate miles of yardage for both Chubb and Hunt, punctuated by occasional bursts from wide receivers Odell Beckham, Jr., Jarvis Landry, and Donovan Peoples-Jones.

In theory, the two-tight end offense is very cap friendly, because it is more affordable to pay star tight ends and fullbacks instead of wide receivers. However, the Browns’ version got wrapped around the axle last season.

They wound up with Hooper underperforming, and they still had too much money invested in their wide receivers — Landry and OBJ. Mayfield and OBJ could not get on the same page of the playbook, and eventually, OBJ wound up becoming a Los Angeles Ram, much to Mayfield’s humiliation.

OBJ definitely played poorly in Cleveland and needs to own much of that, but there is very little question that psychologically Mayfield had trouble sharing the spotlight with OBJ and found it difficult to let OBJ win games for the team.

Similarly, Mayfield was one of the most-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL last season on a per-snap basis but rarely used Nick Chubb as the hot receiver in the flat when pressured. Mayfield could throw to Hunt or backups Demetric Felton and D’Ernest Johnson, but most of the time he seemingly would rather take the sack rather than get yardage from Chubb, who caught 80 percent of the balls thrown to him last season.

Every quarterback has favorite receivers that they fall in love with, but Mayfield’s torrid love affairs with unproductive receivers Jarvis Landry and Austin Hooper, while ignoring his best receivers (especially Chubb and OBJ, but also Donovan Peoples-Jones and David Njoku) are probably the factors that weighed most heavily in the Browns’ decision to move away from Mayfield this season, in this writer’s opinion. Cleveland’s passing game was a soap opera that failed to distribute footballs to the best receivers who were the most open.

Making their biggest superstar, Nick  Chubb — the unquestioned best player on the offense — into a one-dimensional player who rarely caught passes is very unlikely to have been the idea of the coaching staff.

It’s hard to imagine coach Kevin Stefanski, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and the other coaches at the greaseboard at 76 Lou Groza Blvd, saying, “Gee we’ve given the defenses enough to worry about, so let’s take it easy on them and not throw the ball to Nick Chubb. What do you say, folks?”

No, this sounds more likely to have been the idea of the quarterback being more comfortable with his guys, namely Landry, Hooper, and Hunt when he was in the backfield. But the quarterback wanted to be the star of the team, not the halfback.

He only threw one TD pass to Nick Chubb in two seasons, and three to OBJ, all in 2020, none in 2021. By contrast, OBJ hauled in five TD catches for the Rams last season, and another two in the playoffs including one in the Super Bowl. How many did he catch for the Browns in the Super Bowl? Oh wait, that’s right! The Browns did not play in the Super Bowl last season. The brightest stars for the Browns simply did not shine brightly under the incumbent quarterback’s tenure last season.

The Browns still have a Hall of Fame running back, but this season they probably want 40 pass attempts per game.

How can they do that and still have 30 touches per game for the running backs? The easiest way is to actually throw the ball to the running backs, either via run/pass option (RPO), the screen or sending a running back into the slot or even split wide.

Kareem Hunt, Demetric Felton, and D’Ernest Johnson were already on Mayfield’s good list, so it is nigh time to add Chubb onto the list of approved Browns targets as well. Chubb, of course, is even more dangerous than the others, but worthless as a receiver if the quarterback does not throw the ball to him. That’s not unlikely to be the case in 2022. Chubb may not get quite as many carries in 2022, but he will get a few extra touches in the form of pass targets.

The four running backs should easily combine for 100 pass targets in 2022, putting them more in line with other stars in the smashmouth AFC North.

Najee Harris of the Steelers had 94 by himself in 2021, another reason why it was so pathetic that Mayfield could only target Chubb 25 times for 174 yards, an average of 6.96 yards per target. Harris compiled only 467 receiving yards, an average of only 4.97 yards per target, but he always showed up to bail out Big Ben Roethlisberger and led his team to the playoffs.

Chubb is a significantly better target than Joe Mixon of the Bengals, particularly when you account for who Chubb has blocking for him versus the 2021 Bengals line. No offense, but the patchwork Bengals line was definitely trying to get Joe Burrow killed. Even so, Mixon was targeted 48 times for 314 yards and averaged 6.54 yards per target. Both Pro Bowl backs should be good for 400 receiving yards at least in 2022.

Needless to say, having Amari Cooper in place of Jarvis Landry is going to really change the culture of the offense. The Browns way over-targeted Landry last season (87 targets in 533 targets, or one target every 6.13 snaps). By contrast, Cooper was targeted 104 times in 804 snaps, or once every 7.73 snaps.

Yet Landry was not producing many yards, and Cooper was much more productive. To wit, Landry produced 6.55 yards per target, while Cooper was much higher at 8.32 yards per target. Let that sink in. The Browns were targeting Landy way more frequently than the Cowboys were targeting Cooper, even though Landry was not catching enough footballs or making enough yards.

Nick Chubb, bless his heart, gained 6.96 yards per target, outperforming Landry as a receiver. At the same time, Mayfield was telling the press that he needed to have more Landry in the passing game. Rumor has it that that made Chomps hurl his dawg biscuits.

Chubb outgaining Landry on a per-snap basis just underscores the point that Chubb was an extremely valuable target through the air, and the Browns disinclination to use Chubb as a receiver made very little sense.

It’s hard to shake the notion that the 2021 Browns were involved in secondary agendas besides winning. Star players seemed to be more concerned with establishing brand identity and asserting who was going to be the alpha dawg of the team.

Mayfield and OBJ were certainly the strongest personalities on the team, but Chubb was the player with the greatest ability, and that may have caused jealousy which limited his opportunities to catch passes through the air.

For those who believe this is a ridiculous hypothesis (and it is rather ridiculous, but that does not mean it isn’t true), I’ll bet you lunch at Beavercreek Brown’s Backers that these weird statistical trends come to an immediate end, regardless of whether Deshaun Watson or Jacoby Brissett starts at quarterback.

Next. Why the Cleveland Browns should draft Christian Watson. dark

Zero TD passes in two years with Mayfield is a freaking joke. Look for Nick Chubb to start getting his fair of pass targets just as long as he is in the lineup. Chubb’s total yards from scrimmage, especially receiving yards, will increase, and he is going to catch a few TD passes this season.