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Player Spotlight: Duke Johnson

A detailed look at running back Duke Johnson's fantasy outlook on the 2016 Cleveland Browns

There's a Perfect Storm of Success Brewing for Duke Johnson 

There are several elements involved in this perfect storm that has forecasted success for the Browns second year back, Duke Johnson. Each individual factor is strong on it's own, but when added together, the odds of success compounds into a can't lose onslaught of near certainty. Let's take a look...

Talent

As of now, Johnson's best talent is his ability to perform as a pass-catcher. He is in the presence of LaDainian Tomlinson, Reggie Bush, Matt Forte, Edgerrin James and Herschel Walker - all running backs who had 60+ receptions as a rookie. Johnson finished last season with 61 receptions, despite having zero in the first two games. His yards per carry was relatively low at 3.6 YPC, but he was never able to get into a rhythm, which kept him from emerging as a rushing threat. His career YPC average in three years of college was a hefty 6.7 yards. 

Potential

The chart below shows where Johnson was on the rushing spectrum last season (yellow) and where he could be, if his carries and yards per carry increased. As you can see, the potential is there for him to improve dramatically, especially with Hue Jackson running the team, particularly the offense.

Rushing yards based on carries and YPC

  Yards Per Carry
Carries 3.5 4.0 4.5 5.0 5.5 6.0
100 350 400 450 500 550 600
120 420 480 540 600 660 720
130 455 520 585 650 715 780
140 490 560 630 700 770 840
150 525 600 675 750 825 900
160 560 640 720 800 880 960
170 595 680 765 850 935 1020
180 630 720 810 900 990 1080
190 665 760 855 950 1045 1140
200 700 800 900 1000 1100 1200

OPPORTUNITY

The biggest story of the offseason for the Cleveland Browns is the hiring of Head Coach Hue Jackson, who will also be the team's offensive coordinator. Jackson's offensive style favors the running game, but he also values a strong wide receiver. Currently, the Browns are lacking in that department, unless Josh Gordon defies the mental and legal odds that keep him from returning to the game. Without a strong wide receiver, someone will have to emerge, or perhaps the run game is leaned on more heavily? The latter would increase the chances of success for Johnson. Jackson found success in Cincinnati with a combination of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, which resembles the situation in Cleveland with Isaiah Crowell and Johnson. Duke is arguably a better rusher between the tackles than Bernard, plus the Browns offensive line, particularly the left tackle Joe Thomas, is an improvement over what Cincinnati had. I would also add that Isaiah Crowell is not as cemented as the starting back, like Jeremy Hill is in Cincinnati. Crowell's inconsistency could open the door for Johnson to take the ball and run with it (literally) and not look back.

VALUE

Duke Johnson's ADP is currently RB26 or RB23 in PPR leagues, but I fully expect that to climb progressively as we approach the prime drafting season of late August. Expect him to go in the mix of Matt Forte, Carlos Hyde, Dion Lewis and maybe Thomas Rawls. The outlook for increased value is apparent if Rawls' stock continues to climb. Roughly speaking, Johnson is approximately a fourth round pick (in 12 team redraft leagues) which is likely RB2 territory for your roster. He finished 24th in PPR scoring last season and would've had a Top 20 finish if he had only two more carries per game. His reception totals and involvement in the passing game is expected to remain the same, if not climb. His rushing totals (104 carries in 2015) is also expected to increase under the run-oriented playcalling of Hue Jackson. 

Surprise Factor

We often see players emerge out of nowhere or catapulting someone else on the depth chart that was expected to be in their way. Injuries can play a big role in roster advancement, but not always. Sometimes, it's pure talent that wins out. We saw this last year with David Johnson and Dion Lewis. Duke Johnson should be on your radar as a running back who has a surprise factor working to his advantage. Remember when Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne were expected to be the thunder and lightning attack for the Giants several years ago? In actuality, Barber emerged as the Giants main back after primarily being a pass-catching threat for a season or two. The same could happen with Johnson as early as this year.

