Matthew Dayes, the 252nd pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, may actually be the key to unlocking the full potential of the Cleveland Browns running backs.
A relatively minor move may have cleared up the running back position for the 2017 season. The Cleveland Browns waived second-year running back Darius Jackson with an injury designation, who then went unclaimed and reverted to the team on injury reserve. For most fans, this is a pretty small deal and largely they’re right, but that may set off a small chain reaction for the Browns at running back that could produce impressive results.
Darius Jackson was a sixth-round pick in 2016 by the Dallas Cowboys out of Eastern Michigan. Anyone who follows me knows just how high I am on Jackson as he was the best athlete in the entire 2016 draft class, let alone out of the running backs. Built like a linebacker with corner speed and agility.
I was excited to see what Browns running backs coach Kirby Wilson could do with that type of athleticism and potential in a full offseason and training camp. That dream is deferred at least for the time being with the injury. The details of Jackson’s knee injury are unknown (to me anyway), so what exactly the injury is, when it occurred and his future is impossible at this point.
In the 2017 NFL Draft, the Browns selected running back Matthew Dayes out of N.C. State. At the time, my feeling was that Dayes might be a player the Browns would ultimately cut and hope they could stash on the practice squad. Dayes is an excellent receiver and blocker out of the backfield, who could provide Duke Johnson insurance. If Isaiah Crowell, Johnson or potentially Jackson suffered an injury, they could put Dayes on the active roster and not really miss a beat.
The Browns still have George Atkinson, who basically sat on the active roster all last year without seeing the field before getting in for Week 17 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and looking pretty decent, carrying the ball seven times for 34 yards and a touchdown. And it’s possible the Browns could keep four backs as they did last year but the overall talent on the team is improved and it appears as though the Browns will have bigger priorities to keep on the 53-man roster than a fourth back, leaving Atkinson to be a good option for the practice squad.
If Dayes is going to make the 53-man roster, that insurance policy for Duke Johnson is now active every week as they’ll want three backs. That should mean the Browns will feel more comfortable maximizing Johnson in their offense.
Unquestionably, the Browns are going to ride Crowell this year in what could be his final season as a member of the Browns. He’s going to be an unrestricted free agent and could opt to sign elsewhere in the offseason, hoping to cash in after a big season.
Johnson will be a free agent after 2018 and if I had to bet, I think Johnson is the higher priority for the Browns than Crowell in terms of where they are willing to invest salary cap dollars. The reason is because Johnson can be a good runner, giant mismatch in coverage and is far and away the best blocker on the team. He’s a complete back and offers the versatility to be a threat lined up as a wide receiver, which is more difficult to replace
Many will criticize Johnson as so often he seems to come up limping after he carries the ball ( completely fair point) but he always seems to end up back on the field. As a result, the Browns have tended to shy away from giving Johnson the ball because if he were to go down last year, they had no one they could trust in pass protection.
Dec 24, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson (29) during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Obviously Dayes has to prove he can be a good pass protector in the NFL, but that along with receiving was his calling card for N.C. State. It was a big selling point for the Browns at the Senior Bowl where they got an opportunity to coach Dayes before selecting him. If he can prove effective, it means the Browns don’t have to be afraid to get Johnson the ball because if he comes out for a play, a series or worse, they don’t have to change their offense.
Hue Jackson has talked about how he kicked himself for not unning the ball more in 2016. He should, though. After the first month of the season where Crowell and Johnson combined the for the league lead in rushing yards, it seemed as though Jackson knew they could run the ball and had a good sense of where the season was going. So he opted not to put unnecessary hits and mileage on his backs as the season progressed in an effort to keep them fresher for 2017 when the team presumably would be more competitive.
Naturally, that would suggest the Browns will give the ball to Crowell more, who had just198 carries in 2016. He averaged an impressive 4.8 yards per carry and that type of production demands far more touches. Assuming he stays healthy, that number will probably be far closer to 250 carries this year. Crowell did also supplement those carries with 40 receptions on the year, which put him at a total of 1,271 yards on the year. Not a bad little season.
Meanwhile, due to the lack of options to block behind him, Johnson was limited to just 73 carries even at 4.9 yards per carry. He did catch 53 passes, which is where he’s a nightmare matchup, but even that only adds up to 126 touches. Even with so few touches, Johnson amassed 872 total yards, which is just under 7.0 yards per touch.
With Dayes, the restrictions on Johnson will hopefully come off and while Crowell will be the focus heading into 2017 and there’s good reason for him to be, Johnson unleashed has the potential to be special. Hue Jackson loves Crowell and his ability to be a tougher runner and a developing receiver, but Johnson’s complete skill set is more difficult to find and replace.
I really hope that Darius Jackson can fully recover from whatever happened to his knee and the Browns will get the opportunity to see just what he can do with all of that athletic potential under Wilson’s guiding hand.
In the meantime, the hope is that Dayes can be the third down back the Browns envision him to be because that should allow the Browns to fully realize Crowell and Johnson in 2017 behind an improved offensive line, taking pressure off of whoever is to be the team’s quarterback. The second to last pick of the entire draft could be key in unlocking the Cleveland Browns full potential at the running back position this year.