Fantasy Football: How to Approach the Cleveland Browns' New-Look Backfield
If you're a baseball fan, you've likely heard the old cliché "you can't have too much pitching" a thousand times. After all, a surplus of quality options at a position of need always provides an organization with a competitive advantage. It's a logical principle, and it's one the Cleveland Browns have applied to the running back position this offseason.
While there are several NFL franchises that struggle to field one good running back, the Browns have managed to field three (at least potentially). That's all well and good, but I know what you're thinking right now: "How nice for the Browns, but how does this help my fantasy team?" After all, most fantasy players find income tax and being stuck in an elevator with strangers preferable to running back committees. If a team relies on three runners, how can you possibly depend on any of them for fantasy purposes?
It's a complicated question, and one that can't be answered easily. So let's skip the small talk, take a look at the impressive tailbacks that are battling it out for snaps in this suddenly-crowded backfield, and draw our own conclusions about how things will shake out.
First things first. There's one thing we have to clarify before we continue. Duke Johnson is good at this thing called football. If that analysis isn't enough for you, there's plenty to back up that assertion.
Not much needs to be said of his pass-catching prowess, as he's secured 53-plus receptions in all 3 of his NFL seasons to date, and he set new career-highs across the board in 2017, with 74 grabs for 693 yards and 3 touchdowns. Even while he was sharing carries with Isaiah Crowell, he managed to accumulate 1,041 yards from scrimmage and 7 total scores on only 156 touches and a 54.4% snap share. Clearly, he made the most of his opportunities.
If you're a regular numberFire reader, you've almost certainly heard of our in-house metric known as Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP employs historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected of a player on a per-snap basis. To measure running back efficiency, we utilize a statistic known as Rushing NEP per play.
The league average was -0.05 in 2017. That's not a typo. A typical carry resulted in a negative contribution to a team's expected point total. But that's another story for another day.
However, Johnson was no negative contributor. In fact, his 0.12 Rushing NEP per play ranked 5th among the 72 running backs who received at least 50 carries in 2017, which means from an efficiency standpoint, only four players were better runners than this supposed "receiving specialist". Furthermore, his 50% rushing Success Rate -- the percentage of rushes that resulted in positive expected points -- also ranked fourth, as he produced 1.39 fantasy points per touch (third-best among all NFL runners) and, per Player Profiler, a robust 6.7 yards per touch (also third-best).
Bottom line: the dude can flat-out play. Take a look at how he's trended upward in some key statistical categories over his first three years:
|Season||Rushes||Rush Yds||Rush NEP/Play||Targets||Recs||Rec Yds||Rec NEP/Target|
The Browns ultimately saw fit to award Johnson's efficiency with a three-year, $15.6 million contract extension back in June, which is normally tells us that an increased workload is on the horizon. However, that might be a tall order considering the quality of competition he's about to encounter.
Carlos Hyde is coming off the most productive season of his NFL career, from a fantasy standpoint. The veteran racked up 240 carries for 938 yards and 8 touchdowns in his fourth professional campaign, while appearing in all 16 games for the first time en route to an RB11 finish in standard formats.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his performance was the step forward he took as a pass-catcher in his last year in San Francisco. After never receiving more than 33 targets in a single season, that number exploded under new head coach Kyle Shanahan, as Hyde saw an astounding 88 looks, securing 59 of them for 350 yards. Indeed, Hyde was a workload warrior, as his 299 total touches tied for 7th in the NFL, and according to Sharp Football Stats, his 18 carries inside the five-yard line were second only to Todd Gurley's 22. Speaking of which...
Not saying I agree, but I’ve heard some people within the NFL say Carlos Hyde, strictly as a runner, is superior to Todd Gurley.
— Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit) July 24, 2018
For what it's worth, I don't share this viewpoint ether, but it does speak to the fact that Hyde has earned his fair share of respect around the league. And make no mistake about it, the Niners relied on him heavily, as the veteran received 15-plus touches in all but 2 games.
However, while Hyde's counting statistics were impressive, his efficiency took a dip, as he averaged a career-low 3.9 yards per carry, and per Sharp, 38% of his totes went for a gain of one yard or fewer. He also struggled in numberFire's key metrics.
Of the aforementioned 72 tailbacks that received 50-plus carries, the veteran's -0.07 Rushing NEP per play ranked 40th and his rushing Success Rate of 35.83% ranked 49th. It's not terrible, but it's certainly less than ideal.
Here's how his 2017 looked in comparison to his first three years in the league:
|Season||Rushes||Rush Yards||Rush NEP/Play||Targets||Recs||Rec Yds||Rec NEP/Target|
While his per-snap averages look rather unimpressive, there's more to the story. As our own Peter Lawrence astutely pointed out back when Hyde signed with the Browns, many of his issues were due to the 49ers' offensive scheme. Hyde was at his best when running out of the shotgun formation, and with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley calling the shots in Cleveland, that success should continue.
The 49ers only ran 45% of their 2017 snaps out of the shotgun, but both the Browns and Haley's Pittsburgh Steelers ran 71% from it. Now that Hyde finds himself in an offense that will cater to his strengths, it's likely that his efficiency metrics will return to their previous levels.
Regardless, Hyde's overall performance was enough to coerce the Browns into inking him to a three-year, $15.25 million dollar contract in free agency, which is most definitely starter's money. It seemed like a reasonable assumption that he step in and absorb the lead back role and the approximately 250 touches that accompanied it. After the Browns passed on Saquon Barkley in Round 1 of the 2018 NFL Draft, that outcome looked like an absolute certainty.
