PFR Originals

This Date In Transactions History: Browns Extend OL John Greco

The 2013 offseason was a busy one for the Cleveland Browns. The organization replaced general manager Tom Heckert Jr. with Michael Lombardi, and they hired Rob Chudzinski as head coach after canning Pat Shurmur. The team also made significant changes to the roster, ditching former third-round quarterback Colt McCoy and signing veteran Jason Campbell to a two-year deal. The front office also traded former third-overall pick Trent Richardson

One of the moves that went under the radar was a move made on July 23rd, 2013. On that date, the organization signed offensive lineman John Greco to a five-year, $13MM deal. The contract featured only $3MM in guaranteed money.

Greco originally joined the Browns before the 2011 season, as the Rams traded their former third-round pick to Cleveland for a conditional seventh-rounder. Greco appeared as a backup in 15 games during the 2011 campaign, but he endeared himself to the organization in 2012 when he started 10 games in place of Jason Pinkston.

The Browns proceeded to ink Greco to a surprisingly lengthy extension, but the organization ended up getting plenty out of the offensive guard. The lineman started 56 games for Cleveland between 2013 and 2016, including a stint at center when regular starter Alex Mack was sidelined.

While Greco dealt with a handful of injuries during his tenure in Cleveland, he emerged as a dependable, reliable option for the coaching staff. While he certainly wasn’t a household name, the lineman consistently ranked in the top-20 of Pro Football Focus’ offensive guard rankings.

Cleveland made some changes to their offensive line before the 2017 season, adding Kevin Zeitler and center J.C. Tretter. Greco was ultimately cut by the Browns at the end of the preseason. He didn’t end up seeing the field during his subsequent stint with the Saints, but he appeared in 21 games (with seven starts) for the Giants between the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

While Greco’s career ended unceremoniously, he’s getting his time in the (PFR) limelight today.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Poll: Which Rookie Wide Receiver Will Finish With Most Receiving Yards?

This past week we asked you which rookie running back would finish with the most yards in 2021, and now we’re turning our attention to the wide receivers. This year’s wideout class was a great one, with three going in the top ten picks.

Two more then went later in the first round, and then five were off the board in the second. The crop included reigning Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, and LSU star Ja’Marr Chase who was reunited in Cincinnati with college teammate Joe Burrow.

Chase became the first receiver off the board when the Bengals nabbed him with the fifth overall pick. He should already have great chemistry with Burrow, so he’s got that working in his favor. Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are still there, but the team moving on from A.J. Green this offseason means Chase should see plenty of opportunity right away. Will his rapport with Burrow and a potentially improved Cincy O-line be enough for him to seize the rookie receiving title?

The following pick, the Dolphins took Jaylen Waddle from Alabama at number six. Waddle is also reconnecting with an old college quarterback as he’ll re-team with Tua Tagovailoa in Miami. His blazing fast speed gives him plenty of upside, although working against him is the fact that he missed a good chunk of the 2020 season due to injury. Will Fuller will have to sit out the first game of the 2021 season with a suspension, but DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki will also be competing for targets.

Smith *also* is getting paired back up with a familiar face under center. The Heisman winner played with Eagles second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts at Alabama. Despite winning the award for best college football player in the country, Smith was the third wideout taken. Will he use that as added motivation and come out with a chip on his shoulder? He certainly shouldn’t struggle for playing time with Philly’s receiving depth chart being thin as ever. Jalen Reagor, Travis Fulgham, and Greg Ward Jr. are all he has to compete with.

The other two first-rounders were Kadarius Toney from Florida to the Giants at 20 and Rashod Bateman from Minnesota to the Ravens at 27. Toney surprised New York by skipping OTAs and apparently might begin the year in a gadget role as he’s buried behind Sterling Shepard, Kenny Golladay, Darius Slayton, and Evan Engram in the pecking order, so he’s got his work cut out for him. Bateman has a path to a breakout with Baltimore in desperate need of receiving help, but the Ravens’ passing game is going to be a wild card.

