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Fantasy Brownout? What to Make of the Cleveland Backfield in 2019 and Beyond

Correctly valuing players in dynasty fantasy football is difficult even when we know all relevant variables (such as team, coordinator, and role). It’s an even more difficult task when a player doesn’t have a team, is suspended for an indefinite amount of time, and his backup played arguably as well after his suspension. Until yesterday, this was Kareem Hunt’s fantasy equation. Of course, now we know that he’s part of the Cleveland Browns backfield, so one variable is eliminated.

Of all the possible landing spots for Hunt, Cleveland was near the bottom of my list in terms of preference for restoring his former dynasty value. Nick Chubb was outstanding as a rookie and the team also has Duke Johnson under contract through 2021. However, from a pure football sense I see why the team pursued Hunt. Cleveland General Manager John Dorsey drafted Hunt when he was running the Kansas City Chiefs, doing so when seeing the player’s NFL potential required some level of projection, given his non-Power-5 college pedigree. If you think hitting on a third round dynasty rookie pick feels great, imagine the feeling when your NFL third-round draft pick plays at an all-pro level as a rookie.

A few questions I’d like to try to answer include: how might the Browns make use of these three running backs? Which player will Hunt’s presence affect most? Will all three even be on the team when camp opens?

I don’t expect new Head Coach Freddie Kitchens to carve much out of Chubb’s role for Hunt. Below are Chubb’s splits before and after Kitchens took control of play-calling.
Nick Chubb Freddie Kitchens Splits

Chubb was a high-end fantasy RB1 over the second half of the season thanks to a steady diet of rushing attempts and a slight uptick in passing game usage on a per-game basis.

To my surprise, Johnson was also slightly more productive under Kitchens.

Duke Johnson Freddie Kitchens

Another way of visualizing player usage (absent actual production data) is the RotoViz Player Usage app. Here you can see opportunity market share tracked over time for the entire Browns backfield. Did Kitchens deploy a third running back to a meaningful degree at any point?

Browns Opp MS

As you can see, the clear answer is: no.

To be fair, we only have a half season’s worth of play-caller data on Kitchens, so it’s reasonable to argue that he could change his tendencies based on the availability of new talent. However, it might be useful to know that the average team RB2 PPR fantasy finish of Kitchens’ mentor, Bruce Arians, is RB52, and that’s over a 14-season sample of Arians’ play-calling career. No team RB3 even registered a blip on the radar in that sample, either. That’s powerful.

I don’t feel comfortable with projecting a reality where Johnson and Hunt can co-exist in Cleveland. Will Dorsey move forward with Hunt or Johnson? In a press conference, Dorsey was quoted as saying “I don’t think it makes (Johnson) expendable yet,” and “I’ll research (Johnson’s) future as time goes on.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Given that Dorsey drafted both Chubb and Hunt, my gut says his emotional ties to those players will mean that we’ll see them getting touches and scoring the majority of the fantasy points in Cleveland by the second half of the 2019 season. Johnson may be kept around to cover Hunt’s suspension, or could be a draft day trade chip. The Browns could even opt to cut Johnson without blinking an eye; his $2M-plus dead cap hit would be but a drop in the bucket in their 2019 budget of over $75M. I expect Hunt to reprise Johnson’s 2018 role at some point, perhaps having some spot games where he has increased usage as the hot-hand.

Moving forward, I’m valuing Chubb as a low-end dynasty RB1, Hunt as a high-upside dynasty RB2 (on the hopes that he leaves Cleveland after 2019), and am viewing Johnson as roster depth unless he is jettisoned from Cleveland this offseason.

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