On Wednesday morning, the morning of NFL free agency after the legal tampering period, brought much clarity to two backfields that were very much question marks. The day started with Ian Rapoport reporting the Cleveland Browns were signing Carlos Hyde to a three-year deal worth $15m including $6m in year one. With Duke Johnson in house for passing downs and change of pace work and being quite a high-end option in that role, Hyde filled the need for an early down back with Isaiah Crowell leaving town for “Greener” pastures in East Rutherford.
I’ve seen quite a range of rapid reaction on Hyde, some preferring him to the likes of Derrick Henry and Jay Ajayi, while others were saying he would do exactly what Crowell did in 2017 and be barely fantasy viable. Before we dive into the player himself and what he brings, it’s important to address the Browns as a team first.
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I dove into the Browns trade frenzy earlier this week and reached the only conclusion one can reach given the roster changes: they will be vastly improved. I probably don’t need to tell you the positive correlation between winning games and early-down backs whose main focus is carrying the football.
In the case I do, it’s as simple as (put quite generically) playing from ahead leads to a ball control mindset and brings more rushing opportunity. No team played from ahead less than the Browns did in 2017. Admittedly without fact-checking, I believe it to be the case no team played from ahead less than the 2017 Browns in NFL history on their way to a perfect 0-16 record. No matter one’s opinion on Hyde or Crowell, the fact of the matter is there will be more time spent leading and in competitive games for the early-down back to find himself carrying the ball at a higher volume.
Carlos Hyde, RB CLE
As for Hyde himself, he is a quite capable as a runner and is best described as “not a liability” in the passing game. Much like Crowell, he found himself on a subpar team, rarely playing with a lead in San Francisco for the duration of his rookie contract. Despite this fact, and especially considering his two most recent seasons, he performed admirably.
As you can see in the table above, he owns a competent career 4.2 yards per carry average and has two narrow misses of 1,000-yard seasons despite playing a full season just once, in 2017, and additionally has never eclipsed 240 carries in any single season. He was also a very efficient pass catcher until 2017, but I believe the horrendous dip in catch percentage can be attributed to the level of quarterback play and lack of other receiving options. While his target volume will dip in 2018, his efficiency should return to his career average.
Barring injury, I’m projecting him in the 250-260 carry range (16 per game) with an additional 30-40 targets (2-2.5 per game) which would keep him in the neighborhood of, but just shy of his 2017 volume and output. The output likely takes a small hit as some catches will convert to carries. He is shaping up as an RB2/flex option with some nice hits in the weeks he finds paydirt.
Jerick McKinnon, RB SF
The roster spot Hyde vacated in San Francisco now belongs to Jerrick McKinnon. I want to specify that the emphasis is on roster spot and not necessarily role. We will explore this thought in depth momentarily.
Just an hour after the Hyde news broke, Adam Schefter swooped in with the bombshell that McKinnon would be signing with the 49ers for four years and a whopping $30m! The largest piece of information here is not in the contract happening but instead the sheer amount of the contract. He is not receiving this type of payday to be just a part-time player, and I’d imagine Kyle Shanahan has let out a diabolical laugh or two as he envisions how he will deploy McKinnon.
As you can see from his deployment in Minnesota, he is a dual threat whose most significant contributions come in the passing game. At just 205 pounds, he is not suited to be a volume interior runner like Hyde, which is fine, because that’s not how Shanny will deploy him. I’m envisioning McKinnon as a player who will play RB and also spend time at WR, and additionally be first or second on the team in targets, as Pierre Garcon projects as his only competition in this aspect.
I don’t believe we can view the 49ers backfield as one defined by the traditional early-down role and pass-catching role, nor one that deploys a bellcow. I’m envisioning more of a series-by-series scenario with whichever back is on the field, they will handle both early-down and passing-down work. I also think this means Matt Breida (or whichever rookie potentially replaces him in the NFL draft) will lead the team in carries (not McKinnon), but will simultaneously be outscored by McKinnon, especially in full PPR formats. Given the state of the WR corps, it’s natural to assume there will be plenty of plays with both backs on the field as well, with McKinnon manning the slot in many of these scenarios.
The con to McKinnon that I’ve been unable to shake is history working against him. I do not recall any RB in my lifetime having a full breakout season at age 26 or later, and that is the scenario for him. This is not a huge concern, as there are a good deal of factors in play pointing to him being an outlier. Those include Shanny’s successful history, McKinnon’s rawness entering the league, and 30 million more, all in $1 bills.
My projection for McKinnon is 130-160 carries with an additional 105-120 targets. Assuming a moderate catch percentage and health, this would certainly put him squarely in the RB1 conversation. As far as Breida/RB2, I’m projecting 190-220 carries with an additional 45-65 targets. This would make the RB2 in SF a legitimate flex option.
Lastly, what are we(I) paying in dynasty formats?
McKinnon – A mid rookie first, a future first and second or equivalent
Hyde – a late rookie first, a future first or equivalent
Breida – a late rookie second, a future second plus a tiny piece or equivalent
Happy shopping and more so, enjoy watching these backs in their new homes on ascending teams!
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