Elijah Moore was the next big name, with the Ole Miss product going to the Jets at 34. He’s also got upside, but has a few guys ahead of him and will have a rookie quarterback throwing to him. Rondale Moore (Purdue) to the Cardinals at 49, D’Wayne Eskridge (Western Michigan) to the Seahawks at 56, Tutu Atwell (Louisville) to the Rams at 57, and Terrace Marshall Jr. (LSU) to the Panthers at 59 round out the rest of the round two receivers.

So, what do you think? Which receiver will rack up the most yards in 2021? Who are the later-round candidates or UDFAs who can join these players as early contributors? Vote in PFR’s latest poll and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Release Candidate: Dolphins WR Allen Hurns

It was only about two years ago that the Dolphins handed Allen Hurns a two-year, $8MM extension. However, the veteran receiver now finds himself buried on the team’s depth chart, leading to speculation about his future in Miami.

Back in 2015, Hurns looked like a future star in Jacksonville, as the wideout collected 1,031 receiving yards and 10 games during his second season in the NFL. The receiver hasn’t managed to match those numbers since, but he still appeared in at least 10 games per season between 2016 and 2019, and he’s earned three contracts since his stint with the Jaguars ended after the 2017 campaign.

He signed with the Dolphins before the 2019 season, and after only a few months with the organization, the team was willing to give the receiver a two-year extension worth $8MM (with more than $3MM in guaranteed money). Hurns didn’t put up stellar numbers during his first season in Miami, finishing with 416 yards and a pair of touchdowns. 2020 would have been the first season of the veteran’s extension, but Hurns decided to opt out of the 2020 campaign.

That brings us to today, where Hurns now finds himself competing for one of the final receiver spots. The organization brought in veteran Will Fuller, sixth-overall pick Jaylen Waddle, and third rounder Lynn Bowden Jr. this past offseason. The team also returns 2020 starters DeVante Parker and Preston Williams, meaning the team also has five receivers locked in. At most, the Dolphins could hold on to two more receivers, but they could value the continuity of Albert Wilson or the special-teams/returning prowess of Mack Hollins and Jakeem Grant (respectively).

The one thing working in Hurns’ favor could be his contract. That two-year extension finally kicks in this year, and his dead cap hit ($3.36MM) is larger than his cap hit ($2.8MM). That’s the majority of Hurns’ guaranteed money, so Miami would have to eat that hit if they prefer to keep one of the handful of alternatives. The team could theoretically find a taker for the 29-year-old receiver via trade, but there probably wouldn’t be too many teams willing to give anything of value. More likely, these hypothetical suitors would just wait for the Dolphins to cut Hurns and take their chances in free agency.

Both sides will get more clarity during training camp and the preseason. After all, Hurns hasn’t played professional football in more than a year, and the receiver could ultimately show he belongs on the roster.

“Great feeling just being back in the end zone,” Hurns said last month (via The Athletic’s Josh Tolentino). “It is a great feeling always, but me just getting back out there, being with the guys — it feels good. I took a year off, but being back, seeing the guys, being out there with them, competing — that’s what it’s all about.”

We’ll see if Hurns sticks around long enough to compete during the regular season with his current teammates.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

This Date In Transactions History: Broncos QB Drew Lock Signs Rookie Contract

On this date two years ago, Drew Lock signed his first NFL deal. On July 17, 2019, the second-round pick signed his rookie contract with the Denver Broncos.

By the 2019 offseason, John Elway was preparing for his third attempt to find Peyton Manning‘s long-term successor. His first two swings (2012 second-round pick Brock Osweiler and 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch) hadn’t worked out, and after the Broncos completed their third-straight losing season, Elway was willing to give it another go.

Unfortunately for Elway, the 2019 draft wasn’t known for its QB depth. Outside of presumed number-one pick Kyler Murray, there were only a handful of alternatives (Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Lock) with a first- or second-round grade. So, instead of reaching for someone with the No. 10 pick (or trading up for Jones), Elway decided to trade back in the first round and later trade up in the second to select Lock.

