It’s a new year in Ohio and 2016 brings with it lots of change, most notably new Browns Head Coach Hue Jackson’s journey up the I-71 to join his new team. Always slated to be a run first group, Jackson certainly brings that mindset to the team’s offense this year. That’s good news for both of the team’s backs, including third year RB Isaiah Crowell.
Of course, the 2015 Browns had designs on being a ball control offense and managed to rank just 27th in rush attempts (and 22nd in yards) but with some overall improvement in the talent on both sides of the ball the expectation is that Cleveland can plan to run early and try to run often this year. Again, one thing is clear from Hue Jackson’s tenure: his teams like to run the football. Over the past two seasons in Cincinnati, the Bengals averaged 480 rush attempts. Cleveland might not get there this year, but there should still be plenty of carries to go around.
Most gamers are excited about what that means for 2015 rookie Duke Johnson. Indeed, they should be. Johnson flashed a dynamic skill set in his first year and has demonstrated an ability to be productive as a pass catcher both out of the backfield and in non-traditional alignments. We’re expecting more of the same in 2016.
But, because of the excitement around Johnson (and some bad press around the Crowell) we’re ignoring backfield-mate Isaiah Crowell. Crowell currently carries an ADP of RB43 despite finishing 2015 as the league’s 28th highest scorer at his position and an overall rosier outlook for the team’s offense this year.
In Cincinnati, both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard were productive fantasy options with Jackson at the helm of the offense. In Cleveland, Crowell gets no love. Can an argument be made that the talent gap between Bernard and Hill was more narrow than that between Johnson and Bernard? Absolutely. Should I point out that the Cleveland offense isn’t expected to measure up to the Bengals; and that the Browns are likely to turn to passing situations later in games favouring Johnson? Yes. I did. Would you be foolish to ignore Crowell all the same? I certainly think so.
Last year, Gio played 55% of the team’s offensive snaps snaps and had 12.7 touches/game compared to Hill’s 43.3% and 15.9. Again, even if those proportions shift more in favour of Johnson in Cincinatti, there is room to improve on a 706 yard 3.8 YPC performance for Crowell this year. One factor in favour of a rebound in YPC (he averaged a tolerable 4.1 in his rookie season) is the presence of Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman on the outside. At this point, no one is suggesting that Robert Griffin III throwing the ball to that duo is going to turn Cleveland into one of the league’s premiere offenses, but the group should do enough to keep opposing defenses honest against the run.
Where the numbers logically shift toward the bigger bodied, early down back in Jackson’s system are inside the red zone. A year ago, Jeremy Hill had 76.5% of his team’s rush attempts inside the five yeard line, producing eight scores on those 13 attempts. Bernard had just three carries, and didn’t score. Those 13 carries from close range were the 4th highest in the NFL.
The numbers flatten out a bit when accounting for work inside the 20 overall, with Hill holding a slight 36-30 edge, but TDs are where the fantasy money is made and Hill had every opportunity to score a year ago. By comparison, Crowell had 29 carries inside the 20 and six inside the five (in fairness, those six carries represent 75% of Cleveland’s total rush attempts from short-distance). A few more opportunities and a continued lion’s share of the goal line work should mean more chances to find paydirt in 2016.
Overall, things are trending up for Crowell. He finished at RB28 a year ago with easy-to-repeat numbers and he’s being drafted as RB43. His offense has a history of producing fantasy relevant backs and focusing on the run, the offense should be improved in general, and he’s a good bet to get the goal line work no matter how things shake out between the 20s. Crowell won’t win you your league on his own, but he’ll provide a solid return in the late rounds and should play very well as a virtually no-cost FLEX.