The Cleveland Browns appear to have one too many running backs and not enough money to go around.
Team insiders have speculated that if Cleveland chooses to move on from one of their three quality rushers, either Kareem Hunt or D’Ernest Johnson will prove the odd man out. Starter Nick Chubb is a three-time Pro Bowler across four NFL seasons and is entering the second season of a three-year deal worth $36.6 million.
As it turns out, Hunt may have volunteered himself for the chopping block by staging a “hold-in” at Browns training camp, demanding a trade this week if the team is unwilling to sign him to a new multiyear contract. Cleveland turned down Hunt’s trade request on Sunday, August 7, though only time will tell if that is a negotiating tactic or the franchise’s true position.
Hunt is set to earn $6 million in 2022 on the final year of a two-year contract before hitting unrestricted free agency next spring. A former member of the Kansas City Chiefs, Hunt led the NFL in rushing with 1,327 yards during a Pro Bowl rookie campaign in 2017.
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Trading Kareem Hunt May be Most Sensible Move For Browns
At 27 years old, the starting-caliber running back could decide to sit out the entire season to preserve his health and pursue a long-term deal in 2023. Should Hunt make that decision, or even if he eventually decides to suit up this season, the Browns might be wise to seek a trade that could bring back a mid-round draft pick for a player unlikely to remain in Cleveland beyond this season.
One such opportunity may present itself in the NFC South Division at some point this year in the form of the New Orleans Saints. Running back Alvin Kamara was arrested on a felony battery charge on February 7 in Las Vegas, Nevada, following his appearance in the NFL Pro Bowl.
While court proceedings in Kamara’s case have been delayed, which could delay any coming punishment from the NFL, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk suggested in late June that the running back and his team were preparing for a possible six-game suspension.
Shortly after, in early July, Doug Kyed of Pro Football Focus suggested that a trade for Hunt may be in the best interests of all parties involved.
It would only make sense for the Browns to trade Hunt if they keep D’Ernest Johnson.
The Saints are bracing for a suspension for running back Alvin Kamara after he was charged with felony battery in February in Las Vegas [after] the Pro Bowl. If it’s a lengthy suspension, the Saints need a better replacement than Mark Ingram, Tony Jones and Abram Smith. Kamara and Hunt could coexist in New Orleans’ backfield, as well.
Johnson Serviceable Option as Chubb’s Backup in Cleveland Offense
As Kyed noted, Johnson proved himself more than capable of playing the second-string running back role in Cleveland, as well as a starting option when called upon.
Johnson rushed for career highs across the board in 2021, amassing 534 yards on 100 carries and scoring three touchdowns, per Pro Football Reference. He also caught 19 passes for 137 yards. Johnson is less expensive than Hunt as well, and will play this season on a one-year deal worth $1.216 million.
The Browns can afford to pay all three of their running backs easily, as they have north of $49 million at their disposal as of Sunday, per Over The Cap. However, clearing Hunt’s contract off the cap sheet would subtract his total cap number of $6.25 million from the books and make more room if the team needs to pivot away from quarterback Deshaun Watson this season based on the overall length of his coming suspension.
Should Watson prove unavailable for most, or all, of the season, the Browns will become a legitimate player for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who is entering the final year of his contract and carries a cap number just shy of $27 million.