CLEVELAND — Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski was finally able to conduct a real offseason program this year after his first two offseasons were either lost or shortened due to COVID-19 and tussles with the NFLPA.
It also meant we were able to view three of 10 OTA practices and all three days of mandatory minicamp practices.
Unlike in training camp, when every practice is open to the media, the offseason program offers a more limited picture, but it is still an opportunity to watch full practices as opposed to the 20 minutes or so of stretching open during the regular season.
We see team drills and get a general idea of what things might look like when the real action starts in September.
Let’s take a look at what we learned about the running backs.
Are the fullback days over?
When Kevin Stefanski arrived, tight ends and fullbacks were all the rage. One of the first moves GM Andrew Berry made for the new head coach was to trade for Andy Janovich.
Now? Janovich is gone and the lone remaining fullback, Johnny Stanton IV, spent most of his time with the tight ends.
The Browns use tight ends in the backfield a fair amount, something likely to continue, and if they employ more shotgun and pistol looks, which it appears is part of the plan with Deshaun Watson, motioning tight ends into and out of the backfield makes sense.
Two back sets are a thing
While the fullback might not be as prominent, the Browns showed off a fair amount of two-back looks, and we’re not talking about Demetric Felton playing receiver here.
During last Thursday’s practice at FirstEnergy Stadium, it was notable to see pairings of Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt or Demetric Felton on the field together. Sometimes the backs were split around the quarterback, other times, especially with Hunt, the back moved to the slot.
Last year, 13 personnel — one running back and three tight ends — was all the rage with this team. This year, the wrinkle could be using multiple halfbacks at the same time, putting defenses in a personnel bind as they determine whether they should counter with extra linebackers or go smaller when the Browns have multiple runners on the field.
Think of the Monday night contest against the Ravens in 2020 when Hunt was cooking Ravens linebackers in the passing game. The Browns can use their backs to hunt matchups.
There’s room for D’Ernest Johnson
Felton is, by all appearances, a wide receiver. Could you make the case he’s some sort of hybrid weapon? Sure. But when a player lines up at wide receiver and stands, between reps, with the wide receivers, we should probably call him a wide receiver, at least for now.
This is an important distinction because if Felton’s path to making the roster is as a receiver, it opens up another slot for a running back, meaning the Browns can fit, alongside Chubb and Hunt, both Johnson and rookie Jerome Ford.
Johnson felt like the odd man out a year ago, but he was too good in training camp and the preseason to let go. While the addition of Jakeem Grant as a returner takes away a potential path for Johnson to squeeze onto the roster, the Browns did guarantee him $900,000 — which isn’t nothing — and he showed his value last season when Chubb and Hunt were injured.
Eventually the money and the numbers games catch up to you and you have to make hard decisions. This might not be the year the Browns have to do it with Johnson.
Who has the ball?
Imagine being a defensive player with Watson, Chubb and Hunt in the backfield together when the Browns run some variation of a read option play. Good luck figuring out who has the ball.
Those moments of hesitation are going to be the difference for Chubb to get to the second level and break a big run or Hunt to get a head of steam or Watson to escape the pocket and either make a play with his legs or hit a throw downfield.
We saw glimpses of what it could be in the open practices this spring and as they finetune it over training camp, it’s going to be a problem — assuming, as with all things, Watson plays in 2022.