Is Duke Johnson better than Nick Chubb?
Is he better than Kareem Hunt?
Does he have trade value?
If we’re being honest, Duke Johnson is the third-best running back on the Cleveland Browns roster. Nick Chubb ran for just under 1,000 yards last season, and Kareem Hunt led the NFL in rushing in 2017 and made it to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Duke Johnson was the number three back on the Browns in the first part of 2018, when Cleveland also had Chubb and Carlos Hyde. Clearly, with Hunt being an even better player than Hyde, Johnson’s role on this team moving forward will be limited at best.
And it’s not like Duke Johnson is a bad player. By any metric, he’s had a solid NFL career thus far. Johnson was selected by the Browns in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, the 77th overall pick. In the four years he’s been a member of the Browns, Johnson has been nothing short of reliable in otherwise tumultuous situations. He’s played in all 16 games every season, logging a total of 10 starts along the way (seven came in his rookie season of 2015).
While Johnson is labeled a running back, he’s at his most lethal when snagging passes out of the backfield. Over his career, Johnson has 235 receptions for 2170 yards and eight touchdowns through the air. When utilized in a way that accentuates his strengths, Johnson can find a niche on any football team.
But the problem is, the Browns are no longer a team that can accentuate those strengths. For the majority of Johnson’s time in Cleveland, the Browns have been absolutely awful. There were little-to-no quality receivers, backup-level quarterbacks given the title of starter, and hardly any wins to come by. Of course Johnson was racking up the yardage during that time; in the midst of 1-15 and 0-16 seasons, the coaches had to play whatever cards they had in a desperate effort to win games. When there were no other talented skill position players on the offensive side of the ball to vie for game time with, Johnson excelled.
Heading into 2019 though, the circumstances in Cleveland have drastically changed. And for the most part, fans and players couldn’t be happier. General Manager John Dorsey has brought in key players who can make an immediate impact on this Browns team. On the defensive side of the ball, Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon were recently acquired to slow down opposing rushers and wreak havoc upon quarterbacks. And on offense, in addition to Hunt, by far the biggest name to venture to the shores of Lake Erie since Baker Mayfield was drafted last April came in the form of Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham, quite possibly the top wide receiver in the league, joins a pass-catching crew that also consists of Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Antonio Callaway, David Njoku and freshly-signed Demetrius Harris. Factor in the possibility of screen plays to Chubb and Hunt, and Baker Mayfield will have a full house of targets to throw to on Sundays.
On a squad bursting at the seams with receiver, tight end and running back talent, Duke Johnson will have a difficult time getting onto the field. Another dilemma working against Johnson is his ties to the old regime. Now that John Dorsey has been in power in Cleveland for over a year, he’s mostly filtered out the personnel he inherited. He’s moved on from players like Deshone Kizer and Corey Coleman as well as the most prominent face of the 1-31 Browns, Head Coach Hue Jackson. In their place, Dorsey has signed and traded for guys he had connections to dating back to his time as GM of the Kansas City Chiefs. He’s also drafted extremely well, all in an effort to turn this franchise around by removing people associated with the old, winless Browns and replacing them with his own hand-picked roster and staff to lay the foundation for the new, respectable, Super Bowl-contender Browns. Duke Johnson is a holdover from the Ray Farmer Era, and that fact doesn’t bode well for any prospects he may have of staying in Cleveland for the long term.
But perhaps a window of opportunity has opened up for Johnson to show Dorsey, Freddie Kitchens and company what he can do when placed in a tough situation. After all, what did Johnson have to deal with in 2015, ‘16 and ‘17 other than week after week of tough situations? When the Browns picked up Kareem Hunt for cheap last month after he was released by Kansas City following a video showing him committing possible assault against a woman, it was known he would not be available for the entirety of the 2019 season. He was on the Commissioner’s Exempt List and facing a suspension of an unknown length.
Well, on Friday, we found out the length of that suspension: eight games. For the first half of the season, the Browns will have to lean on Johnson more than they otherwise would have were the explosive and dynamic Hunt in the lineup. This could prove to be perfect timing for a Johnson trade. In 2018, the trade deadline came on October 30, two days after the Browns played their eighth game. Were the dates to work out accordingly, the Browns could give Johnson significant minutes over those first eight games. Then, when Hunt returned, they could promptly trade Johnson to a team in serious need of a versatile back like him. Or, if it seemed like the option that made more sense at that point in the season, the Browns could choose to hold onto Johnson for the rest of the year.
Much of my proposed plan is directly dependent upon Johnson playing well over those eight games. If he performs poorly in Hunt’s absence, it could spell doom for Johnson in Cleveland. His fate is in his own hands. Certainly, it must have been much easier and more comfortable for Johnson when the Browns were atrocious. There was no pressure to succeed, because the expectation level for the team was below the floorboards. And he didn’t really have to worry about missing out on playing time, because besides Isaiah Crowell, the Browns didn’t have anyone who could seriously compete for minutes with Johnson.
Some outlets are reporting that the Browns are shopping Johnson right now. This is a bad idea. Keep him around through the end of Hunt’s suspension. Otherwise, during those first eight games, who else will be there to play running back besides Chubb? No one the Browns could sign and bring in would have the level of familiarity with the offense and that locker room that Johnson possesses. And what’s more, they probably wouldn’t be as good of a player as Johnson. As previously stated, Johnson is not a bad player, not by any means.
So the best avenue to take with Duke Johnson right now, in the opinion of one writer without any sources or inside information to speak of, is to keep him around through the end of October. As the trade deadline nears and so does the return of Kareem Hunt, then the Browns can start in on the trade initiatives. But before that though, it just doesn’t make a ton of sense.
Browns fans will always appreciate Duke Johnson for putting forth his best effort and giving us something positive to watch on those pathetic teams stripped of almost any redeeming qualities. And we’ll continue to support Johnson for the rest of the time he spends as a Cleveland Brown—no matter how long that may be.