Monday - May 20, 2019

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FANTASY FALLOUT: Impact of the Kareem Hunt Signing in Cleveland

You know, I had a completely different topic planned for this article. But as is so often the case, the NFL’s news cycle had something else in mind.

The news that broke Monday afternoon was a doozy. As ESPN reported, tailback Kareem Hunt, who led the NFL in rushing two years ago before being released by the Kansas City Chiefs last November after video emerged of him assaulting a woman, was signed to a one-year deal by the Cleveland Browns.

The bombshell move set off a firestorm of controversy — one that Browns general manager John Dorsey (who drafted Hunt in 2016 while in Kansas City) quickly moved to put out.

“I want everybody to know we have done extensive research in regard to this case, this player,” Dorsey said. “He understands and takes full responsibility for the egregious act he committed. He is extremely remorseful for his actions. I know this, if you talked to anybody who’s been in the locker room with Kareem Hunt, they’ll tell you he was a really good teammate.“

Hunt, for his part, also did his best to say the right things.

“First off, I would like to once again apologize for my actions last year. What I did was wrong and inexcusable. That is not the man I was raised to be, and I’ve learned a great deal from that experience and certainly should have been more truthful about it after the fact. I’m extremely grateful that John Dorsey, Dee and Jimmy Haslam and the Cleveland Browns organization are granting me the opportunity to earn their trust and represent their organization in the best way possible on and off the field,” he said.

“I am committed to following the necessary steps to learn and to be a better and healthier person from this situation. I also understand the expectations that the Browns have clearly laid out and that I have to earn my way back to the NFL. I’m a work in progress as a person, but I’m committed to taking advantage of the support systems that I have in place to become the best and healthier version of myself.”

For the record, this article isn’t going to do a deep dive on the morality of Cleveland’s decision. There will be no shortage of articles written about how awful what Hunt did was (it was most assuredly awful) and how he should never play a down in the NFL again. And articles written about how people make mistakes and Hunt’s only human and he’s doing and saying all the right things and he deserves another chance. Nothing I say or write is going to change minds in that regard.

The reality is this — if Hunt was a scrub, we wouldn’t be having that conversation at all. But he’s n — he’s a 23-year-old tailback who led the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie. So whether you believe he deserves another chance or not, it was only a matter of time until he got one — in Cleveland or somewhere else.

This is a fantasy football site. So here we’re going to discuss just that — what the Hunt signing means both for him and the tailbacks who were already on the Browns roster.

Dorsey was quick to point out that nothing’s set in stone with Hunt — especially at this early stage. “By no means (is the signing) a guarantee of anything,“ Dorsey said. “As we all know, trust has to be earned. That has to be earned with the Cleveland Browns organization and the community of Cleveland moving forward. This will be a day-to-day thing with earning trust.“

The biggest unknown with Hunt’s immediate future is how long he’ll eventually be suspended for by the NFL. According to the league’s personal conduct policy, the standard suspension for a first offense for assault is six games — the length of the suspension that Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott received in 2017. But this isn’t the only incident involving Hunt that the NFL is investigating — there were also altercations in a bar and at an Ohio resort where Hunt is alleged to have assaulted someone. Per Charles McDonald of SB Nation, the belief is that the NFL will conclude its investigation and hand down punishment some time before the new league year begins and free agency opens in March.

However, that’s not guaranteed. And given how all over the freaking place the NFL has been with player discipline the past several years, anyone who says that they know with certainty how long Hunt’s ban will be is either psychic or full of it. It could range anywhere from six weeks to indefinite (i.e. a year-plus).

My first guess is that the suspension will be in the 8-10 game range — in other words, long enough to just about wreck any value Hunt would have in redraft leagues in 2019. By the time he returns and gets back up to speed, the fantasy season will be just about over.

Given that 2019 will only mark Hunt’s third NFL season, when this deal expires Hunt will become a restricted free agent. That means that unless new information emerges and Hunt hasn’t been forthright with Dorsey and the Browns (which is what got him dropped like a hot potato by the Chiefs) or he returns and is absolutely putrid, there’s a good chance Hunt will be on Cleveland’s roster at least through 2020. Even a first-round tender would cost the Browns less than $5 million, and it’s hard to imagine another team giving up that pick for Hunt and signing him to a big extension after this fiasco.

In fact, the Browns likely acquired Hunt more for what he might do for the team in 2020 than this year. Dorsey’s playing the long game — looking toward pairing Hunt with Nick Chubb in the thunder-and-lightning backfield to end all thunder-and-lightning backfields.

