Monday, August 14, 2017

Crowell not worth breaking the bank . . . yet

So Isaiah Crowell wants to be paid like Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman, on whom the Falcons recently lavished a five-year, $41.25 million contract extension that included a $15 million signing bonus and $22 million guaranteed.

The Browns running back is hoping to use Freeman’s new deal as a standard bearer in his quest to extract a similar – if not better – deal from the Browns, who have used him as their feature back the last two seasons.

Citing the Freeman deal as a market changer, Crowell can point to only one statistic as evidence he belongs on the same plateau from a performance standpoint. Both men averaged 4.8 yards a carry last season.

The big difference? The Falcons went to the Super Bowl. The Browns finished 1-15.

There are other statistics where the two men differ that point where Crowell’s argument falls apart. As late-night talk show host Seth Meyers would say, “For that, it’s time for a closer look.”

Both men entered the National Football League in 2014; Freeman was a fifth-round selection from Florida State in the college draft, Crowell was signed as a free agent out of Alabama State after leaving the University of Georgia due to off-the-field problems.

Crowell, 10 months younger than Freeman, is by far the larger of the two, three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier at 5-11, 225 pounds. The only other commonality is both men have started 29 games in the NFL.

There are some neighborhood similarities. For example, Crowell has gained 2,265 career yards on the ground (607 as a rookie); Freeman stands at 2,383 (only 248 as a rookie). And each man has fumbled the football five times and lost four.

But that is where the similarities end.

Breaking down the last two seasons further shows Freeman has run for 2,135 yards; Crowell has accumulated 1,658, a difference of 477 yards.

Before we dive into more stats, take into consideration it should be pointed out Freeman plays for a team with a much better quarterback (Matt Ryan) and an offensive line (strengthened last season with the addition of center Alex Mack) that ranks as one of the best in the NFL.

Freeman, who pretty much served as a backup to Steven Jackson in his rookie season, has put up consecutive 1,000-yard seasons since then with that supporting cast.

Crowell, who can become a free agent next year, has yet to post a 1,000-yard season, although he came close with a 952-yard effort last season working behind arguably one of the worst offensive lines in the league.

Freeman also is much better when the ball is thrown to him, whereas Crowell was almost forgotten in that aspect of the game in his first two seasons. Freeman has caught 157 passes for 1,265 yards; Crowell has only 68 grabs (40 last season) for 588 yards.

Freeman is also a more consistent performer; Crowell is more hit and miss.

A perfect example was Crowell’s performance last season. He bolted out of the gate with 392 yards in his first four games (6.46 yards a carry) to rank among the league leaders.

Then he virtually disappeared the next eight games. That’s half the schedule. From game five through game 12, he ran for only 211 yards on a meager 84 carries, an average of just 2.5 yards a pop.

Freeman has never had an eight-game stretch like that. He has also booked seven 100-yard games, including three in a row in 2015. Crowell has five.

More than half of Crowell’s 952 yards (518) last season were gained in four of the 16 games. All were for 100 yards or more. And if it hadn’t been for a 152-yard game in the season finale in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers rested many of their starters, his final stats would have been less impressive.

Part of the blame can be dropped on the desk of head coach Hue Jackson, whose offense was so pass heavy, Crowell never really had the opportunity to display his talents as a runner. Only 84 carries in eight games as the main running back, including just 23 over a three-game span? What in the world was Jackson thinking?

And therein lies another problem. Crowell has carried the ball 20 times in a game only once in his career, a 145-yard effort in a 2015 victory over San Francisco. Freeman has logged nine games with 20 or more carries.

Why doesn’t Crowell get the rock more often? Well, he just might this season. Jackson has pledged – no, make that stated – his goal this season is to emphasize the run more. A 42-22 pass-to-run ratio in the opening exhibition is not exactly a step in that direction.

If you haven’t been bored to tears yet with all the stats, here’s one more significant one. Freeman has scored 27 touchdowns the last two seasons, 22 on the ground. Crowell has scored only 12 times in the last two seasons, 11 on the ground, after scoring eight as a rookie.

So if Crowell’s representatives in negotiations point out the 4.8-yard average the two men posted as evidence they are on the same level from a salary standpoint, it would appear playing that game falls short in lieu of the last two seasons.

Now if Jackson steps up and, indeed, makes Crowell a large part of his offense – much like Freeman is down in Atlanta – and makes certain he gets at least 20 carries a game on a consistent basis, not to mention being part of the passing game, then maybe the big back would deserve Freeman money.

Crowell, making $2.75 million this season after receiving a second-round tender by the Browns, considers himself a top tier running back. Is he as good as, say, Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, David Johnson, DeMarco Murray, Jordan Howard or Jay Ajayi? Rhetorical question.

All ranked in the top 10 in rushing last season. Crowell came in 15th. His per-game average of 59.5 yards ranked 18th (Freeman was 12th).

The Falcons obviously believe Freeman is a major part of their offense and rewarded him thusly despite statistics that are not what you might call overwhelming. His contract averages $8.3 million a season should he play long enough to fulfill it.

All that, of course, caught the attention of Crowell, who will be running behind a vastly improved offensive line this season. He believes he should be compensated equally even though the numbers do not add up.

So is Crowell a top tier running back? The stats and inconsistency say no. It will be interesting to see how the Browns view him in the coming weeks and months with regard to furthering his career in Cleveland.

Stay tuned.

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