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4 potential running back options for the Cleveland Browns after Nick Chubb's season-ending injury

Could a reunion with a former Browns running back be on the horizon?

CLEVELAND — The loss of Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb to a catastrophic knee injury on Monday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers has sent shockwaves throughout the city and the NFL.

The loss of Chubb to this Browns team cannot be understated. Through the first five quarters of the season, neither the Cincinnati Bengals nor the Steelers defense had an answer for the Chubb, who had gained 170 yards prior to his injury.

Chubb, a four-time Pro Bowler, has also rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of the past four seasons. In 2022, he posted his best season so far, rushing for 1,525 yards with a 5.0 average per carry, plus 12 touchdowns.

So without Chubb, what do the Browns do now?

Jerome Ford and Pierre Strong Jr. represent the current options on the roster. On Tuesday, Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski said that Ford will be the featured back going forward, while the team will explore adding another option in the backfield. 

Both in their second season, the tandem of Ford and Strong have a grand total of 15 and 17 games played, respectively, with a combined 255 total rushing yards. That's hardly enough of a sample size for the Browns to gamble on.

So if the Browns look elsewhere for help at running back, here are four options, including one potential reunion, via trade and free agency:

1. Cam Akers - Los Angeles Rams

Perhaps the most obvious and realistic of the options available for the Browns could be a trade involving Akers. Akers is only 24-years-old, but is in Rams head coach Sean McVay's doghouse following week 2 where he was a healthy "inactive" going into a matchup with the 49ers. Clearly, the former second round pick could do for a change of scenery after flashing signs of greatness, yet never completely breaking out in his first four seasons in LA.

Excluding an injury riddled 2021 season where Akers missed the season, Akers has rushed for 1,443 yards in his 30-game career, averaging 4.0 yards per carry. Another point in Akers favor? While he split carries with Darrell Henderson and Kyren Williams last year, Akers still found the end zone seven times.

He represents a true boom-or-bust option for Cleveland.

2. Leonard Fournette - Free Agent

Fournette's best days are clearly behind him, but his last three years as part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has proven that the former LSU great still has value to a team competing for a championship.

Where Akers represents a boom-or-bust option, you know what you're going to get from Fournette. The ultimate safe option for Andrew Berry. Fournette has not rushed for more than 1,000 yards since 2019 when he was in Jacksonville, but was effective in the run game while splitting carries with Ronald Jones and Rashaad White during his time in Tampa. He also represents a threat in the passing game with 142 receptions for 977 yards over the last two seasons.

Fournette does come with a bit of an injury risk, having never played a full season in his six-year career.

He won't be anything close to Nick Chubb, but would unquestionably be an asset to Deshaun Watson.

3. Jonathan Taylor - Indianapolis Colts

File it under "unlikely, but would be amazing." Taylor's current situation with the Colts front office has been nothing short of awkward. Colts owner Jim Irsay's public comments about Taylor's "low" value as a running back in the current NFL during his contract holdout in training camp has irreparably damaged his relationship with Indianapolis.

In an ideal world where money, salary cap considerations and trade capital is no concern, Taylor represents the ideal option in the short term. The drop-off from Chubb to Taylor would be the least severe of any option at the Browns' fingertips. Before an injury-riddled 2022 season, Taylor rushed for 1,811 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2021. When healthy, Taylor is near the top of the list of best running back in the NFL.

The problem? Taylor is currently searching for a team that will pay him the money he thinks he deserves in a long-term contract. He is currently in the final year of his rookie contract and will not be eligible to return to the field until week 5 since he is on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list for injuries to his back and ankle. Cleveland is clearly not the team that will give Taylor what he wants. 

Would he agree to play for the Browns on a rental basis, risk further injury and look to get his money in free agency after the season? Highly unlikely.

Also, what is his price on the trade market? The Colts have been steadfast in their position to not let him go for anything other than a huge haul of top draft picks and/or players back. A price likely too high for 13-game rental.

4. D'Ernest Johnson - Jacksonville Jaguars

Did you expect someone else here? Johnson is the least proven of the options above, only seeing any amount of significant use in 2021 with the Browns. But he flashed undeniable signs of talent during that season in Cleveland, rushing for 534 yards on 100 carries, good for 5.34 yards per carry. 

Johnson signed a deal with the Jaguars in free agency during the offseason and is currently playing the majority of his time on special teams. 

If a reunion did take place, it would likely signal more that the Browns are showing confidence in Jerome Ford playing a significant role in the offense along with Johnson and Pierre Strong.

D'Ernest does also come with knowledge of Kevin Stefanski's offense, and familiarity could be a welcome sight if the more proven options don't bear fruit.

Where's Kareem Hunt?

Speaking of familiarity, Kareem Hunt's name is one that I'm sure a lot of Browns fans immediately brought up as a no-brainer option. Like with D'Ernest Johnson, Hunt knows the offense and played a major role in Stefanski's system behind Nick Chubb as a change-of-pace back. 

However, his steep decline in 2022 cannot be ignored. Prior to that season, Hunt had never averaged below 4.0 yards per carry. Last year, Hunt averaged just 3.8 yards per tote and managed just four total touchdowns. 

Rumors of Hunt's name being on the trade block before last year's trade deadline, his reduced role in Stefanski's offense and an obvious decline in ability lead to Hunt testing the waters in free agency when his contract expired at the end of 2022.

Prior to the start of the 2023 regular season, Hunt visited the Vikings, Saints and Colts. Each time, he left with no contract. Three teams desperate for running back help all passed on Hunt. Given his rocky history, decline in 2022 and the lack of interest around the league, this reunion would seem to be a longshot at best.

Other notable options:

  • Cordarrelle Paterson - Atlanta Falcons
  • Rashaad Penny - Philadelphia Eagles
  • Darrell Henderson - Free Agent
  • JD McKissic - Free Agent
  • Dontrell Hilliard - Free Agent
  • Rex Burkhead - Free Agent
  • Malcom Brown - Free Agent

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