Nick Chubb had to be carted off the field in Pittsburgh in Week 2 after suffering what appears to be a significant injury in his right knee that prematurely ends his 2023 season leaves a significant void in the Cleveland Browns backfield.
Chubb went down after taking a gruesome hit from Pittsburgh Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in the first half of Monday night's 26-22 defeat to Cleveland's AFC North rival. Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski told reporters after the game that Chubb will miss the remainder of the season.
Losing Chubb, who could have his season conceivably be over after rushing for 170 yards through the first six quarters of the 2022 season, fundamentally changes the outlook of Kevin Stefanski and the Browns' ground-and-pound offensive philosophy.
Here's a look at some of the Browns' best options to replace Chubb, who has been one of the NFL's most punishing running backs over the past several seasons, and a focal point of both Cleveland's identity and postseason aspirations in 2023.
Moving forward and taking the next-man-up approach might wind up being the Browns' easiest, and best option, especially following Jerome Ford's strong finish on Monday night.
Ford, chosen by the Browns in the fifth-round of the 2022 NFL Draft, came on in relief of Chubb and seemed to assume the role of lead-dog in Cleveland's backfield. Against the Steelers, Ford finished with 106 rushing yards on 16 carries while adding three receptions for 25 yards with a touchdown.
If Ford continues to prove capable of replicating Chubb's shifty but powerful downhill running style, the Browns might not need to change very much, in terms of how they attack opposing defenses.
Scheme familiarity could make a Browns-Hunt reunion an easy one, as soon as this week.
"Kareem is the best of the available free agents on the street," an NFC Personnel Director told FanBuzz, on the condition of anonymity to be able to speak freely about another team's situation. "It's hard to trade for a player in Week 3 of the season."
Hunt, at minimum, could be a plug-and-play complementary piece alongside Ford in the backfield, without requiring any time to get up to speed on the system. Over the course of his four seasons with the Browns, Hunt logged 442 carries for 1,874 yards with 16 touchdowns.
However, multiple sources in buildings around the league suggest that concern over the impact of nagging injuries is a main factor behind Hunt still being available. Hunt would likely need to assuage any of the Browns' concerns about his health and availability before putting pen to paper on a deal.
If the Browns believe they have a legitimate chance to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, general manager Andrew Berry could make a push to acquire the running back with the most upside currently believed to be available; disgruntled Indianapolis Colts star Jonathan Taylor.
While there is some doubt inside league circles that the Colts will ultimately wind up trading Taylor, the fit in Cleveland, both in 2023 and beyond, could be an ideal match for how Stefanski deploys backs.
Taylor is ineligible to return to the field until Week 5, after being placed on the PUP list by the Colts due to an ankle injury. But, his versatility as a between the tackles bruiser, and an explosive playmaker as a pass-catcher out of the backfield make him one of the more versatile and dangerous running backs in the sport.
Through the first three seasons of his career, Taylor has rushed for 3,841 yards and 33 touchdowns, while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Adding a back of Taylor's caliber would alleviate some pressure from struggling veteran quarterback Deshaun Watson and keep the Browns in the mix in a hyper-competitive division race.
The Rams are openly shopping veteran running back Cam Akers, following the emergence of Kyren Williams, in his second season, and in an effort to clear cap space.
While Akers isn't that highly regarded among evaluators inside the NFL, if Los Angeles is struggling to find a trade partner, perhaps Berry and the Browns could wind up plucking the 24-year-old for a bargain.
Los Angeles made Akers inactive for Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers, but in Week 1 he rushed for just 29 yards with a touchdown on 22 carries. In four seasons, Akers has rushed for 1,443 yards and 10 touchdowns, while adding 27 receptions for 250 yards and another score.
It appears evident that Akers has played his final game in a Rams uniform, and after head coach Sean McVay revealed the organization has spoken to multiple teams about a possible deal, it will be interesting to see if the Browns get into the mix.
Whether the Browns opt to forge ahead with Ford and Pierre Strong as the primary running backs, it would seem an obvious need for Cleveland to find some sort of veteran depth piece to round out the position group. Especially if the long-term plan is to make Ford the feature back, having another option to limit his wear and tear, while maintaining a run-first mentality could prove to be ideal.
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