Making Sense of the Cleveland Browns' Backfield Situation

Will one of the Browns' three young tailbacks run away with the lead back role in Cleveland, or do we have a full-blown running-back-by-committee on our hands?

Talk to any fantasy football manager and they'll most likely agree that because of positional scarcity, every starting running back in the league is worth taking in the early-to-middle rounds of the draft (unless of course, that back is named Bishop Sankey, but that's a conversation for another day).

This is especially true for starting backs on teams with strong rushing attacks like the Browns. Indeed, Cleveland's offensive line ranked seventh in run blocking last season according to Pro Football Focus despite being without Pro Bowl center Alex Mack for much of the season, and with new head coach John DeFilippo committing to a run-oriented offense, the opportunity for the number-one tailback for the Browns to put up decent numbers this season is immense.

However, sometimes the problem isn't identifying the teams with a great running game as much as it is identifying which player will benefit the most from said running game.

Last season, the Browns acquired two talented rookie running backs in Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West, and after a rocky season in which Crowell finished slightly ahead of West in the running back pecking order, the Browns continued to muddle the backfield situation by drafting explosive Miami Hurricane tailback Duke Johnson in this year's draft.

To make matter worse, DeFilippo has said he intends to use a "hot hand" approach at running back, adding even greater uncertainty to their backfield situation.

And this lack of clarity in Cleveland is suppressing the draft value of someone who -- playing behind an aggressive offensive line and for a head coach committed to the run game -- could be a highly productive player this upcoming season.

With many deeming the Browns backfield an unpredictable three-headed nightmare, managers seem to be avoiding the Cleveland situation altogether, according to current average draft position (ADP) data. Crowell (ADP: 79), Johnson (ADP: 98), and West (ADP: 169) all being drafted beyond the Round 8 in standard-scoring 10-team leagues.

But I argue that in situations like this, where touches are divvied up by meritocracy rather than incumbency, spotting the number-one option in the running game comes down to identifying the player that best fits into the team's offensive system.

So who will this be for Cleveland this season?

2014 Season in Review

Let's start our discussion by recapping how the two second-year backs, Crowell and West, fared in the offense last season.

PlayerAttRush YdsYds/AttRush TDsRush NEPRush NEP/PSuccess Rate

We see that on the ground, Crowell and West put up very similar numbers to each other, with Crowell edging out West in terms of efficiency as measured by Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) and yards per carry.

For those unfamiliar with this advanced metric, NEP is a measure of a player's contributions to his team's chances of scoring above or below expectation. A positive NEP means a player improved his team's scoring opportunity, and as you might expect, a negative score means the opposite (to read more about it check out our glossary).

And on that note, Crowell also had a greater Success Rate (percent of attempts resulting in a positive NEP value) than West did.

But while Crowell was clearly the more efficient back last season, his performance wasn't enough to claim the team's number one tailback role outright. Crowell ranked just 19th and 21st in Rushing NEP and Rushing NEP per attempt among 43 backs with at least 100 carries last year, and through the latter half of last season, Crowell and West still continued to trade starts with one another on a seemingly weekly basis.

Following this year's NFL draft, when you throw in third-round pick Duke Johnson into the mix, you have what seems to be a full-blown mess in the Browns backfield.

Early-Down Work

To start to make sense of how the early-down work will be divided between these three young backs, we must first understand the system they're being asked to operate in.

While first-time offensive coordinator John DeFilippo stated that the team would run a mix of the zone blocking and power gap schemes, his offseason comments to the media suggest a preference for the former over the latter. "I've been in the zone-blocking scheme and it’s a fabulous scheme," he said.

As we'll soon discuss, this choice in run blocking scheme has major implications on how the carries will be divvied up on this team. The use of the zone blocking system requires a back who not only possesses great vision and decisiveness to hit the proper hole but also the cutback ability to get through the gap the moment it opens up for him.

While many think Crowell has the inside track for early down duties on this offense, when we take a peak at the agility scores from the three tailbacks in Cleveland, we see that Johnson holds a slight edge over the two veteran backs in terms of change-of-direction and lateral mobility based on Pro Day numbers.

YearName3Cone20 SS
2014Isaiah Crowell7.284.56
2014Terrance West7.284.44
2015Duke Johnson6.884.16

So with all this being said, who exactly is the best fit for DeFilippo's system?

To get an answer to this question, let's first take a look at something I wrote last season shortly after Ben Tate's release from the Browns.

While their Combine numbers are nearly identical, the differences between Crowell and West on the field are a bit more apparent. Crowell shows an excellent ability to find the seam in the line and shows a great burst to get through it to the second level. Once he gets there, Crowell shows a shiftiness to make defenders miss, as demonstrated by this 15-yard touchdown against the Falcons.

Despite being a large back, Crowell also has superior long speed to break off long runs. This elite game speed was apparent in the preseason when Crowell broke off a long 48-yard touchdown against the Bears.

This combination of size, speed, elusiveness, and decisive cutting is an ideal fit for the zone blocking scheme. We see that here as Crowell is able to cut through the hole as it develops to get to the second level and then evades a number of tacklers on his way to a 15-plus yard run against the Saints.

