Only three running backs were more productive in terms of PPR fantasy points than Kareem Hunt during the first 28 weeks of his NFL career. His 525.4 PPR fantasy points between 2017 Week 1 and 2018 Week 11 trailed only Todd Gurley II's 680.7 and Alvin Kamara's 583.1 during that time span.
It's understandable, therefore, that Hunt's prospective fantasy managers are tantalized by the prospect of him again emerging as a high-level starter with the Cleveland Browns.
Here's the problem: Hunt will begin the season suspended for eight games, spanning the first nine weeks of the 2019 schedule, a wrinkle that presents a host of potential problems for those who draft him. That's not to say Hunt isn't worth drafting at all, but if you're going to, be aware of the risks involved.
For the purposes of this column, let's put aside personal opinions -- the oft-cited "I refuse to draft Player X for Y reason" -- regarding the cause of Hunt's suspension. Fantasy football is a numbers-based game, so what follows addresses only his possible statistical contributions in 2019.
Here are the things you must take into consideration before you pick Hunt in your fantasy draft:
You need to stay afloat in the standings through Week 9
Obvious as this might seem, Hunt's prospective fantasy managers will need to keep their teams in contention deep enough into the season in order for him to make any sort of impact at all. And they'll need to do so not only without any contribution from him before Week 10, but also while locking down his roster spot with exactly zero fantasy points through those first nine weeks. Considering how unpredictable the football season -- and therefore fantasy results -- can be, that's not as simple as it seems.
What about the team that begins the season 0-3, especially one that faces a great volume of early-week byes or early-season injuries? Having Hunt continue to take up a roster spot might be a luxury that team can no longer afford. A team that decides to draft him should have a plan in place for early-season misfortune, one that doesn't involve sending Hunt to free agency at a foolish time.
Here's why: As the season dawns, Hunt is available to you for only eight of 17 weeks, or 47% (50% if your league uses 16 weeks). For each week that passes, that percentage increases, as does his potential impact, and with it his trade/free-agent pickup value. Drafting Hunt, then dropping him after six, four or even two bad weeks from your team, means that you've absorbed zero contribution from his roster spot, plus freed him up to other bidders at a time of the season when his value is almost unquestionably greater than it was on draft day. You've effectively done your competition a favor by eating up some of his absent weeks.
That's not saying that a desperate team shouldn't cut Hunt during the course of his suspension in order to keep its season afloat -- and that's naturally true in the event of in-season news that alters the scope of his potential impact -- but doing so reeks of both desperation and poor planning.
The breadth of Hunt's role
Hunt's arrival in Cleveland was a puzzling move beyond simply the optics. In signing with the Browns, he joined a team that already had a fairly cut-and-dried backfield upon the conclusion of the 2018 season. Rookie Nick Chubb scored 141.7 PPR fantasy points in the team's final eight games, while Duke Johnson Jr. contributed 27 catches and 77.0 such points of his own during the same time span.
Chubb's performance placed him sixth best among running backs during the final nine weeks last season, and two of the players who finished ahead of him played an additional game during that time span (Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry). There was little doubt as the Browns' 2018 book closed that Chubb was their starting running back, with a very promising career ahead.
Now things seem a bit more unclear in the Browns' backfield, though Chubb's advantage of having eight games as the team's No. 1 running back is a significant one. He'll have the ability to close the book on any debate with a strong first half of the season.
As to Hunt's projected role, I have my doubts about him dethroning Chubb, with the two perhaps engaging in a "hot-hand" battle during the season's final eight weeks as the best-case scenario for Hunt. But to gather greater insight on the situation, I asked our NFL Nation Browns reporter, Jake Trotter, how he thought things might shake out once Hunt returns in Week 10.
"Because of his versatility as a pass-catcher, Hunt could see time alongside Chubb once he returns, especially considering Freddie Kitchens' affinity for two- and three-back sets," Trotter replied. "Hunt, however, also has the talent to turn the Cleveland backfield into a timeshare -- or even supplant Chubb as the team's primary back altogether."
It hardly sounds like Hunt has good odds of starting come Week 10.
Handcuffing Hunt to Chubb
It's the possibility Trotter mentioned that Hunt could supplant Chubb that might have some prospective fantasy managers considering treating Hunt as the ideal handcuff to Chubb. While Hunt does fit the description, his eight-game suspension puts him in an unusual position compared to your typical handcuff. That being the knowledge that he won't be available to you for nine weeks, compared to a traditional handcuff, who could be called upon at any stage of the season due to an injury to the starter.
