Are Duke Johnson & Isaiah Crowell the New Tevin Coleman & Devonta Freeman?

Last season, every Fantasy player knew Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman had upside.

With Steven Jackson out of the picture, one of these backs was set up for a bigger workload. Most Fantasy players bet on Coleman to be the workhorse back, but Fantasy players were still cautious with how early they drafted Coleman and Freeman.

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Coleman generally went earlier than Freeman, but Coleman wasn’t off the board much earlier than Round 7 in a lot of leagues.

Freeman worked out as the better pick last season, but there are still debates on these two players heading into 2016.

But because Freeman is being drafted in Round 2, he obviously no longer has sleeper appeal. He will also cost you a lot to find out if he can repeat his stats from 2015.

However, there is a situation that looks very similar for the 2016 Fantasy Football season…

2016 Fantasy Football & The Cleveland Browns Backfield

In 2016, Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell appear to offer similar upside as Freeman and Coleman did before the start of the 2015 season.

Before thinking this sounds crazy, keep in mind the rushing stats for the Atlanta Falcons from 2014 to 2015:

2014: 1,498 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns

2015: 1,611 rushing yards, 13 rushing touchdowns

The Falcons went from an average of 93.6 rushing yards per game in 2014 to 100.7 in just a year.

They also mainly did it with a back who only rushed for 248 yards in 2014…

So how exactly did this magical turn around happen in such a short time?

The Rushing Attack for the Atlanta Falcons Before the 2015 Season

One of the reasons Freeman was successful was because of how well the offensive line performed. According to PFF offensive line ratings, the offensive line for the Falcons went from being ranked 26th in 2014 to 4th in 2015.

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Some will also point to new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as a catalyst for success. There were individual running backs under Shanahan during his years as offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, and Cleveland Browns who did quite well:

Houston Texans 2009: Steve Slaton– 1,282 rushing yards, 377 receiving yards, 10 total touchdowns

Washington Redskins 2013: Alfred Morris– 1,613 rushing yards, 13 rushing touchdowns

Washington Redskins 2014: Alfred Morris- 1,074 rushing yards, 8 rushing touchdowns

Under Shanahan in 2014, Terrance West, Ben Tate, and Crowell combined for 1,614 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns.

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And aside from the improved offensive line and new offensive coordinator, having the option to start talented backs like Freeman or Coleman obviously helped.

But with limited production and experience from Freeman and Coleman being added in Round 3 of the 2015 NFL Draft, a lot of Fantasy players were obviously skeptical at how productive Freeman could be. Heading into the 2015 season, it appeared some sort of timeshare would most likely happen, but Coleman would handle the bulk of the carries.

Freeman would be used more as a pass-catching specialist, limiting his chances for Fantasy success.

So because of Coleman’s explosive abilities, he was drafted as the 23rd running back off the board in 2015, according to MyFantasyLeague.com data. Freeman was the 29th running back off the board, so Fantasy players generally believed Coleman would be more valuable.

In my winning MFL10 lineup from 2015, I took a chance on Freeman and drafted him at the end of Round 8.

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But in Week 1, it appeared Fantasy players who selected Coleman made the right call…

Coleman was given 20 carries, while Freeman only had 10 and three receptions. But in Week 2, Coleman fractured his ribs. This caused  the door known as opportunity to open up for Freeman.

Without any competition, Freeman turned 30 carries into 141 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns in Week 3. He also hauled in five passes for 52 receiving yards. Coleman was healthy enough to play by Week 5, but Freeman was playing far too well to split the workload with the rookie.

So when you combine all the factors of the improved offensive line, Shanahan becoming the head coach, and the options available to the Falcons at running back, you start to see why this rushing attack transformed.

That leads us into the backfield for the Cleveland Browns in 2016…

2016 Fantasy Football: Duke Johnson & Isaiah Crowell

Outside of tight ends like Jordan Cameron and Gary Barnidge and receiver Josh Gordon, there hasn’t been much of a reason to add a player from the Browns on your Fantasy team in the last several seasons.

And in terms of running backs, Cleveland has been a wasteland for Fantasy production. The last player to rush for 1,000 or more yards with the Browns was Peyton Hillis in 2010. Before that, it was Jamal Lewis in 2008.

Trent Richardson looked promising in 2012 with 950 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, but he left Cleveland and hasn’t been relevant since.

All of this means that Fantasy players can rightfully be skeptical of this offense.

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But when a player or a situation is overlooked or undervalued, that’s the best time to find opportunity…

This my sound surprising, but the offensive line for the Browns ranked fifth in 2015 and sixth in 2014. Of course, offensive units and defensive units aren’t going to perform exactly the same from season-to-season, but this still appears to be a reliable line heading into 2016.

You can find a very in-depth breakdown of the line and position battles by Dan Labbe of Cleveland.com right here.

So for Johnson and Crowell, they at least should have an above-average offensive line to help them make things happen.

In terms of the coaching change, Hue Jackson is running the show after spending his time as the running backs coach and offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals from 2013-2015.

In 2013, Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis combined for 1,451 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. In 2014, Jeremy Hill and Bernard combined for 1,804 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns.

And even though 2015 wasn’t a great year for Hill in terms of rushing yards, Hill and Bernard combined again for a total of 1,524 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns.

So just like he did in Cincinnati, Jackson has the opportunity to explore what he has with two different backs and utilize their strengths.

