With the inconsistency and poor play at the quarterback spot, the Browns running backs were important to the offense. Overall the unit played well, but the use of this group was questionable. The only major contributors at the running back position were Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr. The duo contributed both in the running game and passing game.
Here we will take a look at the running back position in 2016 and what needs to happen to the position going into 2017.
2016 Browns Position Reviews: Quarterback
Running backs on the roster: Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson Jr., Darius Jackson, Rajion Neal, Glenn Winston and George Atkinson III
Isaiah Crowell: Rushed 198 times for 952 yards and seven touchdowns, while also catching 40 passes for 319 yards.
Duke Johnson: Rushed 73 times for 358 yards and a touchdown, while also catching 53 passes for 514 yards.
George Atkinson III: Rushed seven times for 34 yards and a touchdown, while also returning eight kickoffs for 137 total yards.
The Browns running back position was mostly comprised of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. Crowell received the majority of the carries this season and with these carries, he had his best season as a Cleveland Brown. His fit in the Browns gap scheme blocking really catapulted him into having a good season. He showed improved vision and decisiveness this season. The running back always had the athletic ability, but his vision was the thing holding him back. With the gap scheme blocking he had a set track to follow, helping him hone his vision. He was able to showcase his elusiveness and tackle-breaking ability. This season showed that Crowell could be the feature back for the Browns going forward, but the Browns must re-sign him to a long-term contract this offseason.
Duke Johnson may not be a feature running back, but he is versatile weapon who can really force a defense into tough situations. Johnson was used all over the field for the Browns. The Browns played him at running back and receiver. He is an elusive back that can make defenders miss, but also he can extend plays with tough finishes through contact. This makes him a valuable player with the ball in his hands, so the more instances the offense can get him the ball, the more chances he can make a big play. He is a player who the Browns can use to force mismatches against the opposing defense. His future with the Browns will continue to be as a versatile weapon.
The rest of the running backs group — Darius Jackson, Rajion Neal, Glenn Winston and George Atkinson III — did not have any sort of consistent time on the field. George Atkinson III probably has the best chance of making the squad next season because he provides kick return ability.
The Browns running back position is one of the team’s best position groups. It is a position that might be set for year’s to come. The group has versatile talent to mix and match based on the situation. Both Johnson and Crowell are a talented, so the team does not need to address this position beyond them much. The biggest issue is the unit’s usage. The Browns need to rush the ball more and trust these talented backs. The Browns ranked last in rushing attempts this season, handing the ball off only 350 times this year. Hue Jackson must use the running game more.
Both players have the ability to elude defenders, while also running through tacklers for more yards. Their running styles make it hard for defenders to tackle them because they could use power or elusiveness to get past the tackler. Also, both players have the ability to catch out of the backfield. Johnson is a better receiver, but Crowell improved quite a bit this season catching the ball and being a target in the passing game. Johnson can line up at receiver and be a potent pass catcher. Versatility makes this unit one of the better positions on the entire team.
The biggest weakness for the Browns running backs group doesn’t have anything to do with them as players. It deals with their usage in the running game. The Browns and Hue Jackson must rely on their running game a lot more in 2017. Ranking last in the NFL in rushing attempts with who the Browns had at quarterback was a huge mistake by Jackson. The rushing attack averaged the second most yards per carry in the NFL this past season with 4.9 yards per carry. Giving this group just 350 carries is far too little.
Isaiah Crowell is a restricted free agent this offseason. The Browns need to re-sign Crowell and lock him up long-term. He showed this season that he has the talent to be the team’s feature back. He forms a great pair with Duke Johnson. Re-signing Crowell will make this unit continue with consistency, which in turns could improve their overall performance.
With the struggle at the quarterback position, the Browns should rank near the top of the league in rushing attempts. But, the team actually ranked last in attempts, even though the group had the second most yards per carry average. Crowell and Johnson are talented duo who need the ball more in rushing situations.
Behind the duo of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, the Browns do not exactly have a reliable backup. George Atkinson III had the third most carries at the position, but he only had seven carries. If Crowell and Johnson go down, the Browns do not have a real good option to fill in for one of them. This offseason, the Browns should look to add a third running back to the unit. With the strong class of running backs in the upcoming draft, the Browns might be best served to find this back in the 2017 NFL Draft.