Breaking Down Cleveland’s Backfield

With the Browns starting OTA's, Mike Brusko provides fantasy owners clarity into the murky Cleveland backfield.

| 2 years ago
duke johnson

Breaking Down Cleveland’s Backfield

duke johnsonWith the Browns beginning organized team activities (OTA’s) this week, it seemed like an appropriate time to examine the fantasy outlook for their backfield in 2015. Despite the Browns finishing the season ranked sixth in PFF’s 2014 offensive line rankings they did not have one running back finish the year in RB2 (top 24 at the position) territory. The sporadic use of the backs by the Browns coaching staff, made trying to figure out who the Browns would feature on a weekly basis an absolute nightmare for fantasy owners. With that said the Browns offensive line is too talented to ignore.

In PFF’s 2015 Draft Guide, Nathan Jahnke has the Browns projected as the top ranked offensive line for the 2015 season. Their recent drafting of the versatile Florida State standout Cameron Erving provides depth to what is already the Browns’ strongest unit. When analyzing their 2014 performance and current value, defined by their average draft position (ADP), which (if any) Browns running back should you draft this season as a play on the Browns’ highly touted offensive line?

On first glance at the 2014 PFF grades of the Browns running backs you’ll notice a lot of red. The backs’ grades in the most critical areas for fantasy purposes are below:

Player Overall Pass Rush Pass Block
Terrance West -5.9 -3.0 -1.2 2.0
Isaiah Crowell -8.0 -1.3 -4.4 -1.1
Ben Tate -9.0 -0.5 -5.6 -2.2

Despite having one of the best offensive lines in football not one of the running backs could take appropriate advantage, lending insight into why the Browns’ coaching staff was reluctant to hand the reigns to any one player. I included Ben Tate in the chart above, but he is irrelevant for our research moving forward, considering he is no longer on the team. The one bright spot from the grades was Terrance West’s positive pass blocking grade. If this were coupled with a positive pass receiving grade, West would have a case for being a leg up in the competition for third down work, but with his receiving struggles that is not the case.

As part of my due diligence I utilized PFF’s advanced running back statistics. Unfortunately for West and Crowell this didn’t help their case. Of the 42 running backs that participated in 25 percent of their team’s offensive snaps, Crowell’s 1.87 yards after contact per attempt (Yco/Att) was dead last. Terrance West was slightly better at 2.22 Yco/Att, forcing 25 missed tackles on his 171 rushing attempts. This still only placed West at 28th among his 42 peers.

Crowell did boast an impressive breakaway percentage (the percentage of yards that come on runs of 15 or more yards) of 35.4. This was fifth among the same 42 running backs previously discussed. While on the surface this may seem impressive, when you consider Crowell’s poor Yco/Att this provides an image of a back who isn’t touched until the second level and is getting brought down on first by defensive backs and linebackers. To be fair to Crowell, he did demonstrate a nose for the end zone by scoring eight touchdowns. Of his three chances within the five yard line, Crowell scored on all three. This efficiency, albeit on a small sample size could logically give him the first crack for goal line work.

PFF’s grades and advanced statistics from 2014 do not give me much confidence in Crowell or West heading into this season. To make matters even more murky for the Browns backfield they selected Duke Johnson from Miami in the third round of this year’s draft. Using the 77th overall pick on a running back while in rebuilding mode, speaks to the lack of confidence the current regime has in Crowell and West.

Johnson comes to Cleveland with an impressive resume, leaving Miami as their all-time leading rusher. While some may attribute this to Johnson having the third most carries in school history, he left Miami with a 6.7 yard per rush attempt (Y/A), higher than any Miami back with at least 50 career carries. This is quite an accomplishment when you consider his Y/A bested Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Frank Gore, despite Johnson getting more attempts than all four Miami greats.

I had Johnson ranked as the third running back on my pre-Draft board behind only Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon. College Football Focus‘ (CFF) graded Johnson as their second best overall running back in the 2015 draft class. His high grade was assisted by his stellar receiving skills, evidenced by his 1.86 yards per route run, the third highest of all college running backs. Johnson also forced an FBS leading 13 missed tackles on pass receptions, which demonstrates the problems he causes for defenses when he gets the ball in space.

While it’s easy to praise Johnson’s receiving skills, his ability to run the football shouldn’t be overlooked. Against Power 5 opponents Johnson’s Yco/Att was 3.43, which was well ahead of Crowell and West, granted Johnson’s was against collegiate not professional competition. Also, Johnson’s elusive rating of 62.7 against Power 5 opponents was the sixth best in the country. Johnson’s high CFF grade and performance in PFF’s advanced statistics display a very complete and explosive running back.

CFF’s data on Johnson combined with Crowell’s and West’s struggles in 2014, lead me to believe that Johnson will not only immediately be the third down back in Cleveland, but could also quickly become the starter. This knowledge has a significant impact as one approaches their fantasy draft.

First, it puts a major “buyer beware” label on drafting Crowell at his current ADP of 55. Spending a mid-fifth round pick on a player that could quickly get sent to the bench and at best should be limited to early down work, is not a good idea. Second, I see no reason to draft Terrance West at any price. In my view, he is clearly the third running back on the totem pole and thus taking him at all is a waste of a pick. Third, if you want exposure to the Brown’s talented offensive line, considering his aforementioned talent and current ADP of 98, Duke Johnson is the way to get it.

As camp battles heat up this summer, reviewing PFF’s player grades and signature stats is essential to making a well-educated guess on who is likely to win the job in question. Pairing this research with the player’s current valuation (demonstrated by their ADP) puts you in a position to take advantage of inefficiencies in the fantasy football market.

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