It’s no secret that running back Duke Johnson Jr. has asked to be traded, and the rumors around potential trades have been looming for quite some time now. The reason this all started was that the Browns apparently put Duke on the trade block, which he didn’t take too kindly towards. The trade talks eventually died down because of the lack of a market for Duke, but the relationship between the organization and the fan-favorite running back seems like it could be damaged beyond repair. However, the Browns are in no rush to deal him away since he’s under contract for three more seasons and Kareem Hunt won’t even see the field until he serves his eight-game suspension. At this point, Duke is the change of pace and receiving back on the roster, and in theory, he’s a perfect compliment to Nick Chubb.
Let me be clear, I would like to see Duke in a Browns uniform for the long haul being utilized properly and thriving in Cleveland. He’s a dynamic playmaker who is extremely undervalued, and if he is given touches in the offense, he could be a dangerous weapon they could deploy all over the field whether it’s out of the backfield or as a receiver. He breaks a ton of tackles, which makes him incredibly dangerous in space because he can pick up big chunks of yardage. After all, Duke Johnson was the first running back since Herschel Walker from 1986-1988 to record 500 receiving yards in his first three seasons from 2015-2017, and he just missed the mark last year with 429 receiving yards while having career lows in targets and receptions.
According to Pro Football Focus, 44.0% of Duke’s catches, dating back to his rookie season in 2015, end up as either a first down or a touchdown. Duke does all that in the passing game while averaging 4.3 Y/A on the ground and showing the ability to run in between the tackles as well. General manager John Dorsey should be in no rush to deal away this type of production, and he should probably even encourage the coaching staff to use Duke much more.
On the other hand, second-year player Dontrell Hilliard has apparently impressed throughout the offseason, and he could be a potential replacement for Duke. He played well in limited time last year as both a kick returner and running back, but he’s still relatively unproven. However, he did show the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield last year with nine catches on 10 targets for 105 yards. The one pretty big downfall is that Hilliard still hasn’t registered a NFL carry whereas Duke has proved to be more than capable of running in between the tackles and in space with 299 rushes, 1286 yards, and five touchdowns on his career. Dorsey and company have given Browns fans several reasons to trust the front office’s decisions, though, so we’ll just have to see how it plays out.
Another thing is that some people might say that Duke isn’t durable enough to get any more than 10 touches a game at 5’9 and 210 pounds, but he has played in all 64 possible games in his career to date. Surprised? So was I. With that being said, there’s a reason to believe that Duke could easily be used the same way James White is in New England or how Tarik Cohen is used in Chicago and star in that role. If it were up to me, I would keep and use Duke Johnson as the extremely versatile, game-breaking player that he can be. If the Browns do decide to trade him, they need to make sure they avoid potential problem spots where he could be used against them.
For example, if he ended up in New England, he’d be unstoppable in that system, which is a team the Browns would have to contend with in the playoffs. Two other teams that are bad fits for Cleveland would be the Indianapolis Colts or the Kansas City Chiefs because they’re both great teams that we could see in the playoffs as well for the coming years, and I for one, don’t want to see Duke have revenge games against Cleveland in the playoffs whatsoever. At the end of the day, I want to see Duke Johnson thrive in the NFL, but the Browns need to make sure that they trade him somewhere that he can thrive without having success against them, so NFC teams would definitely be the only calls I’d be interested in taking.
Scenario 1: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This move could really benefit both sides extremely well because the Bucs are desperate for production out of the running back position, which would give Duke plenty of opportunity, and the Browns probably won’t have to worry about competing with them any time soon. Bruce Arians has been on record saying that there’s minimal difference between elite and marginal running backs in the NFL, but he also knows how beneficial it is to have good talent at the position as long as they’re worth their contract. In my opinion, Duke is well worth his contract, and for a team starved for talent at the position, Bruce Arians might be able to be convinced that he needs a high-quality weapon out of the backfield. Since Duke has a versatile enough skillset where he can be used as a receiver too, it may peak Arians’ interest just enough to be calling for the move.
This deal, like pretty much every other trade in the NFL, likely would only involve Duke for picks, and I wouldn’t give Duke away for anything less than a 4th, and even then, I’d be hesitant. However, a 4th from the Bucs would likely be toward the top end of the round, so that helps. The Bucs have cap space and picks, and there’s an established relationship between head coaches, so maybe it’s possible both sides could strike up a deal.
Scenario 2: Minnesota Vikings
With the loss of Latavius Murray to the Saints in free agency coupled with Dalvin Cook’s inability to play all 16 games, the Minnesota Vikings could use some help in the backfield. Their offense has plenty of weapons with Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph, and a healthy Dalvin Cook, but they could definitely use another playmaker out of the backfield that can also add depth to their top-heavy receiving corps.
It makes sense for the Vikings to send a mid-round pick to Cleveland for Duke because of several reasons. For one, they’re spending all that money on Kirk Cousins, so why not give him an elite receiving back that he can use as both a safety valve and a guy that can pick up big chunks of yardage in space. Duke also seems to be a pretty solid pass blocker, so when he isn’t running routes, he could help keep Cousins from getting hit. Lastly, Dalvin Cook keeps getting injured, and Duke has never missed a single game. Not only could Duke potentially prevent Cook from getting injured by lightening his workload, but he could also give them a solid option as a spot starter if that’s what they needed him to do.
Scenario 3: Los Angeles Rams
Imagine pairing Duke Johnson with arguably the best, young offensive mind in the NFL in Sean McVay. If anyone could figure out how to use Duke to the best of his abilities not named Bill Belichick, it’s probably him. Duke would be scary in that offense, and they could create one of the most dominant two-headed monsters in the NFL coupling him with one of the best running backs in the entire league, Todd Gurley.
Gurley was clearly worn down towards the end of the year and during the playoffs, and they heavily relied on CJ Anderson down the stretch. Now that he’s gone, it’s a bunch of young, relatively unproven backs behind Gurley with Malcolm Brown, John Kelly, and rookie Darrell Henderson. Perhaps they feel like that group is good enough, but maybe they want to add a more proven talent to their running back room.
For this trade, their picks won’t be as valuable because they’ll likely be selecting toward the back end of the draft. I would get a little more creative here and try to grab one of their young backs in return along with a draft pick. John Kelly is an intriguing player who flashed in last year’s preseason, but he struggled during regular season action. However, he’s still just 22 years old, and he shows some promise as a runner and a pass-catcher. It might not be the worst idea to take a flyer on the guy because he could at least add some depth back to the running back room along with Dontrell Hilliard and contribute on special teams.