Tue Nov 12 5:03pm ET
By TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) rushes between Buffalo Bills free safety Jordan Poyer (21) and strong safety Micah Hyde (23) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
In this May 15, 2019, file photo, Cleveland Browns' Kareem Hunt (27) and Nick Chubb (24) talk during an NFL football organized team activity session at the team's training facility in Berea, Ohio. With Kareem Hunt returning from his eight-game NFL suspension to join Nick Chubb in Clevelands backfield, the Browns (3-6) have a dynamic duo that will test opposing defenses through the air and on the ground. In Sundays 19-16 win over Buffalo, the Hunt-Chubb tandem combined for 147 yards rushing and 49 receiving while helping the Browns snap a four-game losing streak that halted a season shaped by high expectations from dissolving into another mess. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane, File)
Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb, top, is tackled by Buffalo Bills cornerback Taron Johnson during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt (27) rushes against the Buffalo Bills during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
BEREA, Ohio (AP) Freddie Kitchens has struggled to make two star wide receivers happy. The Browns coach now has a pair of elite running backs to please as well.
One football. Four playmakers.
That's not necessarily a bad problem.
With Kareem Hunt returning from his eight-game NFL suspension to join Nick Chubb in Cleveland's backfield, the Browns (3-6) have a dynamic duo that will test opposing defenses on the ground and through the air.
In Sunday's 19-16 win over Buffalo, the Hunt-Chubb tandem debuted and combined for 196 total yards while helping the Browns snap a four-game losing streak that halted this season shaped by high expectations from dissolving into another maddening mess.
Kitchens, whose future was beginning to look bleak and remains unclear, understands that Chubb-Hunt can be a potent 1-2 combination.
''Anytime you can get guys who can do things with the ball in their hands and they can also play off of other people, that definitely impacts decisions, alignments and assignments,'' Kitchens said Tuesday as the Browns prepared for Thursday night's game against the surging Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4) ''When you have more than a couple of options, it's always, from that positon in particular, very good.''
And very needed.
To this point, the Browns have lacked a clear offensive identity.
The two-back, Chubb-Hunt set may change that.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield hasn't developed any consistent chemistry with Pro Bowl receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who has just one touchdown catch as teams have focused on taking him away with double teams. The Browns went out of their way to get Beckham involved on Sunday as he was targeted 12 times - Mayfield just missed him on two long throws - and had five catches.
Jarvis Landry had one of his best games this season with nine receptions for 97 yards and a touchdown.
The Browns have already seen how Hunt's versatility will prevent teams from keying on Chubb, who is on the verge of a 1,000-yard season, while creating more downfield opportunities for Beckham and Landry.
''We kind of did some experiments on just how much we can do with that package,'' Mayfield said. ''Obviously, two dynamic players with Nick and Kareem, we are able to do a lot but kind of make to where we format it where it all looks similar, but we are doing different things out of it. It can be an explosive package for us. We just have to go out there and do our job.''
From the start on Sunday, Hunt did his job, unleashing months of pent-up energy.
On Cleveland's second play, he lined up alongside Chubb and then delivered a kick-out block that cleared a path for his teammate on a 21-yard run. It was a tone-setter and perhaps a sign of things to come.
''They're both willing blockers, they both can catch out of the backfield, then can line up in different spots and they both run with great energy,'' said left guard Joel Bitonio. ''It was cool to see `em both out there. Hunt ran the ball hard the few times he got it. The cool thing was he was lead-blocking a few times and some of those were big spring plays. You know we don't have a fullback in there, but he kind of acted like it a couple times.
''That was really cool to see, his willingness to be that guy.''
Hunt's debut for the Browns was a revelation in many ways.
The 24-year-old former NFL rushing champion is determined to change his personal narrative following two ugly, off-field incidents that led to his release by the Kansas City Chiefs last year and subsequent league punishment. To some, the disturbing video of Hunt shoving and kicking a woman during an argument last year has painted him as an unforgivable villain.
However, the Browns have been impressed with his attitude and maturity. He's made strides off the field. On it, he's a potentially game-changing player.
''Whatever the team needs, he'll do,'' said center JC Tretter. ''He showed it.''
Hunt understands there may be people not thrilled that he's getting a second chance. That's something else he has avoided focusing on.
''I really do not pay too much attention with that,'' he said when asked if he senses how fans have received his return. ''It is up to you. If you like me, you like me.''
