Browns need to find a way to utilize running backs in the passing game

Dec 11, 2022; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) catches the pass
Dec 11, 2022; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) catches the pass / Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Especially with Kareem Hunt gone, the Cleveland Browns will need more pass receptions from Nick Chubb, Jerome Ford, and others to pick up the slack.

For the past few years, the Cleveland Browns have had a distinct division of labor, in which Kareem Hunt was the pass-catching back and Nick Chubb was the ground guy, but that arrangement is gone. Hunt didn't have a good year in 2022 anyway, and he is gone now.

Baker Mayfield almost totally ignored Chubb in Kevin Stefanski's offense, averaging 21.5 targets per season in 2021-22. He had 37 targets and 27 catches last season, which is still a rather low total for an NFL running back. Chubb netted 239 yards or 6.46 yards per target. Though the usual stat is yards per reception, yards per target is what we really want to know, as it compares directly to yards per carry on rushing plays.

Hunt, on the other hand, was targeted 44 times in 2022 and caught 35 balls, but netted only 210 receiving yards or 4.77 yards per target. Statistically, the Browns were better off running the ball rather than throwing it to Hunt last year. That part of their offense was just not working.

Traditionally, Browns football is based on the run and fans love to Chubb do his thing. But what really matters is yards from scrimmage, regardless of whether they are gained through the air or on the ground.

Remember back in 2018, when the Browns had Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde? They weren't really that good, and Nick Chubb ultimately replaced them. Well, they eventually both found their way to the Houston Texans and played with Deshaun Watson in Bill O'Brien's offense. You will be amazed to learn that Johnson and Hyde combined for nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage (1,932, to be precise) playing with Watson. Johnson, in particular, had 62 targets and 44 catches for 410 receiving yards, or 6.61 yards per target.

So many Watson plays began with the appearance of a run, either a true handoff or fake handoff followed by Watson's ability to throw on the run, coupled with the threat to dump the ball off to a running back or throw a screen in a two-back formation.

As a result, he often had wide receivers in single coverage and the deep ball was available. Say what you want about Bill O'Brien the general manager, but he drew up an offensive system that worked for Watson. Do similar elements exist on the 2023 Browns roster?

It's heretical to suggest that the Browns should throw the ball to Chubb, but his career catch percentage is a healthy 75.3 percent, and the Browns make more yards by targeting him in the air than by feeding him on the ground (6.61 versus 5.05 last season). He will probably do even better now that he has more experience with Watson.

Why gain 5.05 yards when you could gain 6.61 yards? The numbers say that throwing the ball to Chubb is a better investment than handing the ball off to Chubb. Okay, situational football dictates running the ball on third and short and fourth and short — nobody's arguing against situational football — but in general, the dump pass and the screen pass are powerful weapons that could be utilized more in today's NFL.

So, while fans root for Chubb to achieve the rushing yards title as the greatest honor for a running back, maybe the TYFS (total yards from scrimmage) leader should be regarded as an even better honor. Plus honorable mention should be given to the most pancake blocks by a running back.

Perhaps Chubb has been held back in a way by having Hunt on the team, because the coaching staff tended to over-compartmentalize the two. Hunt could run, and Chubb could catch. However, neither was given the opportunity to be an all-around back, and that made both of them one-dimensional, to a degree. Defenses could key on the run versus Chubb, and look for the pass when Hunt was on the field.

Another obvious potential partial Hunt replacement is Jerome Ford, who was electrifying as a rookie kick returner but didn't get significant touches in the backfield. If he can field erratic twisting and turning NFL kickoffs, he should have no problem catching short spirals from Deshaun Watson and taking them upfield.

However, for whatever reason, Luke Fickell's UC Bearcats didn't have him do much of that in college. He had only 21 catches as a senior with Desmond Ritter running the offense. Still,'s scouting report in college claimed that he "makes catches well outside his frame." We have to think he can do this job.

Does RB3 Demetric Felton have a chance of being a contributor? He did a good job catching the ball in the chances he received, mainly in his rookie season of 2021, but he has put too many balls on the carpet in his brief career, five, to be exact.

Felton is listed at 190 pounds and his 4.58 Pro Day 40-yard dash time is okay for a slot receiver, but that combination is not exciting for a pass-catching running back. Undrafted free agents should look towards Cleveland because RB3 is makeable here if they don't draft a running back.

With Watson at quarterback, Cleveland should see more offensive yards than with Mayfield at quarterback. The pass/run ratio will increase. That's bad news for those who want to see Chubb carry the ball on every down.

However, in the absence of Hunt, Chubb might well set a new career high in pass receptions (he had 36 in 2019 for Freddie Kitchens), and total yards from scrimmage (1764), set last season. Prediction time — if Chubb sets a career-high in pass receptions in 2023, he will also set a new career high in TYFS. He will combine with Ford to create a new two-headed monster. Unlike previous years, both backs will be dual threats, accumulating yardage on the ground as well as via pass receptions.

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