It was announced Monday that Kareem Hunt signed a one-year contract with the Cleveland Browns that can earn him slightly more than $1 million in 2019, He will enter 2020 season as a restricted free agent, per bleacher report. Hunt was released by the Kansas City Chiefs following a TMZ report and video of him assaulting a woman in a February 2018 incident during an encounter at a hotel. An additional report emerged of an incident where Hunt allegedly punched a man at a nightclub in January 2018. Hunt was placed on the NFL exempt list before his release and will be placed on this again now that he has joined a new roster. The NFL has stated he will remain on this list and will be ineligible to play until their investigation has concluded. There is speculation as to the expected punishment, which will most likely range from an 8 to 16 game suspension. Hunt has reportedly been attending alcohol and anger management courses and has expressed remorse for his actions since the report was released. This article will not weigh in on the legal, ethical, or moral aspects of the Browns signing Hunt, but only on the fantasy and dynasty implications.
Hunt led the league in rushing in his 2017 rookie campaign with 1,327 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. He also caught 53 receptions for 455 yards and three touchdowns. Before his November 2018 release, he rushed for 824 yards and added 26 receptions for 378 yards and 14 total touchdowns in 11 games. He signs on to the Browns as the team comes off a promising rookie campaign by Nick Chubb (996 yards and eight touchdowns), who took over as the primary running back after Carlos Hyde was traded to the Jaguars for a 3rd round pick. Duke Johnson Jr. is also on the roster and under contract through 2021 after signing a three year $15.61 million extension last offseason.
The Browns are a surprising destination for Hunt given the emergence of Chubb and success the offense had with the current personnel. The signing has significant implications for each of these running backs, and while there is still much uncertainty, there may be some indicators for what may transpire. An important element is Hunt’s contract. It is a team friendly contract that is only for 2019 with a team option to match in 2020. This allows the Browns to cut or trade him with minimal consequence, especially given their massive available cap space of $169 million in 2019. If Hunt is suspended for half of the 2019 season, they will have a chance to see his impact upon his return and if he can contribute, either to spell Chubb or as insurance for injury. If he proves valuable, they can match an offer given him in 2020 to keep him on the team. It is hard to imagine that the Browns would choose to take on a potential public relations firestorm if they were not invested in Hunt having a role. Notably, John Dorsey was the General Manager of the Chiefs when Hunt was drafted, so he has a history and relationship with this player. In a statement released Monday, Dorsey states “Given what we know about Kareem through our extensive research, we believe he deserves a second chance…” It seems that he and the Browns are ready to proceed with giving Hunt an opportunity to be involved.
It is hard to view this situation as anything other than a knock to the value of all the running backs involved. Nick Chubb has been lauded as a lock for a big 2019 campaign and is creeping towards the first round of dynasty Average Draft Position (ADP). His youth, talent, and 2018 performance — paired with Baker Mayfield and the aggressive scheme being implemented by coaches Freddie Kitchen and Todd Monken — appear to have been a recipe for fantasy gold. But Hunt, himself an established workhorse, will undoubtedly cut into Chubb’s snap and carry counts if he makes the active roster. He may also be utilized more on 3rd downs and in passing situations since this has been a more clear role for Hunt compared with Chubb so far in their early careers. Expectations need to be lowered for Chubb in 2019 if Hunt is on the roster.
Despite this, I do not believe this will have a substantial long term effect on Chubb’s role and dynasty value. Many hurdles must be cleared before Hunt becomes a long term option in this offense, including getting through 2019 suspension without being traded or cut and then being offered a contract next offseason. Chubb, in contrast, was an early 2nd round pick by this front office in 2018, is on his rookie contract for three more years, and is the clear cut starter who has been a productive player. Outside of taking on the public relations problems, the team has made a minimal investment in Hunt, and it will be an uphill battle for him to earn significant playing time. This seems more like a savvy general manager move to create flexibility and add an asset at below value cost. This may have opened a window to buy Chubb in dynasty formats from panicking owners.
This is just about the worst case scenario for Hunt owners. The hope was he would sign with a team that does not have a clear starter. It is confusing why he would have chosen to sign with the Browns. Possible reasons include 1) He did not have other offers, 2) He signed with the first team that made him an offer to avoid missing out, or 3) His relationship with Dorsey influenced his decision, meaning that he trusts Dorsey will do right by him. While this last option is the scariest for Chubb owners, none of these are ideal for Hunt owners. He will be a backup and does not have control of his free agency in 2020. The best fantasy outcome would be for Dorsey to trade him to another team that is willing to sign him long term after letting the Browns front office take the initial public relations heat.
While bad for Hunt, this is even worse for Duke Johnson Jr. and his fantasy owners. He averaged 5.4 touches per game in 2018, which may drop even further with Hunt in the lineup. It is unlikely to expect he can be a fantasy contributor in most formats if Chubb and Hunt are both active. The Browns decision-making with Johnson can be informative for how they view Hunt. If they trade or cut Johnson (unlikely, but not out of the question given only a $2.25 million dead cap hit), this will indicate a much greater investment in Hunt having a role in this offense. This may then increase the likelihood for them to sign Hunt to a new contract, which would certainly lead to long term negative impact on Chubb’s value.
Overall, this is bad news for owners of all these players. Their roles feel less secure than they did before this signing, even for Hunt given the assumption he would sign somewhere to be a featured back. The best case scenario will be a Hunt trade before or early in the 2019 season. The worst case will be an eight-game suspension, followed by Hunt proving his worth and signing a contract with the Browns to create a three-headed monster.