Kareem Hunt to the Browns: What Could It Mean for Cleveland's Backfield?

Cleveland signed Hunt despite a looming suspension from an off-field incident. What does it mean for the Browns' backfield?

Entering last season, the Cleveland Browns were shaping up to have one of the most difficult backfields to target in fantasy football.

The reason for that was because -- in the offseason -- they signed Carlos Hyde from the San Francisco 49ers and still drafted Nick Chubb with the 35th overall pick in the NFL Draft. Throw in the receiving role of Duke Johnson, and we had three backs being drafted between the 6th and 11th rounds of fantasy drafts.

They solved that problem, partially, by trading Hyde to the Jacksonville Jaguars in mid-October and featuring Chubb as their primary back after that. Despite Chubb's breakout season, the backfield could be cloudy again, this time stemming from news that the franchise signed Kareem Hunt to a one-year contract.

Of course, that is quite a loaded sentence.

During the 2018 season, Hunt was released by the Kansas City Chiefs after video showing him shoving and kicking a woman surfaced. Hunt was placed on the Commissioner's Exempt list, though the investigation has not yet concluded. This leaves Hunt's suspension duration uncertain at the time of the signing.

Browns general manager John Dorsey, who played part in Kansas City drafting Hunt, had this to say about the signing, and Hunt also spoke to the issue.

So, there we have it.

Thanks to the Browns, Hunt is getting the coveted second chance that some others in the league haven't been given.

What does it mean for the Browns' backfield?

What Does It Mean for 2019?

Obviously, we can only do so much here, as Hunt's suspension length is uncertain, but we'll have to assume that he'll play in 2019 for these purposes, or else the signing won't impact the Browns' running back usage.

What we do know for sure is that Hunt's release was a surprise -- in the sense that it wasn't related to his on-field performance. Hunt exited the 2018 season after accruing 824 yards and 7 touchdowns on 181 rushes. Based on our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, he added 0.07 points to the Chiefs' offense on a per-carry basis, and 45.9% of his carries increased their expected scoring chances.

The league averages in 2018 were 0.00 and 41.2%, respectively.

This shows us that Hunt fared better than the league-average back, which makes sense given his ability and also his offense's prowess. The Chiefs ranked fifth in opponent-adjusted Rushing NEP per carry as a team this season and first in overall Adjusted NEP per play on offense.

His teammates, Spencer Ware and Damien Williams fared rather well, too.

Including the playoffs, Ware generated 0.02 Rushing NEP per carry on his 51 totes (with a 41.2% success rate), keeping him around the league-average levels.

Williams took more advantage of his opportunities. Williams produced 0.10 Rushing NEP per carry on 83 rushes and posted a 49.4% success rate on the ground, numbers that bested Hunt's tallies.

2018 Regular & Postseason Att Yards TD Rush NEP/P Rush Success%
Kareem Hunt 181 824 7 0.07 45.86%
Damien Williams 83 383 6 0.10 49.40%
Spencer Ware 51 246 2 0.02 41.18%

Make no mistake: Hunt was good on the ground. But he was also outplayed by Williams, who earned himself a two-year contract extension in the process.

Hunt did excel in the passing game, relative to his teammates, however, and that could be the most noteworthy aspect of all of this.

2018 Regular & Postseason Rec Targ Yards TD Rec NEP/P Success%
Kareem Hunt 26 35 378 7 1.56 84.62%
Spencer Ware 21 24 245 0 0.78 76.19%
Damien Williams 32 37 244 4 0.51 65.63%

So, naturally the issue isn't whether Hunt can get it done on the field but rather how much his presence ultimately could alter the Browns' backfield when he does return to the field -- assuming that much happens.

Browns Under Freddie Kitchens

The Browns underwent a significant in-season change in 2018, transitioning to Freddie Kitchens as their new offensive coordinator. He helped turn their offense from a dreadful unit to one of the NFL's best. I would be more hyperbolic, but it's just the truth.

Browns OC Splits NEP/Play Rank Success Rate Rank
Todd Haley -0.06 29 38.20% 29
Freddie Kitchens 0.14 7 47.40% 12

Clearly, the Browns are a promising offense entering the 2019 season under Kitchens, their new head coach, and a lead back in that offense could have been a primo pick in fantasy drafts.

And, given the Browns' 2018 season, we have the proof already: Chubb was the RB6 in half-PPR formats from Week 9 through Week 17 last year. Now, for as good as the Browns' offense was after the coordinator change, Chubb was explosive but not the most efficient rusher in the NFL by any means.

He produced an above-expectation 0.05 Rushing NEP per carry on a success rate of 40.7% on his 140 carries from Week 9 onward. That culminated in 678 yards and 5 touchdowns. Third-down back Duke Johnson -- under contract until 2021, by the way -- was limited to just 18 carries, which he turned into 0.18 Rushing NEP per carry and a 55.6% success rate (94 yards and no touchdowns).

If we open it up to the full season, however, we can see that Chubb definitely stood out relative to his teammates.

2018 Regular Season AttYards TD Rush NEP/P Success%
Nick Chubb 192 996 8 0.08 41.7%
Carlos Hyde 114 382 5 -0.06 33.3%
Duke Johnson 40 201 0 -0.01 42.5%

Chubb outclassed Hyde significantly, and while we have to factor in the change in offensive success overall, we can still gather from either sample (full season or just under Kitchens) that Chubb is a more-than-capable back who can handle a pretty heavy workload.

Now, he averaged a 58.0% snap rate once taking over after the Hyde trade, a number that keeps him out of workhorse territory and allows for Hunt and Johnson to remain involved, and there's one clear path to Johnson and Hunt stymieing Chubb's 2019 potential.

The most obvious path for Hunt to disrupt a possible two-man backfield (with Chubb as the clear-cut primary option) is with the receiving gig.

From Week 9 onward, Chubb totaled 23 targets (139 yards and 2 touchdowns) and generated 9.07 Reception NEP, 0.50 per catch. Hunt, again, generated 1.56 per catch, though he was boosted by seven touchdowns.

Here's the rub: you can view that how you wish. Hunt could just be an elite touchdown scorer, or it's possible he overachieved in a great offense. (In 2017, Hunt scored three times on 66 targets and had a 0.44 Reception NEP per catch average, actually lower than Chubb's 2018 number once Kitchens took over.) Efficiency doesn't always dictate usage on the gridiron, so we can't run with the idea that Hunt is and always will be a superior pass-catcher compared to Chubb.

So What Does It All Mean?

We're looking at a situation where we have two above-average performers in the backfield with interesting snap splits.

Chubb played more than 70% of snaps just twice all season, and over his final five games, he maxed out at a 63.5% snap rate. Hunt never fully garnered a workhorse role in his career, as he broke a 75% snap rate just three times in his 11 games in 2018 and maxed out at 86.1%. In 2017, he played more than 75% of snaps just twice. In total, he has played fewer than 70% of snaps in 14 of 27 games.

So, we're most likely heading toward a fantasy headache, one where each caps the other's upside and limits the other's floor. Both players are capable producers, and the Browns' offense looks to be one of the NFL's best in 2019. But neither player has lived above a 75% snap rate over a consistent sample, suggesting a 50/50 split could be imminent once Hunt returns.

Assuming the NFL lets Kareem Hunt play football again.