Final 2017 Cleveland Browns Report Card: Running Backs

Grading season continues! WFNY’s Joe Gilbert started the grading earlier this week taking a look at the quarterback play, and I will keep it moving with an analysis of the running back position as we build toward a comprehensive look at the overall picture of what was a really difficult Browns’ season.

The running back group had high expectations coming into 2017, as lead back Isaiah Crowell was moving into a contract year, and Duke Johnson was supposed to get some time in the slot and the backfield to mix up and elevate his touch percentage. Some good things happened, some really bad things happened as well. Let’s take a look.

Overall Grade: B-

Isaiah Crowell: C+ 

206 attempts, 853 yards, two touchdowns and 4.1 yards per attempt

Duke Johnson: A-

82 attempts, 348 yards, four touchdowns and 4.2 yards per attempt

Matthew Dayes: C

18 KORs, 437 yards and 24.3 yards per return

Top Grade: Duke Johnson

Duke Johnson didn’t make his biggest mark in the running game this season, but when he got his hands on the ball through a carry, he made his presence felt. Johnson finished with 82 attempts, 348 yards, four touchdowns on the ground. Mix that in with his 74 catches, 693 yards, three touchdowns through the air. Mix those two aspects and you have the Browns most productive offensive player.

It’s no secret Johnson needs to get the ball more, and seeing an increased running role will only help the team in 2018. His 74 catches were about par for the course with his recent seasons, and I look for the role to continue for him next year as the Browns will look to pair him with a young back in the draft.

Biggest Strength: Balance

The Browns didn’t have many things go right on the offensive side of the football in 2017, but the running backs lived up to their end of the bargain. The mixture between Crowell and Johnson provided the nice amount of power and speed, and the two contributed for nearly 1,200 rushing yards and 850 receiving yards. Throw in the nine touchdowns as well and that makes up a large portion of the production the unit saw as a whole.

The wide receiving unit and quarterback play left much to be desired, and that left the team seeking better overall balance. The best part for this group was the balance between styles and the balance in overall plays was usually right where it needed to be to keep this group fresh. Matthew Dayes might not have contributed much on offense throughout the season, but he held his own in the kick return game, averaging 24.3 yards on his 18 returns for the season.

Biggest Need: Isaiah Crowell Replacement

In a big year for Isaiah Crowell, the Browns lead back stayed on course for what he has averaged over his career with the Browns. After a sluggish start to the year that saw Crowell failing in pass protection and missing open running lanes, he turned it around as he typically does to finish with 206 attempts, 853 yards, and two touchdowns. Overall the year was a disappointment for the free agent to be as his two total touchdowns were a career low. Crowell’s future remains up in the air, but it is clear a change of scenery would benefit both.

The 2018 NFL Draft will provide plenty of options in all different segments of the draft, and as has already been pointed out, this is one of the deepest running back drafts in some time. It has top end talent like Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, and LSU’s Derrius Guice. Has the mid round talent like Georgia’s Sony Michel, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, or Stanford’s Bryce Love. It even has back end talent that will find roster spots on Sunday as well. The biggest need for the Browns will be finding the right power back type to pair alongside Duke Johnson.

Overall Thought

The Browns broke 100 yards rushing nine times in 2017 – over half of their games. They were a respectable 18th in yards rushing despite being 28th in total attempts. They also cracked the top five in both yards per attempt and first down percentage. Overall, the key stat here is attempts. The attempts number is important because it typically leads to the most success for an NFL team from an offensive standpoint. The more your team runs the ball, the more it leads to winning. Now, it’s always a mixture, but I am sure Hue Jackson will admit he gave up on this aspect far too often, and the Browns could have finished with an even higher mark.

The focus for 2018 has to be to find balance in the run/pass game. The best teams in the NFL commit to the running aspect of offensive football and use it even as things get tough throughout the game. Far too often the Browns were with seven points or less, and Hue Jackson would completely shift away from the necessary balance to support his young quarterback. The Browns finished in the top ten in total pass attempts, and as the quarterback play suffered, the ball was only being thrown more. The hope here is that the newly hired offensive coordinator, whoever it ends up being, finds that necessary balance to stick to a running game that is good enough to help win football games in 2018.

Bold Prediction

The Browns will have draft two running backs in the 2018 draft. The name won’t be Saquon Barkley as most are expecting, however. They will take Sony Michel with one of their early second round picks, and another name in the later rounds to compete with Johnson and Michel for carries.


2017 Browns Season Grade Series: Quarterbacks