Heading into the 2016 season, though, things are looking up for certain players in what promises to be a new-look Browns offense with coach Hue Jackson at the helm. With uncertainty at the quarterback and wide receiver positions, Cleveland's backfield situation is arguably the clearest it's been in years.
Following a running back free draft, it's evident that the Browns plan to utilize a two-pronged rotation with incumbents Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. Coach Jackson has not been shy when it comes to instilling confidence in his backs as he, and others, have been talking up the young runners all offseason. Whether you take it as "coach-speak" or not, here are some of the remarks that have been made by Jackson, other members of his coaching staff, and Cleveland beat reporters this offseason regarding Crowell and Johnson:
» Johnson "does so many different things that gives your offense a boost." - Hue Jackson, Browns head coach
It's that time of year when coaches and media alike are reporting in hyperbolic fashion on a daily basis. Said player is having a great camp. Said player is in the best shape of his life. Said player is more explosive than ever.
Because of his impressive skill set as both a dynamic runner with incredible lateral movement, elite speed, and top-shelf pass-catching prowess, there is palpable hype surrounding Johnson as he enters his second season in the NFL. Even though he out-snapped Crowell in 2015, he had far fewer opportunities (touches) as he dealt with quarterback inconsistency while attempting to adapt to the professional game. It's clear that Cleveland's coaching staff believes Johnson is ready to handle a bigger workload out of the gate this season.
Johnson has said that he is more confident than he was at this point last year, despite the fact that he's learning a new offense. Injuries (head, hamstring) held him out of valuable camp and preseason action as a rookie, but he managed to play in all 16 regular season games. His value as a fantasy player last year never exceeded a PPR-flex option, though, and he only had one double-digit fantasy point outing in standard scoring despite receiving double-digit touches in nine contests.
In 12-team leagues this summer, Johnson is coming off the board late in the sixth round. His role, at least early on, should be similar to the one he played last season as a change-of-pace and passing-down back. He will occasionally be split out wide too if the Browns are savvy enough to use his talents to their advantage. If the unavoidable comparisons to Giovani Bernard are anywhere close to accurate, fantasy owners who take Duke in Round 6 would be getting a fantastic bargain. Unfortunately, the Browns offense probably won't be as productive as Cincinnati's has been under Jackson's watch, which should not come as a surprise to anyone. There is also a chance that Johnson sees added opportunities as a rusher or at least more than he did last season. It's worth noting that Johnson's success in the red zone as a rookie was far from ideal -- he netted nine yards on 10 rush attempts in the red area.
All four of Crowell's rushing touchdowns last year came inside the red zone. He should be that guy again this year for Cleveland, in the same way that Jeremy Hill was that guy for Cincinnati in 2015.
I'm not saying that that The Crow is the answer for the Cleveland backfield or for fantasy owners, but given his mid-Round 9 asking price, he presents an opportunity for a late-round steal.
As the leader (victim?) of one of the most unproductive ground attacks in the NFL over the last two seasons, Crowell has managed to collect 13 total touchdowns and over 1,500 scrimmage yards since his debut in 2014. Among the other running backs with ninth-round ADPs on FantasyFootballCalculator.com (Charles Sims, LeGarrette Blount, C.J. Prosise) Crowell is the only player with an early-down role in his forecast and 200-plus touch upside.
Observations about Hue Jackson's historically run-heavy offenses are valid, but so is the notion that it may be difficult for a team who has been projected to win no greater than five games for the season to employ a run-first approach if they find themselves trailing frequently in second halves.
Still, Crowell's 11.6 rush attempts per game average from 2015 should increase and Johnson's role as a key playmaker in the Browns offense should lead to greater fantasy production.
No matter what, it's going to be a split backfield. As TJ Hernandez of 4for4.com noted "No running back has ever accounted for 60 percent or more of the backfield touches in a Jackson offense," so you must draft each back according to your roster needs.
With Johnson's reception upside, he could easily finish as an RB2 in PPR scoring. Add to it Crowell's potential uptick in goal-line opportunities, and he could slot in as a weekly flex play, yet you'd be drafting him as your squad's RB4 at best, so the risk is limited.
And that's the whole point, isn't it?