Nick Chubb [608x342]
Nick Chubb [608x342] (Credit: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

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BEREA, Ohio -- As the Cleveland Browns held their offseason workout program this spring, running back Nick Chubb could often be spotted looking on as his position mates went through drills.

The four-time Pro Bowl selection has yet to be cleared since sustaining a severe knee injury in Week 2 that ended his 2023 season and required a pair of surgeries.

In early June, in Chubb's first comments since the injury, he said there is no timeline for his return. Browns decision-makers have echoed those comments, only adding that Chubb has been running on land.

When veterans report for training camp later this month, the Browns will have to decide on placing Chubb on the physically unable to perform list (PUP). The designation would prohibit Chubb from practicing and also shed some light on the state of his rehab.

It would also throw into question the Browns' ability to produce a reliable rushing game without Chubb after seeing production dip in his absence last season.

"We were pleased with how the running game turned out throughout the year," general manager Andrew Berry said. "Obviously, Nick is one in a million and maybe one in a billion and so we're not going to get the consistent, explosive runs that you get with the best back in football. But we also do firmly believe that the run game is predominantly predicated on strength of the offensive line and then the actual scheme. Obviously, when you have a difference-maker like Nick and someone who can create at the level that he can, he can truly elevate that area of the game. But we did have to learn to run without him and were able to do it effectively enough. But obviously Nick is a difference-maker."

Since entering the league in 2018, Chubb has been one of the most productive running backs in the NFL. Chubb has averaged 5.3 yards per rush in his career, second only to Jamaal Charles for the highest in the Super Bowl Era (min. 1,000 rushes). He is one of six players since 1966 to average five yards per rush or more.

Chubb's presence has also aided the Browns' passing game. With Chubb on the field, Cleveland has posted greater yards per attempt, completion percentages and QBR than when he is off the field.

Last season, with Chubb only playing two games, the Browns finished 12th in rushing yards but were tied for 25th in rushing yards per attempt. The team's 3.9-yard rushing average was the lowest since Chubb's arrival. Cleveland also ranked 16th with a 40% success rate.

Offensive line injuries contributed to the drop-off, too. The Browns lost left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. and right tackles Jack Conklin and Dawand Jones to season-ending knee injuries. But Chubb provides a level of dynamic ability that few players at his position have. Browns running backs not named Chubb averaged 3.8 yards per carry in 2023.

"You don't replace players like that," head coach Kevin Stefanski said. "Obviously, people have to pick up some slack and that type of thing. But he's, again, this is not breaking news, but he's a huge, huge part of what we do."

This offseason, Cleveland opted against re-signing Kareem Hunt, whose 411 yards were second on the team last season. But the team brought in a pair of veteran backs, signing D'Onta Foreman and Nyheim Hines.

At 6-foot and 235 pounds, Foreman presents more of a power element similar to Chubb. Hines did not participate in the offseason workout program as he rehabs a torn ACL he sustained in a jet ski incident last July. But he's a skilled pass-catcher -- he has 240 receptions in five seasons -- along with being an accomplished returner.

The Browns also return Jerome Ford, who led the team with 813 rushing yards in 2023, as well as Pierre Strong Jr., who had 291 rushing yards.

The hiring of Ken Dorsey as offensive coordinator is expected to come with tweaks to the running game, particularly more rushes out of spread formations.

"We're getting the ball in a lot of space situations," Strong told ESPN. [Dorsey is] using our strengths, putting us in space and the perfect place to make a play. We've got a lot of routes outside the backfield. The run game is the run game. We're going to handle that."

Much of the attention on the Browns' offense this offseason has been on the progress of quarterback Deshaun Watson in his shoulder rehab as Dorsey installs passing concepts more catered to his skill set.

But with Stefanski at the helm, a strong running game will be a priority -- no matter who's in the backfield.

"I think we're still gonna have an identity when you invest in the O-line and we want to live up to being one of the better units in the league," guard Joel Bitonio said. "I think there's going to be times where they're still gonna be like, 'Hey, you know, you got Nick Chubb back there, you got to get the O-line, like, let's get a couple of yards here.'"

And while there is no target date for Chubb's return, the expectation is that he will return to the field at some point. It's the reason this spring Chubb and the team reworked his contract, which expires after the 2024 season, to ensure he would remain in Cleveland.

"He's the heartbeat and pulse of our team," Berry said during an appearance on NFL Network's "The Insiders." "... One of the moments that we're almost looking forward to is the first time he runs out of that home tunnel for his debut in the 2024 season."