But Terrance West is no slouch himself. At 225 pounds, West demonstrates above-average footwork for a back of his size. Similar to Crowell, he also shows great vision and an ability to hit the hole when it develops. However, West's upside is capped in a zone blocking style offense due to a lack of elusiveness and tight hips.

This was further emphasized when many compared West to straight-line runner Alfred Morris last season. His lack of agility was well illustrated on this touchdown run against the Saints, which while impressive, showed an inability to make smooth lateral moves, and was marked by very poor tackling form by the defense overall.

West also lacks the overall speed of Crowell (despite being clocked with nearly identical 40 yard times at the Combine, Crowell has been unofficially clocked in the 4.3 or 4.4-range in college. This is evident on this run where he plods his way to a big 22-yard gain but is run down from behind by Pittsburgh Steeler Jarvis Jones.

While both talented backs, from this its clear that Crowell holds a slight advantage over West in terms of pure talent -- with Crowell demonstrating greater agility and lateral elusiveness as well as speed compared to West.

But what about Duke Johnson?

Coming from a long line of impressive Miami Hurricane running backs, Johnson actually holds the distinction of being the U's all-time leading rusher, with 3,519 yards on 526 carries (6.7 yards-per-carry).

As I mentioned earlier, Johnson's agility scores trumps those of the two aforementioned incumbents currently ahead of him on the depth charts and actually places him in the same range as some of the shiftier backs in the league including Jahvid Best, Giovani Bernard, and LaMichael James.

YearName3Cone20 ss
2015Duke Johnson6.884.16
2010Jahvid Best6.754.17
2013Giovani Bernard6.914.12
2012LaMichael James6.884.12

And in a closer look at Johnson from earlier in the offseason, it's evident that Johnson would be an ideal fit into the zone blocking scheme.

So while Crowell may have first crack at handling the starting job this season, with the rookie tailback already impressing at OTAs, Johnson may be hot on his trail to takeover the job from him sooner rather than later.

Passing Downs

DeFilippo said this offseason that his gameplan would be a fluid one that would focus on getting the ball to its best playmakers in different ways. And further statements by the new Browns offensive coordinator suggested that this includes getting the ball to his backs in the passing game.

This bodes well for Johnson's battle for touches in this offense as the team's best pass catching back. A fluid and natural route-runner, during his final season at Miami, Johnson caught 38 balls for 421 yards to go along with his 1,600-plus yards on the ground.

In this regard, DeFilippo has already told reporters that he would have "some gameplan-specific plays for certain guys like a Duke Johnson where you want to get him out on a pass route or running a certain outside zone" and on this note, reports out of OTAs is that the team is already lining Johnson up at wide receiver.

And with Crowell and West combining for a paltry 20 receptions last season, DeFilippo's plan to use the running backs in the passing game creates a perfect opportunity for the team's rookie back to get onto the field and contribute right away.

At the Goal Line

Based solely on stature, as the team's biggest back, Crowell would be the logical choice to take the majority of touches near the goal line this upcoming season.

2014Isaiah Crowell5' 11"22431⅜"9¼"2338"117"
2014Terrance West5' 9"22531"9⅛"1633½"120"
2015Duke Johnson5' 9"20730⅜"9¼"1833½"121"

When we go beyond his advantages in the build department, we see that Crowell is also the team's most powerful back, boasting the best combination of scores in the bench, vertical leap, and broad jump events.

Looking back at their numbers from last season, it's clear that Crowell used his advantages over West in terms of athleticism and size to severely outplay his backfield mate in red zone touches.

PlayerAttRush YdsYds/AttRush TDsRZ TD Rt
Isaiah Crowell15845.6746.70%
Terrance West26622.4415.40%

Not only did Crowell produce more touchdowns in the red zone than West (7 versus 4) on far fewer attempts, but also his 46.7% touchdown red zone success rate more than tripled the figure put up by West. And while I argued earlier that Johnson may give Crowell a run for his money in regards to claiming the early-down workload, the rookie tailback can't hold a candle to Crowell in the red zone department.

As our own Graham Barfield noted prior to the draft, Johnson's below-average 20.8% red zone success rate ranked him near the bottom-half of his draft class in this category.

From all this it's clear that when it comes to touches near the goal line, the job is Crowell's to lose this season.

Implications for Fantasy Football

In terms of hierarchy on this team, it looks as if Crowell will start the year with a tentative hold of early-down duties with rookie Duke Johnson hot on his heels, while Johnson will be the lead dog on passing downs. West of course, looks to be the odd man out as a distant third on the team's depth chart.

With fairly late-round ADPs for Crowell, Johnson, and West, it's possible to draft the entire Browns platoon until one player differentiates himself from the rest to earn the majority of the touches in this backfield.

However, going all-in on the Browns running back position and dedicating that many roster spots to this backfield may not be the wisest move for fantasy football managers this season. So with that being said, if I had to bet on one back to own in Cleveland (and especially in PPR leagues), I'm going with Johnson due to his relatively low price tag, guaranteed work in the passing game, and potential to take over early-down duties thanks to his athleticism and fit in DeFilippo's zone blocking scheme.