Lock was a worthy choice at No. 42. The Mizzou product finished his collegiate career with 99 touchdown passes — including 44 as a junior — and 12,193 yards, and he earned All-SEC honors in both 2017 and 2018. Thanks to that performance, Lock’s camp seemed to think that he was worthy of a first-round salary (or at least more than the allotted salary for an early-ish second-round pick). Lock’s agent was reportedly seeking a “quarterback premium,” which meant they wanted more money than the draft slot dictated.

However, the two sides ultimately came to an agreement on this date in 2019. The Broncos didn’t end up giving into any demands of an overslot deal; the team gave Lock the same workout bonuses as their other second-round pick (Dalton Risner), and the quarterback’s $3.1MM signing bonus was the standard amount for the No. 42 slot.

Declining to overpay Lock may have been a wise decision by the Broncos front office. While Lock impressed a bit after replacing Joe Flacco during his rookie season (4-1 record, 7 touchdowns vs. three interceptions), he struggled during his first full season as a starter in 2020. The quarterback guided Denver to a 4-9 record in 13 starts, connecting on 57.3-percent of his passes for 2,933 yards, 16 touchdowns, and an NFL-high 15 interceptions.

2021 will surely be a make-or-break season for the 24-year-old, and he probably won’t see as long of a leash during the early parts of the season. For starters, head coach Vic Fangio is likely fighting for his job, and secondly, the organization has a serviceable backup plan with veteran Teddy Bridgewater. Further, the organization recently hired GM George Paton, and if the Broncos struggle in 2021, there’s a good chance the front office will be looking to bring in their own young QB.

As always, there was plenty of optimism surrounding Lock’s signing on this date in 2019. However, fast forward two years, and the second-round QB is now struggling to retain his starting gig.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

This Date In Transactions History: Steelers Extend Cameron Heyward

Six years ago today, the Steelers gave Cameron Heyward his first ever re-up. The defensive lineman scored a six-year, $59.25MM extension with the Steelers, tying him to the club through much of his prime. 

Pittsburgh selected the Ohio State product with the 31st pick of the 2011 draft. It took a while for Heyward to settle into a starting role, but he never looked back after starting 13 games during the 2013 campaign. After combining for 12.5 sacks between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the Steelers decided to lock him up. However, the deal left them with plenty of wiggle room as Heyward got just $15MM in guaranteed cash.

Heyward more than lived up to that deal. He earned Pro Bowl appearances in every season from 2017 through 2020, plus first-team All-Pro honors in 2017 and 2019. The veteran has only missed two regular season games over the past four years, averaging just over eight sacks per season. And, from ’17 through ’19, he was averaging roughly 10 sacks per campaign.

Last fall, just before Heyward’s would-be walk year, the Steelers inked him to yet another extension. This time around, it was four years for $71.4MM in total with a stronger guarantee of $20.25MM. At the time, there were rumblings that Heyward would approach Aaron Donald‘s six-year, $135MM deal. But, ultimately, he was on the wrong side of 30. He also didn’t have a ton of leverage — throughout the talks, he was vocal about wanting to stay in Pittsburgh.

Heyward’s four-sack season didn’t jump off of the page, but he was still strong in 2020. And, besides Donald, he has more total pressures than anyone over the last four years. There’s still lots of time left on his most recent deal, but it’s safe to say that the Steelers got their money’s worth on Heyward’s first extension.

Ben Levine contributed to this post.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Poll: Who Will Be First Head Coach To Lose Their Job?

We know, we know…it’s probably a bit early to speculate about the job security of NFL head coaches. However, let’s not forget Bum Phillips‘ famous (supposed) quote: “There’s two kinds of coaches, them that’s fired and them that’s gonna be fired.”

[RELATED: The Longest-Tenured Head Coaches In The NFL]

Even with the start of the NFL season more than a month away, a handful of head coaches already find themselves on the hot seat. Nowadays, it isn’t all that hard to determine which head coaches are at risk of losing their jobs. You can pretty much remove the 12 first- and second-year coaches, and you can definitely remove the successful, long-term coaches (the likes of Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, etc.).

