The staff members at Footballguys are full of opinions. In a Faceoff, we allow two members to voice their opinions on a specific player. One picked the high side, and the other took the low side.
High Side by Stephen Holloway
Duke Johnson has an excellent athlete is a tough running back body. He is a solid 207 pounds packed into his 5'-9” stature. He has long speed witnessed by his 10.62 second 100-meter time in high school, where he also was a long jumper. His running back feats include running for 1,957 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior at Miami Norland High School, where he also was an effective receiver. His college ball was also played at Miami. He was effective in his first two seasons, averaging 6.2 YPC, catching 31 passes and scoring 17 touchdowns. He dominated in his third season, averaging 6.8 YPC, rushing for 1,652 yards, catching 38 passes for 421 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns.
Despite a hamstring injury in early August and being diagnosed with a concussion in the first pre-season game, he played in all 16 games as a rookie with Cleveland. He was lightly used in early season, but beginning in their third game against Oakland, he was one of the Browns most consistent weapons in the passing game. For the remaining 14 games, he caught 61 passes on 74 targets (82%) for 534 yards, 8.75 yards per catch. He was lightly used in the running game with only 104 carries for 379 yards.
The coaching change in Cleveland is a strong factor in evaluation Duke Johnson's potential for 2016. Jackson's philosophy has been running back centric, with a focus on the running game and excellent game plans to use the running backs as receivers. Johnson will continue to dominate the passing targets for the running backs and those numbers should accelerate in his second year in Jackson's offense. Johnson should also get more opportunities as a runner, which he has shown to be effective on every level prior to his rookie NFL season. Adding context, the Browns as a team ranked 22nd in the NFL in rushing yards with 1,529 yards and their quarterbacks contributed 361 yards rushing. The running backs totaled 1,147 yards, averaging only 3.7 YPC.
Low Side by Matt Waldman
Many of you are wondering how I'm on the low side of this argument. Waldman loves him some Duke Johnson. It's true.
I love Johnson's vision, burst, toughness, and versatility. He could easily become the Giovani Bernard of Hue Jackson's Cleveland offense. Considering the lack of established weapons in the passing game and mediocre defense, Johnson has all the makings of a garbage-time gem.
But if Jackson has his way, Isaiah Crowell will be the centerpiece of the ground game. "Those two guys are as good as I've seen in a while. Their talent is extreme," Jackson told Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot. He also said Crowell was the main reason the Browns didn't take a running back in the 2016 NFL Draft and told Cabot that he believes Crowell is "a bellcow who can carry the load. ... Isaiah is very explosive. He's got quick feet, he's, fast in the hole, [and] he runs with good pad level. I really think Isaiah Crowell is as really good back. I think he's going to have a sensational season. I really do."
If Jackson thinks the Browns' backs are as good as he's seen in the while then it's logical to say that Cleveland's head coach puts the pair at least in the same tier of runners he's been around as a coach for the past decade in the NFL: Bernard, Jeremy Hill, Darren McFadden, Willis McGahee, Ray Rice, Warrick Dunn, and Rudi Johnson. With the exception of Dunn, who had top-12 fantasy season with Dan Reeves during Atlanta's 2005 season, all of those backs had fantasy RB1 seasons while Jackson was on staff.
Crowell has flashed elite-level talent at the position since he was a five-star prospect at Georgia, while he was paying his dues at Alabama State, and for at least 6-8 games of the 32 he's played as a UDFA selection in Cleveland. That point alludes to the problem: Crowell has taken an immature approach to the game and his life outside the game. Just two weeks ago, Crowell's emotional response to societal ills got him in and his organization mired in a dispute with police. Crowell not only made a public apology, but he gave up game check, promised to volunteer in the community with police, and he attended the funeral of the slain officers in Dallas—which his visit is detailed here by Dallas Sgt. Demetrick Pennie.
The maturation process isn't a linear one. Crowell has done a better job of working on his game. And despite an uphill battle for playing time, it's clear that he handled the three-headed rotation imposed by former coach Mike Pettine better than the more heralded Terrance West. These are positive steps. If Crowell plays to his talent, he's capable of delivering fantasy RB1 production for a coach who has no problem leaning hard on a bigger, bellcow. If Crowell doesn't take it up a notch it will still require Johnson to play like a superstar to reduced Crowell to a non-factor in the offense. As much as I'd like to believe differently, it makes Crowell the better value in fantasy drafts.