Another NFL season approaches and as usual (at least in the recent past), trying to wrap your head around the oft-muddled Cleveland Browns backfield situation will prove a challenge. The battle is between two running backs, really. Both showed flashes last year, but neither one was able to really put a stranglehold on the position. A third back added this season is an untested rookie with huge upside who was added to the mix for his separate set of skills.
Browns Running Back Situation Murky As Usual
The talented Isaiah Crowell emerged at the end of last season poised to become the Browns full time lead back. Early on, this seems to have carried over into this offseason, with Browns analyst for ESPN Tony Grosi reporting that Crowell took first snaps with the “ones” at Tuesday’s OTA’s.
There were games down the stretch last season where Crowell looked dominating. In a similarly murky backfield scenario of a season ago, he got stronger as the season progressed, managing double-digit carries in 6 of the final 8 games, while logging 6 touchdowns over the same stretch. Sometimes he showed flashes of fury, running with the reckless abandon of a player who went undrafted and wanted opposing defenses to suffer for it.
Then there is Terrance West, who opened last season with a strong 100-yard effort, followed by 2 more games with double-digit touches before fading into the murk, only to reemerge in week 10 with another near-100 yard effort. Things looked primed for him to take the helm in Cleveland, until he got bit by the fumble bug and found himself in Coach Pettine’s doghouse (pun intended). While he never actually was a “healthy scratch,” on more than one occasion, it came close. West has proven that he can carry the load, but he will need to completely eliminate mistakes if he wants to cut in to Crowell’s carries.
Lastly is Duke Johnson. One might consider him an afterthought as a rookie, and more so because he finds himself in a backfield that features two pretty darn good running backs. His upside will be his ability as a passing down back. Almost all reports I’ve seen so far this offseason have Johnson penciled in as a strong backup on change-of-pace downs and in passing situations. With Coach Pettine’s affinity for playing the “hot hand,” who knows what could happen in Cleveland this season.
Fantasy owners know that when a team has 2 (or 3) backs that are legitimate threats, and when a head coach frequently employs the “hot hand” approach, it can completely destroy a player’s value (handcuff scenarios excluded) as week in and week out starters. My initial guess is, looking at the quarterback situation in Cleveland, the Browns will be in the upper quarter of rushing attempts this season, which means the possibility of big numbers for everyone involved. My prediction? Crowell leads the way, West steals some carries on those “hot hand” days, but still winds up with a pretty respectable line, and Johnson has the kind of year you would expect from a high-end rookie. Talented, yes. And he will get his touches, but still a rookie. What do you think, Browns fans?