That leaves about 15 coaches with at least two years of tenure but fewer than eight years of tenure (yes, we chose eight to shoehorn Andy Reid into the “definitively safe” section but not the likes of Mike Zimmer). Have those coaches had successful teams? You can remove them from the list. Have those coaches continually shown improvement? You can probably remove them from the list, too. Have those coaches’ teams disappointed or underwhelmed, especially recently? Ding ding ding…those are the coaches on the hot seat.

As we all know, those on the hot seat either redeem themselves and save their jobs or…ultimately get canned. So, that brings us to today’s question: which head coach will be fired first? We used Bovada’s top-three options below, but we’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Matt Nagy, Bears

Following a 12-4 campaign to begin his coaching career, Nagy found his seat getting a bit warm following a disappointing 8-8 campaign in 2019. The former Chiefs offensive coordinator didn’t do a whole lot to inspire confidence in 2020. The team finished 8-8 for a second-straight season, and the former QB whisperer found his passing offense ranking in the bottom-half of the NFL in most categories.

The Bears finally bailed on Mitchell Trubisky this past offseason, and they added a pair of QBs to replace him: veteran Andy Dalton and first-round pick Justin Fields. With a solid defense that’s in win-now mode, Nagy will have to get something out of one of these signal-callers if he hopes to retain his job. Considering Dalton’s recent play and Fields’ inexperience, things are looking bleak.

Zac Taylor, Bengals

It’s easy to put an asterisk on the Bengals’ 2020 campaign following the season-ending injury to Joe Burrow, but there’s no denying that Taylor’s staff has now collected an ugly 6-25-1 record through two seasons. There’s really nowhere to go but up for the head coach, but even if the Bengals improve their record in 2021, the team would still have to pass the smell test. Specifically, we should expect the offensive guru to guide Burrow and the rest of the offense to at least an above-average performance, and it’d be encouraging if the defense was able to show some progress after finishing as one of the worst units in the league in 2020.

As we saw with Marvin Lewis, the Bengals organization values continuity. It’s hard to envision the team not giving Taylor at least another full season, but if the team is unable to show any improvement over 2020, then the 38-year-old could find himself without a job.

Vic Fangio, Broncos

There are a number of things working against Fangio and his future in Denver. For starters, he hasn’t done a whole lot during his two seasons at the helm, leading the team to a 12-20 record. Making it worse, the team took a clear step back in 2020, and with a questionable roster on paper, it’s hard to envision the Broncos getting a whole lot better in 2021.

Next, GM George Paton was only recently hired, so he surely won’t be feeling pressure throughout the 2021 season. However, a disappointing campaign could change things. In that hypothetical, you can bet the executive would be looking to right the ship immediately, and that would probably start with the head coach.

The final factor is the uncertain status of Broncos ownership. If the team is ultimately sold, the new owners would presumably be looking to clean house, at least from an on-field perspective. That means Fangio would surely be handed his walking papers, even if the team did show some progress in 2021.

For reference, the next four head coaches listed by Bovada are Jon Gruden (Raiders), Mike Zimmer (Vikings), Matt LaFleur (Packers), and Mike McCarthy (Cowboys). Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

This Date In Transactions History: Bills Extend Jason Peters

Potentially on the verge of his 18th NFL season, Jason Peters has signed a number of contracts. The first of Peters’ many re-ups occurred on this date 15 years ago.

On July 14, 2006, the Bills and their UDFA discovery agreed to terms on a contract that eventually led to the parties splitting up. Peters signed a five-year, $15MM extension during the ’06 offseason, this coming after the Bills tendered him a contract worth $425K. Soon outplaying the teams of his $3MM-AAV deal, Peters became a disgruntled Bill.

The Bills initially took a flier on the former college tight end and defensive end, and this only came to be because of lobbying by the future All-Pro blocker’s agent, and stashed him on their practice squad for most of the 2004 season. Buffalo broke Peters in on special teams before turning to him as its starting right tackle for much of the ’05 slate. Peters had supplanted underwhelming former top-five pick Mike Williams as Buffalo’s top right tackle, and the Bills made the move to lock the emerging talent up the following offseason. The team then moved Peters to the left side midway through the ’06 campaign. That ultimately proved to be a short-term arrangement.

