Last year the Cleveland Browns went with a two-headed committee approach with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. Former Head Coach Mike Pettine didn’t think one back deserved the bulk of the carries which led to a frustrating situation in Cleveland for fantasy fans. There’s reason for optimism for next year’s running attack in Cleveland.
What they’re saying
Hue Jackson has made it clear that he likes Duke Johnson’s every-down potential.
“He has some hands,” Jackson told Cleveland Browns Daily. “He can catch with it, he can run with it, he’s a three-down back. He’ll protect, he’s exactly what you’re looking for.”
While Johnson has been gaining steady praise, Crowell has been criticized for his inconsistency.
“What I want him to understand he’s got to do that all the time. We’re not looking for some of the time. The big backs in this league, they’re able to produce all the time. That’s what my challenge would be to him. Let’s take it to the next level and be that player week in and week out.”
Remember that last thought from Hue Jackson later on. His thoughts aren’t unfounded.
Changes in Cleveland
One reason for optimism could come from their newest quarterback. Robert Griffin III has been a very positive influence on his running back’s performances in the past. Alfred Morris rushed for 4.73 yards per carry in his career with Griffin on the field. Without Griffin on the field, he has averaged 3.71 yards per carry. Crowell and Johnson’s value would receive a bump if Griffin can regain some of the running ability in the read-option that he possessed in Washington.
Another piece of good news for Crowell and Johnson is that Hue Jackson is Cleveland’s new head coach. A quick rundown of Hue Jackson’s history shows that he isn’t shy about running the ball.
Hue Jackson’s running back history
2003 – Washington Redskins Offensive coordinator
RB1 – Trung Canidate – 11GP – 142 attempts – 600 rushing yards
RB2 – Rock Cartwright – 15GP – 107 attempts – 411 rushing yards
Total attempts: 249
2007 – Atlanta Falcons Offensive coordinator
RB1 – Warrick Dunn – 16 GP – 227 attempts – 720 yards
RB2 – Jerious Norwood – 15 GP – 103 attempts – 613 yards
Total attempts: 330
2010 Oakland Raiders Offensive coordinator
RB1 – Darren McFadden – 13GP – 223 attempts – 1157 rushing yards
RB2 – Michael Bush – 14 GP – 158 attempts – 655 rushing yards
Total attempts: 381
2011 Oakland Raiders Head coach
RB1 – Michael Bush – 16 GP – 256 attempts – 977 rushing yards
RB2 – Darren McFadden – 7 GP – 113 attempts – 614 rushing yards
Total attempts: 369
2014 Cincinnati Bengals Offensive coordinator
RB1 – Jeremy Hill – 16 GP – 222 attempts – 1124 rushing yards
RB2 – Giovani Bernard – 13 GP – 168 attempts – 680 rushing yards
Total attempts: 390
2015 Cincinnati Bengals Offensive coordinator
RB1 – Jeremy Hill – 16 GP – 223 attempts – 794 rushing yards
RB2 – Giovani Bernard – 16 GP – 154 attempts – 730 rushing yards
Total attempts: 377
Hue Jackson’s affinity for the running game
One thing becomes immediately clear to me regardless of how Hue Jackson broke down the carries in his offenses: he loves to run the football. Here’s Hue Jackson’s team ranking in rushing attempts per game.
Cincinnati Benglas (2015): 7th – 29.2 attempts per game
Cincinnati Bengals (2014): 6th – 30.8 attempts per game
Oakland Raiders (2011) 7th – 29.1 attempts per game
Oakland Raiders (2010) 2nd – 31.5 attempts per game
Atlanta Falcons (2007) 29th – 24.1 attempts per game
Washington Redskins (2003) 22nd – 26.3 attempts per game
What it all means
Jackson loaded up his RB1 if he was a superior runner. In 2010, Darren McFadden averaged 17.15 carries per game. He saw a similar usage in 2011 when he averaged 16.14 carries per game in 2011.
In the years where there wasn’t a player that ran away with the job it still appears like the RB1 on the depth chart was given a healthy amount of carries. Jeremy Hill managed a steady dose of carries in back to back years under Jackson with 222 and 223. He averaged 13.875 carries per game in 2014 and 13.93 carries per game in 2015 even though he had a sophomore slump. This is an increase from the workload that Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson were given under Mike Pettine. They received 11.56 and 6.5 attempts per game respectively. On the surface, this is good news for Cleveland’s backfield.
