We're 31 days from the start of training camp in Berea, which means we have a little time to look toward the clouds (which have been dumping plenty of rain on us recently) and ponder deep thoughts about how things might go for the 2019 Cleveland Browns.
From that process, we've emerged from the inner portion of our football-focused consciences with nine very important questions related to this football team, which reconvenes for the start of camp in a month. We'll address one per weekday for the next two weeks, starting with a look at the guys lining up behind (and sometimes alongside) Baker Mayfield.
Most Important Question No. 9: How will practice and preseason reps be distributed among Cleveland's running backs?
The Browns are deeper at running back than they've been at any other point since their return to the NFL in 1999.
Nick Chubb's emergence last season as a viable lead back made the combination of he and Duke Johnson one of the league's better duos entering 2019, and that was before John Dorsey signed Kareem Hunt. The question then became: Will there be enough touches to go around?
The distribution of carries and targets remains to be seen, but we can glean a little bit of info on that front by watching how often the trio cycles in and out at running back. And we still haven't even mentioned one of the offseason's brightest stars in Dontrell Hilliard, who figures to fill a role similar to that of Johnson, while also getting looks as a returner.
Opportunities were part of why Johnson made his desire to be sent elsewhere public in the offseason, but as long as he is a member of the Browns, the team will have a role for him that should include a healthy share of touches. Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said as much during minicamp, and sure enough, Johnson got his share of chances during the practices.
"Yes, definitely," Kitchens said when asked in early June if he and his staff have started planning for how to use each running back. "Duke has a package. Dontrell Hilliard has a package. Kareem (Hunt) has a package. Nick (Chubb) has a package. Odell (Beckham) has a package. Even though he has not been here, he still got a package. Everybody has a package. Hell, I even have a package."
Jokes aside, the Browns coaching staff made clear during offseason activities that they very much value Johnson's ability and potential to contribute to the team. He's even more valuable during the first eight weeks of the 2019 season, in which Hunt will be unavailable while serving a suspension stemming from his off-field incidents that saw him released by the Chiefs late in 2018. That's also where Hilliard could help as another versatile back along with Johnson.
"Dontrell showed what he could do last year a little bit, but we had Duke and Duke had been doing it for a long time," Kitchens said of the satellite back situation in Cleveland. "Duke has been doing it for a long time and Duke still does it very well. That is the whole reason we played three running backs. We felt like we have three running backs that can play football and could make plays. Dontrell will have a role in this offense anyway you can cut it, whether it is out wide or played wide receiver. You guys were not at practice earlier last week, but he played out wide some, played some receiver and plays in the slot. Dontrell will have a role. I hope that answers your question."
Chubb will remain as the figurative power back -- he runs with power but isn't the traditional lumbering type -- who will likely see the most carries, but unlike in seasons past, he's expected to also present a greater threat in the passing game. Chubb has been working on catching the ball out of the backfield during the offseason and has steadily improved in that area. He credited the help of coaches and teammates for his continued development in a recent one-on-one interview with ClevelandBrowns.com.
But in going back to the last Kitchens quote, simple math tells you there will be a need for all three, especially without Hunt. That's what makes this important, because while Hunt can participate fully in training camp and all preseason activities up until Week 1 of the regular season, it's intriguing to see how much he'll be involved with the offense.
Just because he's missing the first eight games doesn't mean his inclusion should be any less; Hunt is expected to be a major contributor after he returns from suspension. But at the same time, how many reps could he take away from a player who will be available in Weeks 1-8?
That can shed some light on the future roles of Johnson and Hilliard, and perhaps offer a peek into how this offense will operate from the running back standpoint. That's worth monitoring during the dog days of summer.