Dissatisfaction over a $3.25MM salary prompted Peters to hold out in 2008, and after he begrudgingly returned to his Bills post that season, the Eagles came in with a trade offer to acquire Peters just before the 2009 draft. The Bills received 2009 first- and fourth-round picks, along with a 2010 sixth-rounder, in the swap. They used the first of those selections to draft future long-term center Eric Wood 28th overall. Philadelphia handed Peters a six-year, $60MM extension, beginning a fruitful era for their offensive line.

Buffalo went on to churn through few left tackles, including Cordy Glenn, since Peters’ departure, while Peters has started 127 games as an Eagle. That was good for the fifth-most in franchise history by a pure offensive lineman. Peters would go on to make two Pro Bowls with the Bills and seven with the Eagles, also receiving two first-team All-Pro honors in Philly. The Eagles also extended their veteran protector in 2014, 2017, 2019, and 2020.

Now at the age of 39, Peters hasn’t ruled out playing in 2021. Although his return might not come in Philadelphia, Peters could be an interesting late summer addition for another contender in need.

Longest-Tenured GMs In The NFL

When we ran down the longest-tenured head coaches in the NFL, we found that just about half of the league’s current coaches have been in their positions for more than three years. That’s not quite the case with general managers, but there have been plenty of changes in recent years.

A handful of general managers have gotten to take their coats off and stay for a long while. Among coaches, Bill Belichick had joined his team prior to 2003. Here, you’ll see that five GMs have been with their teams since before ’03 (Belichick, of course, is also on this list). Two of those five – Jerry Jones and Mike Brown – are outliers, since they’re team owners and serve as de facto GMs. But the Patriots, Steelers, and Saints, have all had the same general managers making their roster decisions for well over a decade.

Here’s the complete list of the NFL’s longest-tenured GMs, along with the date they took over the job:

  1. Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys): April 18, 1989[1]
  2. Mike Brown (Cincinnati Bengals): August 5, 1991[2]
  3. Bill Belichick (New England Patriots): January 27, 2000[3]
  4. Kevin Colbert (Pittsburgh Steelers): February 18, 2000[4]
  5. Mickey Loomis (New Orleans Saints): May 14, 2002
  6. Rick Spielman (Minnesota Vikings): May 30, 2006[5]
  7. John Schneider (Seattle Seahawks): January 19, 2010[6]
  8. Howie Roseman (Philadelphia Eagles): January 29, 2010
  9. Les Snead (St. Louis Rams): February 10, 2012
  10. Steve Keim (Arizona Cardinals): January 8, 2013
  11. Tom Telesco (San Diego Chargers): January 9, 2013
  12. Jason Licht (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): January 21, 2014
  13. Ryan Pace (Chicago Bears): January 8, 2015
  14. Chris Grier (Miami Dolphins): January 4, 2016
  15. Jon Robinson (Tennessee Titans): January 14, 2016
  16. John Lynch (San Francisco 49ers): January 29, 2017
  17. Chris Ballard (Indianapolis Colts): January 30, 2017
  18. Brandon Beane (Buffalo Bills): May 9, 2017
  19. Brett Veach (Kansas City Chiefs): July 11, 2017
  20. Dave Gettleman (New York Giants): December 28, 2017
  21. Brian Gutekunst (Green Bay Packers): January 7, 2018
  22. Mike Mayock (Oakland Raiders): December 31, 2018
  23. Eric DeCosta (Baltimore Ravens): January 7, 2019[7]
  24. Joe Douglas (New York Jets): June 7, 2019
  25. Andrew Berry (Cleveland Browns): January 27, 2020
  26. Nick Caserio (Houston Texans): January 7, 2021
  27. George Paton (Denver Broncos): January 12, 2021
  28. Scott Fitterer (Carolina Panthers): January 14, 2021
  29. Brad Holmes (Detroit Lions): January 14, 2021
  30. Terry Fontenot (Atlanta Falcons): January 19, 2021
  31. Trent Baalke (Jacksonville Jaguars): January 21, 2021
  32. Martin Mayhew (Washington Redskins): January 22, 2021

