By almost every measure, the Cleveland Browns are a bad football team. They almost went winless in 2016, which nearly resulted in the world's saddest parade. They were outscored by 188 points over the course of the season. They've won four games over the past two years -- combined!
But that doesn't mean bright spots don't exist on their roster. The Browns' rebuild is finally taking shape, and it's beginning to look like one that has a chance to succeed. Though that process will likely take another year or two, one player on the Browns' roster is poised to break out before the process is complete.
Running back Isaiah Crowell is ready to explode in 2017.
In 2016, Crowell experienced a career-best season. In 16 games, he rushed for 952 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Through the air, he added 319 yards on 40 receptions. By most standards, that's a solid season. Crowell ranked 15th in the league in rushing yards and tied for 15th in rushing touchdowns.
But Crowell was better than the 15th-best running back in all of football.
The reason Crowell ranked so low on those lists? His lack of carries. Last year, Crowell carried the ball only 198 times, which ranked 20th in the league. His lack of carries masked his true production: He ranked ninth in yards per carry, just behind Le'Veon Bell. That's what happens when you play for a team that almost never holds the lead. As a team, the Browns tied for the fewest rushing attempts in football.
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If the Browns can improve as a team, they should be in a position to hold more leads -- or at the very least remain within striking distance of their foes. And if they can do that, they can lean more heavily on the strength of their offense in Crowell.
The good news is that the Browns should be better this year for a multitude of reasons.
For one, it's difficult to be as bad as they were last year. Two, they had a successful free agency period by revamping their offensive line (more on this later). Three, they have a ton of young players who are expected to improve (one name to watch: Corey Coleman), including their incoming rookie class. Myles Garrett gives the Browns a franchise pass rusher to pair alongside Jamie Collins. DeShone Kizer was regarded as a first-round quarterback by many and the Browns got him in the second round. If Kizer can just be a marginal upgrade over the Browns' quarterback play a year ago (they averaged the fifth fewest passing yards per game), even that would be a huge improvement.
Just by being on a better team, Crowell should be afforded more opportunities to carry the ball. And that's a good thing, considering how elusive he was last year. According to Pro Football Focus, he forced 35 missed tackles (both as a runner and a receiver) last year. PFF tracks a statistic called elusive rating, which "attempts to distill the impact of a runner with the ball independently of the blocking in front of him by looking at how hard he was to bring down." Crowell finished with the 11th best elusive rating among all running backs -- just one spot behind David Johnson.
So, it should come as no surprise that Crowell is a damn good home-run hitter. PFF also tracks a statistic called breakaway percent, which calculates the percentage of a running back's yards that come from runs of at least 15 yards. Crowell led the league in breakaway percentage, as 47.5 percent of his yardage came on runs that went at least 15 yards.
There's two ways to look at that stat. The first way -- the pessimistic way -- is to conclude that there's no way in hell Crowell can maintain that type of home-run production. The second way -- the optimistic way -- is to conclude that Crowell will continue hitting home runs at an Aaron Judge-like pace. I'm not sure his breakaway percentage will continue to hover around 50 percent, but I'm optimistic it'll remain among the league's best.
Which brings us to the Browns' offensive line. Consider that Crowell did what he did last year with horrific quarterback play and a bad offensive line. According to Football Outsiders, the Browns' offensive line ranked 28th in adjusted line yards, which attempts to assign responsibility to the offensive line for a running back's successes and failures. Teams like the Titans and Cowboys ranked in the top five while teams like the Browns, Rams, and Vikings ranked near the bottom. Translation: The Browns' offensive line wasn't great at run blocking last year.
There are two big reasons to believe the Browns' offensive line will be better at opening up holes for Crowell next year. In free agency, Cleveland signed center JC Tretter and guard Kevin Zeitler, both of whom will start. Last year's starting center, Cameron Erving, was PFF's lowest-graded center when it came to run blocking. Tretter ranked 11th. Last year's starting right guard, John Greco, was PFF's 27th-best graded guard when it came to run blocking. Zeitler ranked sixth. Those are two significant upgrades on the offensive line.
Signing quality no-name offensive linemen is never sexy, but it's important. It'll be especially important for Crowell, because when he gets a chance to hit a hole, he doesn't hesitate:
He's already a master at making his way through seemingly non-existent holes:
One more example:
And this is what happens when he's given some actual space:
(If you can't already tell, Jonathan Kinsley is a must-follow on Twitter.)
Crowell's already among the most talented running backs in the league. Last year, he managed to manufacture a solid season without any help from his quarterbacks and offensive line. What happens when he finally does get help? What happens when the Browns finally resemble a competent team? What happens when he isn't flying solo?