Positives

  • Duke Johnson is coming off a 61-catch rookie season, and at age 22 he is still in the "reaching potential" stage. He has carved out a role as an eite pass-catching back and at worst, he'll be an effective flex option, especially in PPR leagues.
  • Johnson is more than a just a pass-catching back. His 6.7 yards per carry on 175 carries per year at the University of Miami suggests he has the ability to run the ball well against top competition. 
  • The Browns have a run-heavy coach in Hue Jackson and a Top 6 offensive line, per Footballguys own Matt Bitonti's Offensive Line Rankings. These two factors point the needle up for Johnson to be more involved in the ground game in 2016.
  • If we compare Duke Johnson to Giovani Bernard, who Jackson coached in Cincinnati, Bernard never had less than 154 carries while Jackson was with the team. Even if Johnson's YPC stays at 3.6, 150 rushes and similar receiving stats would rank Johnson in the Top 20. A YPC of 4.0 would've given him a Top 15 finish. 

Negatives 

  • Isaiah Crowell is currently in the mix in the Browns running game, which means Johnson is expected to share rushing duties in 2016.
  • Head Coach Hue Jackson thrived in Cincinnati with a capable quarterback in Andy Dalton and an elite wide receiver in A.J. Green. The duo opened up the ground game, that was exploited by Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. The situation for a similar setup in Cleveland is missing two key elements - uncertainty at quarterback and a lack of an elite wide receiver. 
  • Johnson had two touchdowns last year compared to five from Isaiah Crowell. That's not that much of a difference, but Crowell is currently slated to be the short-yardage and goal line back, which could keep Johnson's touchdown totals from steadily rising.
  • The last five coaching changes in the AFC Central have come from Cleveland, which suggests the Browns may struggle again to compete and produce quality fantasy stars. They have not had a Top 20 back since Trent Richardson in 2012 and Peyton Hillis in 2010. 

Final thoughts

Johnson has plenty of talent already, with the potential for even more. If Isaiah Crowell was not in the picture, Johnson would have a much higher ADP and be a candidate to finish in the Top 10. Interestingly enough, it's this uncertainty that makes him such a value. Who's to say he can't or won't emerge as the Browns main back in 2016? Several factors suggest he'll be more involved this year, with the potential to be a breakout fantasy running back, especially if his rushes increase dramatically. Even if he remains a third down specialist and pass-catching threat only, he still has the talent to finish in the Top 25. This means you can draft him at his current ADP and get expected production with the potential for him to considerably outperform his value. Crowell has a few character yellow flags, not to mention inconsistency as a running back. Johnson has a higher pedigree for the position and the type of talent that coaches will not want to take off the field. There is definitely a storm brewing in the name of Duke Johnson. Whether or not the storm fizzles out or if it gets stronger and makes a direct hit, is yet to be seen. The forecast for success is leaning in his direction.
 

Projections

 

Games

Carries

Yards

TDs

Targets

Receptions

Yards

TDs

Fumbles

Haseley

16

159

636

3

79

65

569

3

1

other viewpoints

Matt Franciscovich of NFL.com believes Johnson could see upwards of 80 catches

"The Browns were questioned for not drafting a single running back in April, but Jackson instilled confidence in Johnson and Crowell in short order talking the duo up as "the best he's seen" and calling their talent "extreme". Coming from a guy who has coached Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernardthe last few seasons that kind of remark should not be taken lightly. The Browns brass believe in their backs, and with the wideout position a huge question mark with a handful of rookies competing for snaps, Johnson seems like the only sure thing in terms of high target volume. There's a good chance that the sophomore back sees upwards of 80 receptions this year and if that ends up being the case, his yardage and touchdown totals have nowhere to go but up."

Select staff members of Dynasty League Football weigh in on the Browns running back depth chart

Mike Krafick – "Duke Johnson is the running back to own in Cleveland, I am targeting him in all of my leagues.  I love running backs that can catch the ball out of the backfield and offer a nice floor week to week and Duke has the skills to be an every down runner as well as the passing downs back."

Alan Satterlee – "I am super bullish on the Browns’ running game for 2016 and I think both Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson are both very fantasy-relevant. Crowell has an easy trend — from 600 rushing yards in 2014, to 700 in 2015 and to 800 in 2016 and there’s no reason why he can’t get back to 8 TDs like he did as rookie, or maybe get to double-digit scores. Duke Johnson is a fantasy stud, dripping with upside. I could easily see 70 receptions, 1200 total yards and 5-6 TDs."

Dan Heins – Watch out. Cleveland may actually be a sleeper this year in the running game.  Crowell and Duke have the opportunity to look a lot like Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard from the last couple years.  Now that may annoy you depending on when you started those two over the past two years.  The Browns are set up to punish you with the run. Crowell should effectively do that.  Once you are punished, Duke at the ability to burn you.  Both of these backs are going to have huge fantasy impact at certain times next year. 

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to haseley@footballguys.com