In the fits of incompetence and disappointment, there is an entirely human instinct to obsess over the minute positives. This is a thoroughly useful trait in weathering the human experience. Draft picks and cap space while not minute, appear to be in the grand scheme when repressing the experience of 1-31.
Cap space has in the NFL though to a lesser extent than the NBA has become an asset in and of itself. For fans, it often feels as if cap space is an idol and cannot be expended for elite talent. Indeed, cap hoarding has reached a dangerous point. However, as John Dorsey spent freely to ramp up the Browns to somewhere near competitive it became easier to take pedantic shots at cap management. Of course, pedantry and insight are often separated by a nearly invisible line.
With immense cap space, it feels as if it is perhaps pedantic, as outlined above, to criticize the Browns expenditures on the running back position but I am nothing if not a pedant. The running back position in the NFL brings forth certain distasteful conversations including the use of the term “asset” to discuss human beings experiencing repeated physical traumas without much hope of a large second contract. Running back is a position of planned obsolescence where a team will draft a player, remove the rubber from the tires and take another in the third round. If the player is truly elite, the team may even franchise him a few times until he breaks down but will never sink major guarantees.
In this dark but honest understanding, the Browns offseason running back craze is nearly inexplicable. Unless John Dorsey philosophically believes in amiability towards running backs, his asset expenditures on the position were at best nonsensical.
First, the Browns extended Duke Johnson as much a hybrid as a running back but a player whose value is derived from his ability to start in the backfield and be flexed out wide. The Johnson deal while not opulent was not small either with 3 years at $15.6 million with $7 million + guaranteed. If the Browns intended to maintain their backfield with Johnson as the utility back and a draft pick as their early-down back, the contract makes sense.
Alas, the Browns then signed Carlos Hyde for 3 years and $15 million with $8 million guaranteed. While the Hyde-Johnson combo is expensive in terms of NFL running back tandems, this could make sense as the Browns have cap space and this allows them to avoid using a high pick on a running back.
But, of course, that did not happen the Browns used the 35th pick on Nick Chubb to play the role of third running back. A team starving for talent at numerous position decided to expend $30 million in contracts and $15 million + in guarantees plus a high valued draft pick on a position which teams generally address with low acquisition costs.
The first counter-argument would be that perhaps the Browns found an inefficiency in the market, perhaps second contract running backs are undervalued and this is a strong play to improve.
The answer is a firm no. Running backs peak at 24 years old according to research and the aging curve on running backs is the steepest of any position in the NFL. Running backs often are not extended by their original team because that team has exhausted the players’ peak performance and is willing to move on.
A second counter-argument would be that the cost has hidden value in terms of aiding the development of a young quarterback, that running backs provide cover to Baker Mayfield when he starts. This is not unreasonable but did you need to sign two large contracts at the position and use a high second round pick? Probably not.
Further, it feels as if the best case is the Browns have bought two used Ferraris previously driven in a cruel Maine winter, purchased a new Ferrari to store in the garage, and then refused to buy any tires but will complain about how poorly they run. You see, making major running back expenditures while not pooling for a single elite back, and then putting them behind an O-line with next to no experience together and a UDFA starting at left tackle is like failing to buy tires and complaining about how the car drives.
Does it really aid a young quarterback’s development to sink major assets into running back which is muted by leaving the quarterback’s blind side in danger? I expect not.
The Browns are seventh in money expended on running backs in 2018 and in 2019, Spotrac projects that they will be 3rd in the NFL in expenditures on running backs. This steep cost does not really factor in a second round pick on a rookie contract.
The Browns had enough cap space to overspend at running back and overspend at offensive tackle or draft multiple offensive linemen high. But they did not use the running back market overspend to aid draft allocation rather they expended a hugely valuable pick there as well.
For a moment this appears moot, and yes, pedantic. Yet, once Mayfield becomes pricier, and you begin paying Garrett, Ward, as well as others, efficient asset expenditure becomes essential. The Browns and John Dorsey’s approach to running back, a position where teams apply tactics of planned obsolescence does not provide solid ground upon which to believe they will handle a tightened cap situation well. At this moment the Browns strategic running back choices are inexplicable.