Footnotes:

  1. Jones has been the Cowboys’ de facto general manager since former GM Tex Schramm resigned in April 1989.
  2. Brown has been the Bengals’ de facto GM since taking over as the team’s owner in August 1991.
  3. Belichick has been the Patriots’ de facto GM since shortly after being hired as the team’s head coach in January 2000.
  4. Colbert was initially hired as the team’s director of football operations and received the newly-created general manager title in 2011.
  5. Spielman was initially hired as the team’s VP of player personnel and received the GM title in 2012.
  6. While Schneider holds the title of GM, head coach Pete Carroll has the final say on roster moves for the Seahawks.
  7. In 2018, the Ravens announced that DeCosta would replace Ozzie Newsome as GM for Ozzie Newsome after the conclusion of the season. The Ravens’ ’18 season ended with their Wild Card loss to the Chargers on 1/6/19.

The Longest-Tenured Head Coaches In The NFL

Things move fast in today’s NFL and the old adage of “coaches are hired to be fired” has seemingly never been more true. For the most part, teams change their coaches like they change their underwear. 

A head coach can take his team to the Super Bowl, or win the Super Bowl, or win multiple Super Bowls, but they’re never immune to scrutiny. Just ask Tom Coughlin, who captured his second ring with the Giants following the 2011 season, only to receive his pink slip after the 2015 campaign.

There are also exceptions like Bill Belichick, who just wrapped up his 21st season at the helm in New England. You’ll also see a few others on this list, but, for the most part, most of today’s NFL head coaches are relatively new to their respective clubs. And, history dictates that many of them will be elsewhere when we check in on this list in 2022.

Over one-third (12) of the NFL’s head coaches have coached no more than one season with their respective teams. Meanwhile, less than half (15) have been with their current clubs for more than three years. It seems like just yesterday that the Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury, right? It sort of was – Kingsbury signed on with the Cardinals in January of 2019. Today, he’s practically a veteran.

Here’s the list of the current head coaches in the NFL, ordered by tenure, along with their respective start dates:

  1. Bill Belichick (New England Patriots): January 27, 2000
  2. Sean Payton (New Orleans Saints): January 18, 2006
  3. Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers): January 27, 2007
  4. John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens): January 19, 2008
  5. Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks): January 9, 2010
  6. Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs): January 4, 2013
  7. Mike Zimmer (Minnesota Vikings): January 15, 2014
  8. Sean McDermott (Buffalo Bills): January 11, 2017
  9. Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams): January 12, 2017
  10. Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco 49ers): February 6, 2017
  11. Jon Gruden (Las Vegas Raiders): January 6, 2018
  12. Matt Nagy (Chicago Bears): January 7, 2018
  13. Mike Vrabel (Tennessee Titans): January 20, 2018
  14. Frank Reich (Indianapolis Colts): February 11, 2018
  15. Bruce Arians (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): January 8, 2019
  16. Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona Cardinals): January 8, 2019
  17. Matt LaFleur (Green Bay Packers): January 8, 2019
  18. Vic Fangio (Denver Broncos): January 10, 2019
  19. Brian Flores (Miami Dolphins): February 4, 2019
  20. Zac Taylor (Cincinnati Bengals): February 4, 2019
  21. Ron Rivera (Washington Football Team): January 1, 2020
  22. Matt Rhule (Carolina Panthers): January 7, 2020
  23. Mike McCarthy (Dallas Cowboys): January 7, 2020
  24. Joe Judge (New York Giants): January 8, 2020
  25. Kevin Stefanski (Cleveland Browns): January 13, 2020
  26. Urban Meyer (Jacksonville Jaguars): January 14, 2021
  27. Robert Saleh (New York Jets): January 15, 2021
  28. Arthur Smith (Atlanta Falcons): January 15, 2021
  29. Brandon Staley (Los Angeles Chargers): January 17, 2021
  30. Dan Campbell (Detroit Lions): January 20, 2021
  31. Nick Sirianni (Philadelphia Eagles): January 21, 2021
  32. David Culley (Houston Texans): January 28, 2021

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extension Candidate: Nick Chubb

The past year and change reset the NFL’s running back market. After the previous wave of big-ticket contracts produced shaky outcomes — in the cases of Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley and David Johnson — a few teams still prioritized their high-end backs and went ahead with extensions.

