By The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson
It’s no secret that many in the fantasy football community are down on Nick Chubb this year. After all, he went from RB6 over the first nine weeks of 2019, to RB15 over the final eight weeks for a yearly finish of RB8. The reason for the drop off is also understandable — Kareem Hunt, a former NFL rushing champion, returned from suspension and took away valuable touches. (read: targets)
When evaluating players, the biggest metric I look at is consistency. Week in and week out, if you’re helping me win my matchups en route to a playoff berth (and hopeful championship), I’ll sing your praises until the cows come home. From Weeks 10 through 17 last year, Chubb had four weeks where he wasn’t even an RB2– half the time. Two of these weeks were 16 and 17, when leagues are in the Championship. (I sincerely hope you’re not playing your championships in Week 17, but that’s another conversation for another day.)
On the flip side, Hunt had five weeks as an RB2 or higher (top 24) and only one other week where he’d even be considered a FLEX (RB27 in Week 11). Cumulatively, Chubb outpaced Hunt in points per game (PPG), 13.0 to 12.7, and had almost double the touches (159 to 87).
Because of this eight week sample size, people are banging the drums to fade Chubb and play Hunt. What people seem to forget is there was a coaching change that took place in Cleveland. Out is Freddie Kitchens and in is Kevin Stefanski, former Offensive Coordinator of the Vikings. Stefanski orchestrated one of the better ball control offenses in the league a year ago, running the ball 10 more times than they threw it (476 rushes to 466 pass attempts). Dalvin Cook lived up to his potential by staying relatively healthy all year, handling 52.5% of the team’s rushing attempts, 38.1% of the team’s touches, and 28.2% of the team’s yardage.
Yes, one back in Stefanski’s system did all that. Now, Stefanski takes over a Cleveland offense with not one proven talent at running back, but two. How will the team’s touches be divvied up?
To try and formulate a logical hypothesis, I looked back at Stefanski’s time as not only a play caller (last year was his first year calling plays) but through his time as an assistant to see where he was most influenced. The two play callers he worked with most were Norv Turner and Darrell Bevell.
Let’s start with Turner, whose play calling dates back to the days of The Triplets in Dallas. He had stops in Washington, San Diego, Miami, Oakland, San Francisco, Cleveland, Minnesota, and Carolina. One thing he did regularly was focus on feeding a lead running back the football, whether on the ground or through the air. Emmitt Smith, Terry Allen, Stephen Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson, Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson, and Christian McCaffrey are all running backs who saw more than 300 touches in a season while playing for Turner. Only seven times in 28 seasons did Turner have more than one running back top 100 carries (eight if you count 2018 when Cam Newton topped 100 carries opposite McCaffrey). (This is a plus for Chubb.)
But while one player would dominate rushes, it didn’t always preclude another player from dominating targets out of the backfield. Eleven times either a fullback or the backup running back out-targeted the starter. (This is a plus for Hunt.)
Now, let’s look at Darrell Bevell’s time as a play caller. Out of his 13 years in the league, he’s had the pleasure of calling plays for both Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. His last three years as a play caller, he’s had to deal with more committees due to injuries, so let’s focus on the AD and Lynch years, more specifically the Minnesota years as he and Stefanski coached together there. From 2006 (his first year as a play caller and sans Peterson) to 2014 (the last year of a healthy Lynch), Bevell had a 2nd running back see 70 or more carries seven times. Four out of those five seasons in Minnesota saw the backup RB out target the starter.
We’re able to take a few pieces of data from this. First, Chubb and Hunt will not be in a 50/50 time share in terms of rushing attempts. Even in 2007, Adrian Peterson’s rookie year, he out-rushed incumbent Chester Taylor (who had 303 carries the previous year) 238 to 157. Second, the backup RB will likely see more receiving work. Revisiting 2007, Taylor out-targeted Peterson 43 to 28. Hunt has shown more promise in this area than Chubb over their respective careers in the league, and it bled through the stat sheet over the final eight games last year when Hunt out-targeted Chubb 43 to 15.
The Browns made a concerted effort to improve their offensive line with the signing of RT Jack Conklin and drafting LT Jedrick Wills Jr. out of Alabama in the 1st round. They also signed TE Austin Hooper to a five year deal and spent a third round pick on TE Harrison Bryant from FAU. Stefanski ran the second most 12 personnel looks in the league a year ago (1 RB, 2 TE) which allows for additional run blockers to aid the running game.
When trying to project out this offense, the one year that stood out most to me was Bevell’s 2008. Peterson had 363 carries while his backup, Taylor, had 101. Peterson saw 39 targets and Taylor had 55, while the team had 512 rushing attempts to 452 pass attempts. I would shift a few of those rushing attempts to the passing side to balance the offense, but 960-980 plays is reasonable for a run-first offense.
While no one in the league will hit 363 rush attempts this year (yes, even Derrick Henry), Chubb should approach 300. He has been Pro Football Focus’ highest graded running back over the last two seasons so ignoring that fact, especially with an improved offensive line, would be an oversight for a first year head coach. Hunt led the league in rushing his rookie year and averaged 4.7 yards per carry in Kansas City so giving him carries keeps opposing defenses on their toes and always guessing.
But the receiving work is where Hunt shines. He averages 4.05 targets per game over his career and 9.6 yards per reception with 11 touchdowns. Chubb, on the other hand, averages less than 2.5 targets per game, 7.6 yards per reception, and has scored only 2 touchdowns. If you could throw a higher percentage of your passes to either of these two, who are choosing?
Chubb’s current ADP sits at RB8 in PPR leagues, according to FantasyPros. His ADP makes him more volatile, especially from a consistency standpoint. Hunt’s is RB29. It’s clear to see where the value lies.
My projections have Chubb and Hunt with these respective stat lines:
Chubb – 299 rushes, 1,465 yards and 9 touchdowns with 31 targets, 23 receptions, 175 yards and 0 touchdowns, good for 241 fantasy points and an RB13 finish.
Hunt – 111 rushes, 500 yards and 5 touchdowns with 70 targets, 58 receptions, 452 yards and 2 touchdowns, good for 195 fantasy points and an RB21 finish.
We love to preach “volume is king” but are suddenly fading Chubb when we know he’s going to see a ton of volume. Hunt’s value lies in PPR leagues, but you’re still relying on efficiency, which can be boom or bust.
With all of this information, we can easily justify fading Chubb at his current ADP and selecting Hunt at his. But if Stefanski has the same kind of commitment to the running game that he did in Minnesota where Cook finished as an RB2 or higher in 13 out of his 14 games played, are we that concerned with Chubb’s potential for consistency?
I’m all for Hunt at his current price, but Chubb is going to touch the ball over 300 times and I’ll take that from my RB1 every single time, especially if I decide to go wide receiver in the first round of my drafts.