The Cleveland Browns looked like they had everything they need to at least make a deep run in the playoffs in the 2021 NFL season. But not only did they miss the postseason, but they also finished below .500 with an 8-9 record — a total letdown compared to what they accomplished in the previous campaign in which they went 11-5. Those were the times. However, the Browns must be viewed as at least a dark horse to win the Super Bowl this coming 2022 NFL season.
After all, they just added Deshaun Watson to orchestrate the offense on the field from under center. Watson equips the Browns with a true dual-threat that is better than Baker Mayfield from a rushing and passing perspective. Watson's chances of actually playing in the 2022 NFL season is another story, but in any case, the Browns can't just entirely leave the aspect of their game that defined and carried them in 2021 — their ground attack. With that said, it's time to look at why the Browns' running back group should be expected to make the biggest impact on the field for the team — again.
Watch NFL games LIVE with fuboTV (click for free trial)
Key Browns position group to make biggest impact in 2022 NFL season
The Browns ran the air out of the ball in 2021. They finished the regular season no. 6 with a 46.02 rushing player percentage and no. 1 in yards per rushing attempt (5.1). Nick Chubb played in only 14 games but he racked up 1,259 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 228 carries, pacing the Browns in all those statistical departments. But the Browns' rushing attack was way more than just the legs of Chubb because behind him were two running backs who were good enough to be the top guys in the backfield for many other NFL teams.
Kareem Hunt and D'Ernest Johnson completed the Holy Trinity of the Browns' scary running back room together with Chubb, and each could still be in Cleveland's fold in the 2022 NFL campaign. Johnson, who went undrafted in the 2018 NFL Draft, came out of nowhere in 2021, becoming a darling for tons of fantasy football managers when he stepped up in the absence of Hunt. Speaking of Hunt, he played in just eight games as he spent several weeks sidelined due to injury, but he still came up with 534 rushing yards and three touchdowns on just 78 carries. He could have ended up with significantly more yards if the Browns were still in contention for a playoff spot late in the regular season.
Hunt admitted Wednesday he could've played in the final two games of the season — at Pittsburgh and against Cincinnati — had the Browns' had a stronger playoff chance. He had actually practiced the week of the Steelers game, but was inactive for the game.
“I would have went out there and gave it everything I could,” Hunt said. “Definitely, if that chance was still on the line.”
It should be noted that both Johnson and Hunt are being rumored to be trade baits for the Browns this offseason, as they both have expiring contracts in 2023, but until that happens, defensive coordinators should be at least mildly trembling over the prospect of dealing with Cleveland's running backs — and Watson.
And then, of course, there's Chubb. Even if both Johnson and Hunt get sent out of Cleveland, the Browns' backfield is still going to be a handful.
There are a few who are better in a pure running back role than Chubb. According to Football Outsiders, Chubb is in the top five in the following statistical columns: Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, Yards Above Replacement, and Effective Yards. No matter how the depth chart shapes up in Cleveland, Chubb will get a ton of work out of the backfield. He is still very much in his athletic prime, as he would not turn 27 until December.
The former Georgia Bulldogs tailback is also relatively fresh. Among the top 10 players in the NFL last season with the most rushing yards, only three had fewer rushing attempts than Chubb (228), yet he finished second with 1,259 rushing yards to go with eight rushing scores and 12 rushing attempts that went at least 20 yards long. The Browns' offensive line deserved a ton of credit for that as well, but that's also why Cleveland is heavily invested in its run-blocking unit. The Browns have an immense level of talent in their running back room that they can't afford to waste.
Even with a new quarterback who's got the legs to make things happen on the ground, the Browns should continue to be a team that depends heavily on Chubb and the rest of their running backs in the 2022 NFL season.