Why take a risk on a player with noted off-field issues when you’ve already got a sturdy backfield?
The Browns made headlines with the biggest free agent signing of the 2019 offseason so far, but adding Kareem Hunt is a high-risk, low-reward transaction for John Dorsey’s club. The embattled tailback — currently on the league’s exempt list for shoving and then kicking a woman — is facing a significant suspension this season. That won’t help change the perception Cleveland is a destination for off-field distractions and in-house dysfunction.
And with an already potent backfield, it’s a move that doesn’t make a ton of sense.
Even if we ignore the narratives that will follow Hunt’s troubled trail from Kansas City to Ohio, the addition of the Pro Bowl running back isn’t a move that fits a major need for the Browns. With a potent backfield already locked down for the upcoming season, Hunt would have been a luxury signing without the baggage he’ll bring with him as he awaits NFL discipline.
General manager John Dorsey flexed to make a very John Dorsey signing
It’s not surprising Dorsey went to bat for the running back just months after video of Hunt’s assault became public. He was the man who drafted Hunt while an executive in Kansas City, and offering second (or third, or fourth) chances to players with character concerns has become his calling card. With the Chiefs, it was players like Tyreek Hill who had pleaded guilty to domestic abuse by strangulation of his pregnant girlfriend. In Cleveland, he provided opportunities for athletes like Antonio Calloway (accused of sexual assault at Florida) and Desmond Harrison (suspended multiple times at Texas due to unspecified violations of team rules).
Dorsey says he’s a believer in redemption stories, a theme he repeated when discussing Hunt’s signing at a press conference Monday.
“At the end of it, the one thing we did find was he understands and takes full accountability for the egregious act he committed,” Dorsey said. “He is extremely remorseful for his actions. What he has done is he has sought professional counseling. With regards to moving forward, anything like this situation, once he understands his situation, he is now working toward being a better man moving forward.
“Trust has to be earned, and that has to be earned with the Cleveland Browns organization and the community of Cleveland moving forward. This will be a day-to-day thing in terms of earning trust.”
But Hunt didn’t take accountability, at least publicly, until after video of the assault came to light. He didn’t seek counseling or levy apologies to the people involved until after TMZ dropped the hard evidence on the world. He was still accused of another attack months later (but before the video of his hotel incident was released) after allegedly punching a man at a resort. In the lead-up to the February assault, he allegedly played a role in a night club brawl.
This suggests Hunt only learned from the backlash that followed rather than the incidents themselves. While counseling and intervention are good first steps to getting Hunt’s head right, he’s still less than a year removed from these altercations.
That’s troubling for the Browns. And it’s an addition the team doesn’t exactly need.
The Browns already had two talented tailbacks waiting for snaps in 2019
Cleveland’s backfield was so strong last fall that it discarded Carlos Hyde and got better as a result. Rookie Nick Chubb was one of the league’s most efficient runners, ranking fifth in the league among qualified backs with 5.2 yards per carry. He was buttressed by Duke Johnson, a 25-year-old platoon back who played a perfect pass-catching complement out of the backfield. Not only has he caught more than 77 percent of his targets as a pro, but his 5.0 yards per carry in limited duty in 2018 marked a career high.
That powerful pairing averaged approximately 19 carries per game after Hyde was traded to Jacksonville, taking up 100 percent of the team’s rushes from tailbacks in the process. There’s room for a player like Hunt to jump into the mix, but not much. The Browns averaged only 23.6 carries per game once Kitchens took over the offense, and that included runs from Mayfield (39 in total) and pitches to non-RBs like Breshad Perriman and Jarvis Landry.
There’s a chance Hunt’s role will be to usurp one of the team’s longest-tenured players. Dorsey wasn’t entirely committed to Johnson, a four-year veteran in Cleveland, when he discussed Hunt’s signing Monday afternoon.
“I think Duke Johnson is a fine football player,” Dorsey told the media. “What [signing Hunt] does ... I don’t think it makes him expendable yet.”
But Johnson’s total action — combined carries and targets — remained steady at 6.4 per game whether under Kitchens or previous offensive coordinator Todd Haley. He’s proven he’s a versatile performer who can fill multiple roles on an offense, and if Dorsey does cut him loose, he’ll have his share of suitors.