That matters most because the Browns' bye arrives in Week 7. That means that in addition to having to absorb two running back absences during that week, as you would with any handcuff scenario in its bye week, you'll also have Hunt's guaranteed absence cutting into what's usually 4-6 available running backs on a fantasy roster during the other five weeks that have byes scheduled (Weeks 4-6 and 8-9).
Now consider the impact on the other positions. Drafting Hunt potentially takes away a roster spot you might've used on a backup quarterback or tight end, and should your quarterback's or tight end's bye week arrive before Week 10, you might be faced with cutting an asset you can't afford to lose -- perhaps Hunt himself. To that end, five of the top eight quarterbacks in terms of average draft position have byes before Week 10, as do five of the top nine tight ends in ADP.
Therefore, if you do intend to draft Hunt, be sure to pay more careful attention to the bye-week scheduling of all of your players, so that you don't wind up in a desperate spot at one position at the wrong time of year. Trying to delay as many of your byes as possible beyond Week 9 is one way, though that also has the countereffect of weakening your team after Hunt's return -- and remember, he's not contributing a thing to your team before Week 10, so your team has already been weakened then.
Stacking your byes
Speaking of delaying your byes beyond Hunt's return, what about the prospect of stacking your fantasy team's byes in either Weeks 10, 11 or 12? It's not a crazy thought, considering that each of those weeks has at least four teams on the sidelines, and the teams themselves are of generally high quality, good enough to carry you through the nine weeks Hunt will miss. These top-50 ADP players have Weeks 10-12 byes:
That's a good amount of talent that fits the strategy, though at the same time there are two dangers to it: First, Weeks 10-12 is an awfully late time in the year to risk a lost matchup due to having stacked byes, especially if you're in a tight playoff race. Second, due to the nature of serpentine drafts, it's possible you wouldn't be able to draft enough of the players to fit the stack due to their being selected too quickly around you.
As for stacking your byes before Hunt's return, keep in mind that his own absence will make it all the harder to be able to fill an active starting lineup in the week in question. My opinion is that you should never leave a vacant lineup spot, even when stacking byes, meaning that you might have to spread your stack across two different, earlier weeks and risk taking losses in both matchups.
The value of a bench spot
One thing we as fantasy managers tend to underestimate at the draft table is the importance of in-season acquisitions. We tend to think our teams are nothing short of excellent coming out of the draft, including assuming that the "sleepers" and "values" we select in the final rounds -- the precise range where Hunt is going -- will all be hits.
It's those late-round picks who typically wind up being our first cuts, but returning to the earlier point, Hunt can't fall into the group of potential early-season cuts, mainly because there'll be no data in September or October to suggest that his value has declined to the point that justifies the decision. That means that it's your other late-rounders, or perhaps players selected even earlier than that, who will require quicker decisions on their roster-worthiness. Your add/drop decisions in the early weeks are going to be tougher, even if only slightly.
Here's why those decisions on pickups matter: In the past five seasons combined, 28% of the players who finished the year deemed "starters" using VBD (value based drafting) metrics were ones who went undrafted in ESPN leagues. In addition, 30% of the 25-point PPR fantasy performances during that five-year span came from undrafted players. Naturally, those players were most likely to be the following week's most popular pickups, whether they ended up in the aforementioned "starters" group come year's end or not. While there's no hard-and-fast number for the makeup of your roster, I'd estimate that you should be prepared to turn over between 35-40% of it -- and that's counting only spots you're permanently turning over to new players rather than bye week plug-ins.
Beware of not giving yourself the freedom to turn over roster spots around Hunt, which makes him a more appealing selection in auction-based formats where you have more control over the makeup of your roster, or in leagues with deeper benches.
It's an unusual scenario with Hunt entering 2019, as his eight-game suspension effectively has no precedent. Josh Gordon's 10-game suspension entering 2014 was the closest, and he averaged only 10.9 PPR fantasy points in his five games after returning, compared to 22.5 the previous season. Most of the others in recent years, all of which were relatively successful seasons by the individual players, were of the four-game variety: Martavis Bryant and Antonio Gates in 2015, Tom Brady in 2016 and Julian Edelman and Mark Ingram II in 2018. Eight games, however, has a substantially greater impact upon a fantasy team's planning than four.
For those reasons, it's a chance I'm generally unwilling to take -- except, again, in my leagues with the deepest benches -- but if you're one of those who takes the risk with Hunt, be sure to plan accordingly.