LaDainian Tomlinson  compared Johnson to Bernard in his draft profile, and Johnson has been viewed as the Browns’ version of Bernard. In their final college seasons, Bernard and Johnson each finished with similar receiving totals, but Johnson had a bigger workload carrying the ball.

Player Carries Rushing Yards Receptions Receiving Yards Touchdown Receptions
Duke Johnson-2014 242 1,652 38 421 3
Giovani Bernard-2012 184 1,228 47 490 5

Similar to Coleman, Crowell isn’t known for catching passes. He can when called upon, but he only has 28 grabs in his last two seasons.

Johnson is viewed as a more efficient pass catcher, just like Freeman was heading into 2015.

And also similar to how Coleman (6-foot-0, 210 pounds) is a bigger back than Freeman (5-foot-8, 206 pounds), Crowell (5-foot-11, 225 pounds) is a bigger back than Johnson (5-foot-9, 210 pounds). That’s why Crowell is viewed as being more durable for a bigger workload.

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From the offensive line, coaching changes, and the more-developed options at running back this season, the similarities between the two situations are noticeable.

Some may point to Coleman being a lot more talented than Crowell because Crowell went undrafted, but don’t forget that Crowell was named freshman of the year by The Associated Press for his 2011 performance with the Georgia Bulldogs.

He was dismissed by Georgia in 2012 after being arrested on a felony weapons charge, so Crowell wasn’t at the forefront of college football conversations after enrolling at Arkansas State like he might have been if he played two more seasons with the Bulldogs.

Duke Johnson & Isaiah Crowell ADP

Just like with Freeman and Coleman last year, we are seeing Johnson and Crowell being selected in the later rounds in 2016 Fantasy Football drafts.

According to FantasyFootballCalculator.com, players are selecting Johnson at the start of Round 7. Crowell is being selected at the start of Round 9.

Player 2015 FF Calculator ADP
Tevin Coleman 7.12
Devonta Freeman 9.03
Player 2016 FF Calculator ADP
Duke Johnson 7.03
Isaiah Crowell 9.01

Conclusion on Duke Johnson & Isaiah Crowell

So what exactly does this mean? Should you draft Johnson and expect him to have the season Coleman could have had? Should you pass Johnson and draft Crowell because he is the projected starter and is cheaper than Johnson’s ADP price tag?

Heading into 2015 Fantasy season, you had to take your best guess as to what would happen with Coleman and Freeman. As much as you can use previous stats and college stats to try and help make an educated guess, no one has a crystal ball as to exactly how a situation will unfold.

No one could have known Coleman would have been injured. So in the end, there were a lot of winners and a lot of losers from the Coleman/Freeman debate.

But there could have been a way to ultimately come out on top…

If you drafted Coleman and Freeman, you would have gained maximum exposure to the upside of the situation while limiting your downside.

Now, I know you’re seemingly putting some important eggs into one basket by using two draft picks on backs from the same team.And if Freeman and Coleman would have each been busts, you would have had some missed opportunity costs from those rounds.

But you have to consider what other running back were being drafted in Rounds 7-9, drafting Freeman and Coleman would have worked out better.

Here’s the list of the round and the position within the round each back went from Rounds 7-9, according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com:

Ryan Matthews: 7.01

Joique Bell: 7.02

Alfred Blue: 7.07

Darren McFadden: 7.08

Isaiah Crowell: 7.11

Giovani Bernard: 7.11

Tre Mason: 8.07

Danny Woodhead: 8.09

Shane Vereen: 8.11

Bishop Sankey: 9.02

Ronnie Hillman: 9.11

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see too many studs on that list or players who were even relevant in 2015 Fantasy Football leagues. Even though McFadden, Bernard, and Woodhead were productive, none of them were even close to matching Freeman’s point totals.

There’s always the chance that Johnson and Crowell are complete busts. And there is also the chance they will be stuck in a committee that makes each player inconsistent in terms of Fantasy production.

There’s also no way of knowing exactly how Jackson will use Johnson and Crowell. There’s also no way of knowing if either player will start to shine and be the primary recipient of the workload for the backfield.

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And keep in mind this season is going to be a little different…

There are going to be more running backs with upside available in the later rounds of your draft than in 2015. Because of first-round picks like Eddie Lacy, Jamaal Charles, and Le’Veon Bell either being inefficient or injured and quarterbacks like Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers disappointing Fantasy players, the drafts I’m in indicate wide receivers will fly off the boards and quality backs may still be available in the middle and late rounds.

You might rather draft Johnson in Round 7 and follow that up with Arian Foster or Rashad Jennings. You might also just take a bet and chose one of these backs as worth taking a chance on more than the other.

Those are still viable ways to attack your draft.

But what if there is a clear winner out of Crowell and Johnson?

To increase your chances of gaining the maximum upside this backfield can provide, drafting Johnson and Crowell could prove very rewarding. And since you can draft each back so late, it’s not going to hurt your team as much as it would if you drafted Freeman in Round 2 this year and he was a bust.

You might think Crowell has the inside edge or Johnson is the better bet, but just remember that it’s sometimes better to be lucky than it is to be smart.

Jack Delaney is the owner of Your Fantasy Football Coach. You can connect with him on Twitter or ask the whole writing staff questions on Facebook

Up Next: Is Chris Ivory Undervalued? 

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Categories: 2016 Fantasy Football, 2016 Fantasy Football Running Backs, Fantasy Football

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