The Cleveland Browns running back group is one of best positions on the team’s entire roster. With a young quarterback under center, the running backs will be a huge part of the offense. Currently on the Browns roster, Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson, Matthew Dayes, George Atkinson, Darius Jackson and Terrence Magee make up the running backs depth chart. There is only one fullback on the roster, Danny Vitale.
So, what can we expect from the Browns running back and fullback positions for the 2017 NFL season? WFNY takes a gander and previews the Browns running back and fullback groups.
Additions: Matthew Dayes and Terrence Magee
Subtractions: Glenn Winston
Projected Starter: RB Isaiah Crowell
Last season was a coming out party for Isaiah Crowell as the Browns starting running back. He played the most snaps of any running back on the team last season, lining up on the field for 568 of the 1,030 offensive snaps. Crowell led the team in carries, notching 198 carries for 952 yards and seven touchdowns. He also caught 40 passes for 319 yards in the passing game. He had his best season in the NFL in terms of total rushing yards, rushing attempts, average yards per carry, receptions and receiving yards. This performance last season thrusts him into the role of expected starter at running back.
The Browns move to gap running scheme propelled Crowell’s overall performance last season. He is a player with good ability after contact, showing strength to fight through tackles for more yards. He has solid elusiveness and speed, too. In the gap scheme, his vision was less important because in the scheme he had a given track most of the time. He can struggle with vision and finding holes, so the gap scheme negated that weakness. The running back also improved in passing situations. He was a quality receiver for whoever was at quarterback, giving the quarterback a reliable receiver out of the backfield. With hopefully more carries this coming season, he should be able to reach the 1,000 rushing yards milestone and be mentioned more with the better backs in the league.
With Isaiah Crowell manning the backfield as the starting running back, the Browns are in a good position at the position. Crowell must prove last season was not a fluke and that he is ready to take the load for the running game. He will get help from Duke Johnson, but Crowell is likely going to get the majority of the carries. With the young quarterbacks under center, the Browns need him to lead a powerful running attack that can be the driving force of the offense.
Possible Contributors: Duke Johnson, Matthew Dayes and FB Danny Vitale
The Browns running backs unit is not a one-man show. Duke Johnson will see his fair share of snaps at running back and all over the field, while Matthew Dayes could see some action as the third running back on the depth chart. At fullback, the only player on the depth chart is Danny Vitale, but was not consistently on the field last year to be considered a starting player.
Duke Johnson was not far behind Crowell in playing action. He received 457 of the 1,030 offensive snaps for the Browns. But, his playing time was not primarily in the backfield like Crowell’s mostly were. Johnson rushed 73 times for 358 yards and a touchdown, while also catching 53 passes for 514 yards last season. He is a player who can do almost anything for the offense. He lined up at running back and receiver, allowing the Browns to get the ball in hands as much as possible. With the ball, he is an elusive runner with the ability to make multiple defenders miss and create yards out of nothing. He may not be a feature back to rely on for a heavy carry load, but his versatility to play all over the field makes him a huge weapon for the offense. Look for Johnson to do it again, with possibly more snaps than last year lining up outside.
The Browns will feature Crowell and Johnson in the backfield for majority of the snaps. But with Johnson’s ability to line up elsewhere on the field, this leaves a possibility for Matthew Dayes to receive some of the snaps at running back. The rookie back has good vision, along with cutting ability to make defenders miss and shoot through gaps quickly. His value is also raised by his ability to be a receiver in the passing game. He does not have great speed or strength, limiting his upside. But, he could see some time especially because of his receiving skills.
Danny Vitale is the lone fullback on the roster. He was picked up by the Browns midway through the season last year. In 9 games last year, he recorded no rushes, but caught four passes for 27 yards. In the nine games, he only saw 74 snaps. Hue Jackson would love to utilize a fullback in his offense, but last season he did not have one to utilize. Vitale was OK with the Browns, but he may not have the required versatility Jackson would like in a fullback. He is pretty much just a blocker, giving little in terms of rushing and receiving skills. His roster spot is not guaranteed, but he is the only fullback on the roster, making him a possible contributor by default.
Biggest Strength: Versatility
The Browns boast a running back unit that features a variety of talents that makes them one of the more versatile units in the entire NFL. Their biggest strength at the end of last season was only improved this offseason with the addition of Dayes, who can run and catch the ball. The unit has three players who can affect the game in the run game and pass game. But, the versatility also applies to each player’s playing style. Crowell is strong after contact, extending plays after he is first contacted. Johnson has an elusive back who can make defenders miss and create yards out of nothing. Dayes has strong cutting ability and vision to find the holes. Cleveland’s backfield can throw anything at a defense, making them hard to defend against.
Biggest Weakness: Usage as Runners
The Browns running backs were totally underused as runners. Last season, the Browns were tied for the least amount of rushing attempts in the league with just a total of 350 attempts. Yes, some of this can be reasoned to that the team was always behind, so they could not afford to run the ball. But, that is not a good enough reason. Hue Jackson simply did not call the run enough. The team was second in the league in yards per carry with 4.9 yards per attempt. It was an absolute crime to not run the ball more. They need to focus on the run to be the driving force of the offense.
Key Player: Isaiah Crowell
The key player in the running back unit is Isaiah Crowell. He showed last season that he could be the feature back and lead the running game. The move to the gap scheme was a godsend to Crowell, allowing him to not have to rely on his vision as much. With a given track, he showed off his athleticism and ability to break tackles. He was simply hard to bring down at first contact. Coming into this upcoming season, he is the key to the success of the unit. He will likely see the majority of the carries and be looked upon as the main rusher in the run game. As Crowell goes, the running game will go.
Top Training Camp Battle: Isaiah Crowell vs Duke Johnson
The top training camp battle in the running backs unit is not for a starting spot, but snaps between Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. Crowell is the expected starter, but the preseason could determine how the snaps will be distributed between Crowell and Johnson. If Crowell can perform well, he could take ahold of the rushing attempts and force Johnson to be utilized more as a receiver. But, Johnson could show that he deserves more carries and could force a more balanced backfield in terms of carries.
The Browns running back position is in a good spot with two really good running backs and a young back to develop. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson form a great one-two punch in the backfield. Crowell is the most talented runner of the group and will likely be the featured rusher of the unit. But that is why Johnson complements Crowell so well. He has a different running style than Crowell, giving the Browns a change of pace back to put in when Crowell needs to rest. But, Johnson is also able to contribute as a receiver, allowing him to play at the same time as Crowell. Johnson’s versatility fits perfectly with Crowell. Matt Dayes is a back we could see earn more playing as the season goes on, especially as a third down receiving back. George Atkinson, Darius Jackson and Terrence Magee are also on the roster, but the numbers’ game may be against them, giving them a slim likelihood they make the team. Danny Vitale’s fate as the fullback can go either way. Hue Jackson would love to have a fullback to use, but Vitale has limited versatility, which I think may doom him.
Overall, the success of the unit will not be determined by the actually players in the unit. Hue Jackson and his usage of the running game will determine the success of the running back position. The Browns must run the ball more and be more focused on being a balanced offense with a run game that drives the boat. The unit is really talented with a lot of versatility, so just give them more opportunities and we should see an overall improvement of the entire offense. RUN THE BALL.
2017 Browns Season Position Preview Series: Quarterback, Running Back/Fullback