Oh yeah, remember Nick Chubb?

After gaining almost 1,000 yards, averaging a robust 5.2 yards a carry and recording four 100-yard games as a rookie, Chubb had built up a full head of steam heading into the fantasy offseason. The former Georgia star was the highest-graded tailback in all of the NFL last year by Pro Football Focus. He wasn’t making it out of the second round in fantasy drafts next summer. Maybe not the first in some leagues.

Now? Who the heck knows.

To be fair, Dave Richard of CBS Sports doesn’t really believe that Chubb’s fantasy value in 2019 will be all that adversely affected.

“For the time being,” Richard said, “I’m still drafting Chubb with a late first-round pick in non-points per reception (PPR leagues) and an early second-rounder in full PPR. I’m banking on his talent keeping him as the primary back for the Browns improving offense, especially while Hunt is serving his punishment.”

It’s that last part that’s most important. The longer Hunt’s out for, the easier it will be to feel good about Chubb’s redraft prospects. Even then, though, there’s no denying that the risk surrounding investing an early pick in Chubb just went up. The only question is by how much. It’s hard to justify burning a second-rounder on a player whose carry-share could take a sizable hit in the stretch run and fantasy playoffs.

The same goes for Chubb’s value in dynasty formats. With a healthy Hunt in the fold, it’s difficult to imagine Chubb consistently posting RB1 production. Hunt’s too good to serve in a truly complementary role, and while it’s not unheard of for one team to produce two high-end fantasy options at running back, it’s a rarity. Ditto for the flip side of that coin and Hunt. Even if he’s eventually as good as ever, Chubb’s still going to get his

Then there’s the matter of Duke Johnson’s fantasy value — or more accurately the smoking crater where Johnson’s fantasy value used to be.

Dorsey insisted to ESPN’s Pat McManamon that Johnson’s spot with the Browns is safe — for now.

“I don’t think it makes him expendable yet,” Dorsey said. “What you have to do is you have to go back and research your options and see moving forward what’s best for the organization.”

A ringing endorsement, that.

Johnson was already coming off a disappointing season in which both his touches and yardage dropped by more than 40 percent and his touchdowns fell from seven to three. The 25-year-old’s role as the Browns’ receiving back is tailor-made for the skill-set of Hunt, who caught 63 passes as a rookie and has improved in pass protection with experience.

There aren’t many third-string running backs in the NFL with an average annual salary of more than $5 million. The shorter Hunt’s suspension winds up being, the bigger the chance that Johnson will be traded or released — which would actually be a plus for his fantasy value.

Once Hunt’s playing again on Sunday, Johnson (if he’s still in Cleveland) goes onto a milk carton — and the waiver wire.

From an NFL perspective, it’s not that hard to see why the Browns did what they did. So long as Hunt stays out of trouble, the public relations brouhaha will fade. And if Hunt can come close to recapturing his rookie form, Cleveland could have a one-two backfield punch even more formidable than Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara were in New Orleans the past couple of years.

Make no mistake — that’s what the Browns want. A revolving door of speed and power where a pair of backs keep one another fresh and both chew up and wear down defenses. The second coming of Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack in Cleveland.

Such a backfield can produce two fantasy studs — in 2017 both Ingram and Kamara finished inside the Top 10 in PPR fantasy points. But as we saw with Ingram’s RB29 finish last year in PPR fantasy points per game, it can just as easily produce a “winner“ and a “loser.”

It also tends to ramp up the weekly variance — for both players.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about how this will all shake out — so much so that any move involving either player is an exercise in speculation. It’s uncertain when we’ll see Hunt on the playing field again. Uncertain what his role will be once he is. And uncertain how big a dent that role could put in Chubb’s numbers.

There is one thing we do know, though.

In fantasy football, uncertainty is rarely a good thing.

About Gary Davenport

A member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America who resides in Columbus, Ohio, Gary has been featured on a number of fantasy websites and in nationally circulated publications. These publications include the USA Today Fantasy Football Preview and the magazines distributed by Fantasy Sports Publications Inc., for whom Gary is a both a contributing author and associate editor. Gary is an eight-time FSWA Award finalist and two-time winner who has been a finalist for that organization's Fantasy Football Writer of the Year award each of the last three years. He won the honor in 2017. Gary also appears regularly on Sirius XM Radio (including live from Radio Row at Super Bowl XLIX) and over-the-air stations across the country. Gary was one of the co-founders of, and Head Writer at, Fantasy Football Oasis before joining Fantasy Sharks as an IDP Senior Staff Writer in 2011. He knows football. Or so he's heard.