Can We Find Fantasy Football Production in a Crowded Cleveland Browns’ Backfield?

In 2014, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West split carries and drove fantasy owners crazy. Can we expect more of the same in 2015?

Of all the ways that offensive football has changed over the past decade, one of the most tangible differences is the emergence of committee backfields, to the point of it being a nearly universally accepted philosophy.

Last season there were just two running backs who eclipsed the 300-carry plateau. Compare that to 2009, when there were six such backs. Going back another five years to 2004, there were a total of nine running backs to cross this arbitrary barrier.

So while this shift away from lead ball-carriers may benefit real-life coaching staffs and front offices, it can be infuriating for fantasy football owners.

As we inch closer to the 2015 season, one of the most difficult running back situations to unravel is the storm of ambiguity brewing in Cleveland.

What Remains in Cleveland

In 2014, Cleveland ran the ball 476 times, sixth-most league wide. With Mike Pettine as the head coach, Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator, and the likes of Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel at quarterback, it’s no surprise they chose to go so run-heavy.

425 carries were split between the Browns’ three leading rushers, Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell, and Ben Tate. Below are the raw statistics showing the workload splits among the three.

Click here for larger chart

With Ben Tate no longer in the picture, let’s look at how efficient both Crowell and West were given their respective opportunities last season.

Using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric gives us a glimpse at the performances of both players. NEP indicates how many points a player added or subtracted from his team’s expected point total. For more detailed information about NEP, check out our glossary.

PlayerCarriesRushing NEPRushing NEP/AttemptSuccess RateReceptionsReception NEP
Isaiah Crowell149-4.73-0.0341.61%93.74
Terrance West171-8.87-0.0538.01%112.87

As you can see, Crowell was more efficient in every facet compared to West. His -0.03 Rushing NEP per attempt ranked 21st among 43 running backs with at least 100 carries last season, compared to West's -0.05, which ranked 27th.

Despite besting his counterpart however, Crowell’s metrics were average at best compared to similar usage backs across the league.

New Additions

New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo (the sixth different offensive coordinator in as many seasons) has spent the majority of the last decade in the NFL as the quarterbacks coach for both the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets, respectively. Because this is his first opportunity to be the head offensive play caller, it’s difficult to predict how he will approach offensive game-planning in 2015.

But gauging by the lack of playmaking ability and talent at the wide receiver position, the sub-par quarterback talent on the current roster (unless you’re sold on Josh McCown or Manziel), and the fact that Pettine -- with his ball-control, win-with-defense approach -- is still the head coach, it’s safe to assume the Browns won’t be setting any pass attempts records anytime soon.

Another indicator that the Browns want to remain a run-first offense was their draft philosophy. Cleveland attacked the 2015 NFL Draft by building from the inside out. The selections of Danny Shelton and Cameron Erving shows a willingness to invest real draft capital in the trenches.

Erving, a versatile lineman capable of playing all five positions, joins an offensive line that Football Outsiders ranked 25th in Adjusted Line Yards (3.63) last season. The impact that the Alex Mack injury had on this offensive line cannot be understated, and if he returns to his previous form, we should expect a much better unit in 2015.

The third-round selection of running back Duke Johnson is what we will focus on here, and what it means for the Brown’s backfield for fantasy purposes this season. Our own Tyler Buecher did a tremendous job profiling Johnson immediately following draft day. But deciphering what type of workload he will get in year one is not an easy endeavor.

A Fantasy Focus

The current average draft position based on 12-team, standard-scoring mock drafts for all three players in the backfield shows an interesting trend.

Click here for larger chart

Early mock drafters seem convinced that Crowell is going to emerge as the lead-back, and at the same time, seem to believe that the rookie Johnson is nearly as valuable as West, who led the team in rushing last season.

In my opinion, this is a classic case of wishful thinking.

A Fantasy Football Quagmire?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have a soft spot in my heart for Isaiah Crowell. He was a key part in my re-draft successes last season (since you all were dying to know), so advocating against him in 2015 is difficult.

He could very well produce up to his current price (RB25), but it’s tough to envision him breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling and providing a large return on investment. It may be wise to take a flier on West, assuming his average draft position doesn’t rise, but even so, it would be wise to temper expectations.

Barring an injury between now and Week 1, the best case scenario is that Crowell and West will continue to share carries, with Johnson playing a situational role. The worst case for fantasy owners would be that all three enter a full-blown time share, with owners having no idea how the carries will be split from one offensive series to the next.

Cleveland has adopted the committee approach to the fullest extent, and the selection of Johnson cements their belief in its real-football feasibility.

And while this may be best for the Browns, it’s setting up as a week-to-week nightmare for fantasy owners, and one I will be likely to avoid come August.