At one time, Nick Chubb was viewed as one of the better running back prospects of the last decade, and he was expected to be a potential top-15 pick in 2017. Unfortunately, his career at Georgia was temporarily derailed by a gruesome leg injury in 2015, and it was a long climb back to full health.
While Chubb was impressive in his return to the field in 2016, piling up 224 carries for 1,130 yards and 8 touchdowns, he didn't produce at the level he had during his freshman and injury-abbreviated sophomore campaigns. As such, he decided to forego the 2017 draft and return to college for his senior season. It ended up being an excellent decision on his part.
Chubb regained his pre-injury form in his senior season, taking 223 carries for 1,345 yards and 15 touchdowns, while averaging a sparkling 6.0 yards per tote. Two years after his epic setback, he looked fully healthy and ready to make an impact at the next level. In fact, his performance was so impressive, the Browns made him the 35th overall selection of the 2018 NFL draft, even though Hyde and Johnson were already in the mix.
It's easy to understand why. Along with his history of top-notch college production, Chubb boasts a truly elite athletic profile. A 98th-percentile SPARQ athlete with speed, burst, and power to spare, the 22-year-old was one of the most complete running back prospects this draft had to offer. A player of his caliber was just too tempting to pass on. But while Browns had possibly found their foundation runner of the future, the team's backfield had suddenly become an inscrutable quagmire.
By the Numbers
So how can we approach this situation in fantasy football? With three talented men all fighting for snaps in the same backfield and only so many touches to go around, it has the potential to be an absolute headache. So let's start with the obvious: Johnson is going to retain his role as the featured receiving back. There is little doubt of this, as he's thrived in the role for years. However, there should still be a number of passing game looks available to Hyde and Chubb.
The Browns targeted running backs on 26% of their passing attempts last year, which was tied for the seventh-highest percentage in the league. It's easy to forget that Crowell received 42 targets last season and 53 in 2016. Even with Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, and hopefully Josh Gordon in the mix, tailbacks will remain an integral part of the passing attack under Haley (Le'Veon Bell, anyone?). I like Hyde's chances of absorbing those looks more than Chubb, as the rookie was never a big part of the passing game in college (Sony Michel had that role), and Hyde proved last year that he's a much more adept pass-catcher than anyone realized.
As far as the distribution of rushing workload goes, that's a different matter altogether. Cleveland ran just 384 rushing plays last year, which was the fifth-lowest total in the league. However, much of that was a byproduct of an 0-16 team trailing in games and being forced to throw more often than not. The Browns should be more competitive in 2018, and it would be shocking to see them opt for pass plays 62% of the time once again.
Also, Crowell is a New York Jet now, and his departure has left 206 carries vacant from a season ago. Meanwhile, quarterback DeShone Kizer, now a Green Bay Packer, leaves 77 carries of his own available in Cleveland.
Presumably, the Browns' quarterback combination of Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield will absorb all of Kizer's carries and then some, as Taylor and Mayfield handled 84 and 97 totes in Buffalo and at Oklahoma, respectively, last season. But that still leaves an enormous chunk of the rushing pie available.
So who will step in and handle these touches? Johnson is unlikely to receive any boost in this department and will be lucky to duplicate his 2017 total. Currently, Hyde is listed as the number-one runner on the unofficial depth chart, but a veteran is often given this nominal designation over a rookie. Chubb should still be heavily involved.
Why, you ask? Check out this statistic. Over the last 10 years, 25 running backs have been selected in the second round and 20 of them were active for at least 10 games in their rookie seasons. These 20 men combined for 3,200 carries in year one, which equates to an average of 160 carries per player. That average would likely have been even higher had featured back Dalvin Cook stayed healthy last year.
Bottom line: rookie second rounders get plenty of touches, and Chubb should be no different.
Taking a look at each man's Average Draft Position (ADP) in standard leagues (per Fantasy Football Calculator), it's clear there isn't much consensus in the fantasy community about how this backfield will shake down when the regular season rolls around. Hyde is currently being selected in the sixth round as the RB30, Chubb is going in the eighth round as the RB40, and Johnson is an eleventh-rounder at the RB48 slot, although it's worth noting that he's going three rounds higher in Point Per Reception (PPR) formats.
It makes sense, and if you're playing in a PPR league, Johnson is definitely the one to target. After all, he finished as the PPR RB11 last season despite a reasonably limited workload. While his target total may dip a bit in this crowded offense, he will still be involved enough to deliver RB2 production. If you're in a standard format, though, it gets a little murkier.
Hyde and Chubb will duke it out (no pun intended) for lead duties, but I tend to favor Chubb's youth and upside. The rookie is far and away the most athletically-gifted runner on the roster, and basedon the data, he's likely in line for a sizable role. Oh, and he's available 25 picks later than Hyde.
Ultimately, the Browns aren't going to give you a workhorse back that you can plug and play on a weekly basis, but there's still plenty of value to be had from such a talented positional group. Johnson is a pass-catcher extraordinaire, who will also impress you with his underrated ability on the ground. Hyde is a steady veteran, often overlooked and underrated, but still highly productive. Chubb is a freakish talent, with an impressive pedigree and virtually limitless upside.
I'm not averse to grabbing a couple of these backs and riding the hot hand, draft room permitting. The Browns have the look of a considerably improved football team in 2018. Capitalize now, before your leaguemates beat you to it.