NOTES: DE Olivier Vernon (knee) and S Eric Murray (knee) remain sidelined and will likely miss Thursday's game. ... The season's first significant snowfall forced the Browns to practice indoors. But kicker Austin Seibert, punter Jamie Gillan and long snapper Charley Hughlett went outside to get their work in. ... Mayfield will match up Thursday against Steelers QB Mason Rudolph for the first time as pros. They faced each other three times in college with Mayfield leading Oklahoma to a 3-0 record against Rudolph and Oklahoma State. ''Mason is a great guy,'' Mayfield said. ''He is playing well, taking care of the ball, putting them in a good position to win.''
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Kendrick Bourne signed his one-year tender on Monday. Bourne had 30 receptions on 44 targets for 358 yards and a career-high five touchdowns in 16 games (zero starts) for the team in 2019. There is plenty of opportunity for Bourne and others to start in three-receiver sets in 2020 behind Deebo Samuel. With nine touchdowns in his last two seasons with the Niners, the 24-year-old has proven to be a nice red-zone presence for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, but it remains to be seen if he can become a consistent starting option. There will be plenty of competition at the receiver position in San Fran, and they're also likely to address the position in the draft.
Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said that the team has "had internal discussions" about an extension for running back Christian McCaffrey. The stud running back is heading into the final year of his rookie deal, but the Panthers may wait and have him play on the fifth-year team option in 2021 before signing him to a long-term extension. Whether or not McCaffrey is playing with a new deal or not, he should be the No. 1 overall fantasy selection this fall. The 23-year-old former eighth overall pick ran the ball 287 times for a career-high 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns, while also catching 116 passes for 1,005 yards and another four scores.
New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas acknowledged that wide receiver Quincy Enunwa (neck) remains a "big question mark" heading into the 2020 season and beyond. Enunwa played in just one game in 2019 before being shut down for the year, and he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis. He also played in just 1 games in 2018 due to neck and back issues, and it's unknown if he'll ever be 100 percent again, which makes it hard for the Jets to rely on him behind Breshad Perriman and Jamison Crowder. If healthy, the 27-year-old (28 in May) wideout would likely be the team's No. 3 receiver, but he'll have to compete with Josh Doctson and Vyncint Smith and prove he's healthy in training camp.
The Kansas City Chiefs have had contract talks with defensive tackle Chris Jones, but there haven't been any offers up to this point. The Chiefs will also be trying to work out a long-term extension with Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, but that is unlikely to happen until sometime after the draft. The Chiefs placed the franchise tag on Jones earlier this offseason, but they'll have until July 15 to figure out an extension. The 25-year-old made the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2019, registering nine sacks, 36 tackles (23 solo), eight tackles for loss and 20 QB hits. Jones has become an essential inside presence on KC's defensive line and has 33 sacks in his four seasons in the league.
Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith should see an increased role in the offense in 2020 now that Stefon Diggs is playing for the Bills. When wide receiver Adam Thielen was out for almost two months with an injury last year, Smith caught 36 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns and emerged as a reliable target for quarterback Kirk Cousins. Minnesota's offense also relies heavily on tight ends under coach Gary Kubiak; tight ends have received an average of 23 percent of targets per season in Kubiak's 21 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator. Even battling for targets with Kyle Rudolph, Smith could become worth rostering as a TE2 in standard leagues in his second season in the NFL.
Dallas Cowboys WR Michael Gallup had 39 catches for 686 yards and five touchdowns in November and December last season compared to 27 catches, 421 yards and one touchdown in the first two months of the year.
Fantasy Spin: Gallup had more receptions, yards and touchdowns in the final two months of 2019 than he did in his entire rookie season, and he and Amari Cooper suddenly look like one of the better receiver duos heading into 2020. For his part, Gallup should be a WR3 with upside.
Los Angeles Rams TE Tyler Higbee had 43 catches for 522 yards and two touchdowns in the month of December last season compared to 26 catches, 212 yards and one score over the first three months combined.
Fantasy Spin: Jared Goff actually led the NFL in pass attempts last year, and now that Todd Gurley is not in the mix, Higbee's strong finish to 2019 could be a sign of things to come if the Rams continue to embrace a pass-heavy attack. Target him as a TE1 in 2020.
Baltimore Ravens TE Mark Andrews caught 31 passes for 440 yards and five touchdowns at home in 2019 and had 33 receptions for 412 yards and five scores in road contests.