It has been an up and down rollercoaster for 5’10” 2225-poundrunner ever since being signed as an undrafted free agent from Georgia in 2014. In his rookie year, Crowell ended up with 148 attempts for 607 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns. That’s not too bad at all for an undrafted free agent. The problem I have when I look back on the game logs for 2014 is that there appears to be two different players that can show up at any given time.
Remember that quote from Hue Jackson saying Crowell was inconsistent? In 2014 there were 6 games where Crowell was an above average runner (above 4.2 yards per carry). During those games, he was electric, as he totaled 367 rushing yards on 64 carries (5.73 ypc). In his nine games where he below average, he was pretty bad. Crowell totaled 240 rushing yards on 84 carries. That totals to 2.8 yards per carry.
2015 was pretty similar for Crowell. Isaiah Crowell was an above average running back in five games (74 carries for 430 rushing yards). That’s a whopping 5.8 yards per carry average. The other 11 games weren’t as great. In those 11 games Crowell totaled 276 rushing yards on 111 carries. That’s a meager 2.4 yards per carry average. It’s still possible for Crowell to turn the corner in his third NFL season.
The Cleveland Browns selected running back Duke Johnson in the third round last year in the 2015 NFL draft. The Miami Hurricane turned Cleveland Brown is a smaller back at 5’9″ and 207 pounds and plays exactly how you think a back his size would play. Johnson is a quick back who can hurt you catching the ball out of the backfield. The Browns regime under Pettine didn’t give Duke Johnson much of a shot rushing the ball in 2015. Johnson got 104 carries and converted them to 379 rushing yards which gave him an ugly 3.64 yards per carry.
Just like Crowell, Duke Johnson didn’t impress much on the ground last year. I wouldn’t say 104 rushing attempts is a large enough sample size to declare Duke Johnson a bad runner on the ground at this point. There is one aspect of his game that showed up big time last year: catching the football.
Duke Johnson was targeted 74 times last year and reeled in 61 of those targets. This placed Duke Johnson as the number ninth-ranked running back in terms of targets per game when you factor in his lack of involvement in the first two weeks of the season (5.28 TPG week 2-16). He is basically a lock to be the Cleveland Browns third-down running back.
Another encouraging factor for Johnson’s value is that there is a lack of proven receiving options. It is not entirely unlikely that Duke Johnson gets the fourth most targets behind Josh Gordon, rookie wide receiver Corey Coleman, and Barnidge. Browns coaches have went as far as to split Johnson out wide as a receiver in practices. He has serious PPR appeal with his nearly-guaranteed role in a timeshare with Crowell along with third-down responsibilities. His opportunity for more carries in 2016 makes him a breakout candidate.
Prediction and draft advice
This will probably be a situation where a true starter emerges later into the year if at all. On the surface, this looks like a backfield you would want to completely avoid if possible. A deeper look shows that Duke Johnson could be a serious draft-day bargain if he takes a bigger portion of the carries. Hue Jackson will look to employ a run-first approach which will result in a higher floor for both Crowell and Johnson. I believe that Duke Johnson is the superior talent that deserves more touches. That doesn’t mean Hue Jackson will agree with me.
One possible outcome could be Isaiah Crowell playing the Jeremy Hill role to pound the rock in short yardage and early down situations and get goal-line carries. Duke Johnson fits the bill as someone who could play the Giovani Bernard role as a change of pace back that can catch balls from time to time. The distribution of reps during training camp will give us an idea of what roles they’ll have to open the season but this would be a frustrating situation for fantasy football purposes.
Isaiah Crowell’s average draft position is 113 overall. His ADP is pretty appropriately priced. He has been far too inconsistent and is running out of chances to impress with Duke Johnson nipping at his heels to even consider as a late-round pick. He would be a dicey FLEX option unless he becomes Cleveland’s workhorse, which is unlikely.
Duke Johnson’s average draft position is pick 50.83 overall. If Cleveland’s coaching staff gives Johnson feature back reps in practice and into pre-season I would jump at that price. He would be a great RB2 in PPR leagues with a three-down role but still has potential as a low-end RB2 in PPR under the assumption that he will be in a timeshare.