Hunt, in a vacuum, is a star capable of taking touches away from Chubb and Johnson to keep head coach Freddie Kitchens’ backfield fresh throughout a 17-week season. But the Browns have no idea when he’ll be available — the league’s baseline suspension for first-time offenders is six games, but it could be more given the other accusations of violence lobbed at Hunt over the past year. And it’s not as though the team’s current rotation is long in the tooth; the Browns’ existing 1-2 punch only has 491 career carries between them.
Dorsey wanted to add some extra skill to his backfield, and from a pure talent standpoint there’s no single player capable of making a bigger impact than Hunt. The 2017 NFL rushing leader is a powerhouse runner and useful receiver who has averaged nearly a touchdown per game as a pro. However, it’s not like the second-year GM had to go bargain hunting to help his running game. Hunt’s unguaranteed one-year, $1 million contract brings Cleveland’s 2019 cap space down to a shade over $79 million — the third-highest amount in the NFL.
That means any number of veterans could have filled the open spot in Dorsey’s backfield, none of whom would have been staring down a lengthy suspension for assaulting a woman. This year’s crop of free agents isn’t overwhelming, but backs like Tevin Coleman, Jay Ajayi, Mark Ingram, Latavius Murray, and even the timeless Frank Gore would have been solid supporting players behind the Chubb-Johnson platoon up front. And while those free agents may have scoffed at the idea of playing for the Browns in prior years, the combination of Mayfield, a revamped offense, and the rare specter of hope in Northeast Ohio would have given them more free agency gravitas this spring than at any period over the past decade.
And now Freddie Kitchens has one more distraction with which to deal
The Browns are asking their first-year head coach to make a major leap in 2019. Kitchens earned his shot at Cleveland’s top job after eight games as the team’s interim offensive coordinator. It was his only experience as a top-level assistant at any level.
The former Alabama quarterback did enough to earn his spot. He unlocked Baker Mayfield’s shining potential and made the rookie passer look like an MVP candidate over the final half of 2018. His ability to spread Mayfield’s targets out beyond Landry helped push the Browns to a 5-3 finish that effectively ended the postseason hopes of the Broncos, Panthers, and Bengals.
That ability to spread the wealth and keep opposing defenses on their toes helped spur Dorsey’s decision to reunite with Hunt. But while Kitchens will be happy to pad his playbook out with another chain-moving star, he’ll also have another headache to deal with at his weekly press conferences. Now he’s not just tasked with rehabilitating the Browns, but also providing the stage for Hunt to get his career back on track while doing his best to keep his newest acquisition out of trouble.
That’s a lot for a budding new coach with plenty to prove. Having the versatile Hunt on the roster gives the Browns a dynamic talent who wraps the best qualities of Chubb and Johnson into a single player. It also increases the scrutiny on a rising young team working toward a breakout season.
Granted, the Browns pushed through the distraction of HBO’s Hard Knocks to record their best season since 2007. And doubt only seems to fuel Mayfield, whose ability to turn perceived slights into motivation rivals only the entire Patriots squad. But the Browns haven’t dealt with a disciplinary issue on Hunt’s level yet, and Dorsey’s history of gambling on players with checkered pasts suggest it could be a test run for things to come in Cleveland.
Hunt was almost certainly going to get a second chance. It’s not especially surprising it came from Dorsey. But the timing — fewer than three months after his initial release — doesn’t jibe with the “rehabilitation” theme his new general manager is riding.
Cleveland is talking a good game from the public relations front, but until the club acts on terms like “zero tolerance” and “earning trust,” these are just words. If the team was so concerned about Hunt turning his life around and becoming the person Dorsey thought he was when he drafted him in 2017, it could have waited until the tailback had some hard evidence to back it up. Instead, the Browns signed him based on 10 weeks of platitudes and a few vague promises.
Hunt is a tremendous talent on the field, but as multiple assault accusations show, a tremendous question mark off it. Hunt was allegedly connected to three acts of violence in 2018 alone, and even if he’s on his best behavior he’ll still be the focus of the locker room in 2019. That’s a big price to pay for a player who doesn’t fill a need in Cleveland.
From solely a football standpoint, signing Hunt was a move that made the Browns better. But the cost of adding 10 percent more production may be focusing 100 percent more scrutiny on a rising young team. For the Browns, that’s no bargain.