Fantasy Spin: It didn't matter where the Ravens were playing. Andrews was routinely Lamar Jackson's favorite target and the most consistent member of the passing attack in an otherwise run-heavy offense. He's locked in as a TE1 heading into 2020.
Houston Texans WR Will Fuller played in 11 games in 2019, and the team averaged 26.3 points in those contests compared to 19.6 in the five games he missed. Houston had an 8-3 record when Fuller played and went 2-3 without him in the lineup.
Fantasy Spin: Fuller will be asked to be the No. 1 receiver for Houston in 2020 following the trade of DeAndre Hopkins, and while good things tend to happen when he is on the field, he has yet to play a full season. In fact, Fuller has played 11 or fewer games in each of the past three seasons. Fuller will have WR2 upside, but fantasy owners need to make sure to have depth at the receiver position if they choose to take a chance on him.
Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson threw for 14 touchdowns versus only three interceptions in seven home games last season. In eight road outings, he accounted for 12 passing scores versus nine interceptions.
Cleveland Browns RB Nick Chubb averaged 100.4 yards rushing, 0.75 touchdowns and 3.1 catches in eight games while Kareem Hunt served his eight-game suspension to begin last season. After Hunt was activated, Chubb averaged 86.4 yards rushing, 0.25 TDs and 1.4 catches.
Fantasy Spin: Hunt was very successful in his backup running back/slot role over the second half of the season, so it's fair to wonder if new head coach Kevin Stefanski has any designs on changing something that worked so well under the previous regime. Working in Chubb's favor is the likelihood Cleveland will be holding leads more often this season, meaning he could in a position to break off some more long scoring runs against tired defenses late in games. With Hunt around, however, Chubb should be considered a high-end RB2.
Pittsburgh Steelers RB James Conner broke a tackle once only every 23.2 rush attempts last season. In 2018, he broke a tackle once every 10.8 carries.
Baltimore Ravens RB Gus Edwards averaged 2.5 yards per carry before contact and 2.8 yards per carry after contact in 2019, slightly outperforming starter and backfield teammate Mark Ingram (2.4 and 2.6, respectively) in each category.
Miami Dolphins WR DeVante Parker finished third in the league with 939 yards before the catch last season, while his 13 yards before catch per reception was good for sixth among qualified players.
New England Patriots RB Sony Michel averaged 19 carries for 73 yards and scored four touchdowns in three games with Rex Burkhead injured last season. In those same contests, Michel compiled six of his 12 catches for the year. In the 13 games Burkhead was active, Michel averaged 14.6 carries for 53 yards and scored only three times.
Free-agent WR Jaron Brown (Seahawks) likely will not re-sign with the Seattle Seahawks this offseason since the Seahawks signed WR Phillip Dorsett earlier in the offseason.
New York Jets WR Quincy Enunwa (neck) is not considering retirement even though he is recovering from a neck injury. He is scheduled to receive $10.1 million in guaranteed money over the next two seasons.
Fantasy Spin: Enunwa has been limited to 12 games over the last three seasons because of injury and his status for the 2020 season is still uncertain. Fantasy players should keep an eye on his situation, but he should be considered a risky option in all leagues.
San Francisco 49ers running back Matt Breida didn't have much of a role on offense to end last season behind Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman. If Jerick McKinnon is actually healthy in 2020, he gives the 49ers a legitimate route-runner and third-down option out of the backfield. San Fran could be willing to trade Breida's rights for a low-round draft pick. Of all the backs in this crowded backfield, Breida is the most likely to be playing for another team come the start of the season. The 25-year-old from Georgia Southern has been productive with 5.0 yards per carry on 381 career rushing attempts in his three years with the Niners, but he's also consistently battled nagging injuries and is now buried on the depth chart. A move out of this crowded backfield and onto another team with more opportunity would be best for Breida's real-life and fantasy value.
The Seattle Seahawks may only be willing to pay free-agent LB Jadeveon Clowney $13 million to $15 million annually to return, according to 710 ESPN Seattle's John Clayton. Clowney is reportedly seeking a deal which will pay him at least $17 million per year.
Pittsburgh Steelers TE Eric Ebron is one of six tight ends with at least 20 red zone touchdowns over the last five seasons, and he joins a Pittsburgh offense that ranked last in red zone scoring in 2019.
Fantasy Spin: A healthy Ben Roethlisberger under center should also go a long way to helping the Pittsburgh offense, but Ebron addresses a big need. He's a lower-end TE1 candidate, even if he could be a little touchdown dependent.