Browns Mailbag

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Browns Mailbag: How will the Browns maximize all their talent at RB?

Staff writer Anthony Poisal answers your questions every week

090922_Mailbag

The calendar has officially flipped to September, and that means we've turned things over into regular season mode here in Berea.

We're keeping the weekly Mailbag open and tackling four questions before the Browns depart for Charlotte.

With 5 running backs on the 53 man roster, what is the most effective way to maximize all the talent? Chubb, Hunt, and Johnson are definitely top dogs with Felton being used as a receiver. Would Ford have to line up with the special teams such as kick returner, or kick off coverage situations? - Jonathan H., Atlanta Georgia

I assume that by "maximizing all the talent" here, you mean finding efficient ways to get the football to each of the running backs. That's obviously easier said than done when, as you mentioned, there are five guys who qualify as a running back on this team, and it's possible that each of them will be asked to contribute in big ways at some point this season.

We already know what Chubb and Hunt can do every week, and they could be tasked with carrying possibly their biggest workloads ever in their Browns careers this year (more on that later). The Browns will be looking for big contributions from both of them to spark the offense, especially after they each endured injury spells last season — Hunt missed nine games, and his versatile skills were sorely missed.

But what about D'Ernest Johnson, Jerome Ford and Demetric Felton Jr.?

Felton was used almost exclusively as a wide receiver in training camp. He was one of the guys who played primarily in the slot when rookie third-rounder David Bell missed the first part of camp with a foot injury, and it's a safe bet that Felton will be used in multiple roles as a receiver throughout the year. He'll also be the kick and punt returner, so he'll have plenty of chances to make plays.

"He has a good skillset as a runner after the catch, as a returner and as a receiver," offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said Thursday. "There are a lot of things he does really well. Just finding ways to enhance his skillset and help him be productive. Real excited about where he has come from a late-round draft pick into a guy who is going to potentially play a lot of snaps for us on offense and on special teams. He is another guy who just comes in and puts the work in and is really very coachable and tries to do everything that we ask him to do."

Johnson and Ford will be asked to step into big roles if injuries affect Chubb, Hunt and Felton. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said Johnson will be the backup to Felton on kickoff returns, and Johnson proved last year that he's plenty capable of getting the job done if he needs to carry an elevated role on offense.

Ford received work in training camp as a returner, too, but he will likely serve as a backup to the top RBs and keep his duties on offense. He showed good speed and vision as a runner and flashed versatility as a pass-catcher in training camp, so it'll be interesting to see if the Browns work him in at any point as a rookie. A fifth-round pick in this year's draft, Ford definitely has the potential to produce if needed this year, and certainly beyond 2022 as well.

Check out photos of players and coaches working to prepare for the teams first regular season game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday

Why does Kevin seem to be reticent to get Chubb and Hunt on the field at the same time, on a routine basis. Notice that I didn't go where others 'thought' I would go, implying that they be in the backfield at the same time. Although that would be nice, what I'm actually suggesting is that they put Kareem Hunt in the slot, as opposed to Felton. - Chris B., Bedford

Should the time be now to use multi RBs in the back at the same time, and use different QBs with different options for the offense during the same game? - Ken P, Dorset, Ohio

We're keeping the RB conversations going and answering these two questions together.

It's certainly possible that we'll see Chubb and Hunt on the field together more this year than we've seen in previous years — which has been very little. Hunt was used a few times as a slot receiver as well as on the outside in training camp, so the Browns are definitely looking to use him efficiently again in the pass game.

Here's what Van Pelt said Thursday when asked if Hunt will be used more as a WR:

"I think we always as an offense try to put our players in the best position, put our best players on the field and find ways to have them contribute. We love him as a runner. 1 and 1A really in the backfield. Both (Chubb and Hunt) are great, great runners in the backfield, but he brings a skillset that you can use elsewhere, as well. We will find a way to put the best 11 guys on the field each time. It may not be all the time and it may not be at all this week, but we will find ways to get those guys involved."

So what about using them together in the backfield? The Browns notably used that setup at times in practices in the spring and on occasion in training camp, and there were several times where Hunt would initially line up as a receiver and then be flexed into the backfield with Chubb.

Perhaps we'll see more of that on game days this year. There aren't many defenses who could consistently shut that package down.

It's worth noting, however, that those formations were mostly used when the Browns were practicing with Deshaun Watson under center, and it remains to be seen how much they'd still deploy it with Brissett at QB for the first 11 games. The Browns are going to lean on the run a lot to try and create manageable third-down situations for Brissett, so Chubb and Hunt could both see some of their highest per-game carry totals in their Cleveland careers. The Browns will want to keep their legs fresh for the fourth quarter — which is one reason why they haven't used both Chubb and Hunt together in previous seasons.

Maybe that means we don't see them used together as much as it appeared would be the case in offseason practices. But the Browns are certainly exploring ways to do so and will take a methodical approach to it.

Three phases of the game are needed to win in this league. And win big. Offense, Defense, and Special teams? What is the plan from the brain trust after the Jakeem Grant injury in the return game? Haven't scored a return in awhile. Maybe since Josh? - Donald Van M., Houston, Texas

Grant was undoubtedly a huge loss, and Priefer made that point especially clear Thursday when he spoke with the media.

"Obviously that stung us a little bit," he said. "We were going to rely on him a lot on kickoff and punt. Injuries are a part of football unfortunately. They are an unfortunate part of football. In his case, I think he would have transcended our return game."

But Priefer does have hope that Felton can step above the production he had as a returner last season, when he averaged 7.1 yards in 32 punt returns and 19.1 yards in nine kick returns. A year of experience should be a big benefit for him — he never returned a punt until his rookie season — and Priefer has worked closely with him to tweak every single detail of his return game.

"He has worked extremely hard in his ball security, tracking punts, catching punts and just the little nuances of where your hands are, your elbows, your feet, your body position and how to track it, get to the spot and move your feet to adjust and those little things," he said. "Hundreds and hundreds of reps since last year in terms of the spring, training camp and then this past week. He is, I don't want to say comfortable because I never want my returner to be comfortable, but I want him to be confident. I think he is much more confident than he was a year ago."

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