The 2017 draft class was responsible for most of these accords. Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry are attached to high-value running back deals, but 2017 draftees Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon and Aaron Jones all signed for at least $12MM per year since March 2020. The 2018 draft class is now eligible for extensions, and another backfield mainstay is on track to join the 2017 contingent near the running back salary hierarchy.

Nick Chubb has become the centerpiece of a run-oriented Browns offense that rode its two-pronged ground attack to the playoffs. After playing an essential role in snapping the Browns’ postseason drought, Chubb joins Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward and guard Wyatt Teller as extension candidates for a rising Cleveland team. With Mayfield and Ward signed through 2022, Chubb may be the team’s top contract priority ahead of the 2021 season.

Negotiations have begun, and a deal being finalized before the start of the season — thus protecting Chubb from a value-changing injury in his contract year — is in play. The Georgia product has become the most reliable back from the 2018 class. While Saquon Barkley may have this group’s highest ceiling, he is coming off ACL and MCL tears. Like Barkley in 2019, Chubb suffered a high ankle sprain. But he returned after four missed games to clear 1,000 yards (1,067) in just 12 contests. The 25-year-old back rushed for a career-high 12 touchdowns and joined Mayfield in leading the Browns to their first divisional-round game since 1994.

The two-time Pro Bowler has proven to be an elite ball carrier, but unlike the 2017 backs given extensions at or north of the $12MM-per-year mark, Chubb is not a major passing-game factor. He has yet to top 300 receiving yards in a season, with the Browns slotting Kareem Hunt as their preferred outlet option among these two. Hunt’s presence complicates Cleveland’s setup here — but only to a point. The Browns signed the embattled ex-Chief to an extension, but the two-year, $13.25MM pact represents midlevel money. Hunt is signed through 2022, but his $6.25MM cap number is both manageable and non-guaranteed. This seemingly keeps a Chubb extension realistic.

Chubb is the leader of Cleveland’s historically talented backfield, outrushing Hunt 1,067-841 last season despite the latter receiving more carries (198-190) during the starter’s injury-shortened season. Although Hunt is a Cleveland-area native, a scenario in which he moves on for a higher-paying RB1 gig elsewhere by 2023 may be likely — unless he is willing to accept a discount to stay a backup.

Henry’s four-year, $50MM deal ($25.5MM guaranteed) profiles a likely Hunt starting point. The Titans also use a run-centric offense, and Henry does not factor into their passing attack much. Chubb (44 career catches at Georgia) has never played a major receiving role, which could keep him off the McCaffrey-Kamara tier (north of $15MM AAV). Then again, the salary cap is set to balloon to nearly $210MM in 2022, perhaps giving Chubb a ladder up to the CMC-Kamara level. Also working in Chubb’s favor: his 680 career carries through three seasons ranks 56th all time and 22nd among backs whose careers started in the 21st century. He should have enough tread on his tires to be productive for the next few seasons.

While the Browns will certainly need to be careful here, the Rams and Jets’ Gurley and Bell missteps are not exactly comparable. Gurley entered the NFL with a knee issue, while Bell had more than 1,200 carries at the time of his free agency pact. Elliott was at 1,003 touches through three years; Chubb exited Year 3 with 752. Hunt staying through 2022 would also stand to shield Chubb from a Bell- or Elliott-like workload.

Either way, it sounds like the Browns will become the rare team with two well-paid backs on their roster soon. A Chubb extension will help establish a Barkley floor as well, should the Giants standout return to full strength this season, while providing the Browns with their most stable long-term backfield situation in decades. Cleveland missed on Trent Richardson, though the franchise did collect a first-rounder for him, and let Isaiah Crowell walk after his rookie deal expired. Chubb certainly appears set for a different northeast Ohio path.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.