Is the Duke of Cleveland Going to Run the Browns?

By Ha Kung Wong

Twitter: @FBGarbageTime

It’s amazing what happens in the NFL preseason.  There’s the offseason releases and trades.  There’s the NFL Combine and Draft.  And there’s OTAs, minicamp and a whole lot of speculation.  And sometimes, players start to make a splash without taking a single snap in an actual NFL game.

Apparently, this summer, one of those players in Duke Johnson, third round running back pick of the Cleveland Browns.

But the hype doesn’t just come from the Browns themselves, others have also been hearing good things about him:

And the Browns are capitalizing on this hyped mid-round running back by placing him all over the field.

And on top of running back, kick returner and punt returner, Johnson is now even getting reps at wide receiver.

Yup, maybe Johnson can throw the ball to himself as well?  Heck, might as well have him kick field goals as well while we’re at it.

Duke Johnson 1

And who doesn’t want to fall for Duke Johnson?  At the University of Miami (FL), Johnson spent last year amassing over 2000 yards (1652 rushing and 421 receiving) and 13 total touchdowns.  He dominated the ACC in 2014 with the most yards from scrimmage, the second most plays from scrimmage, the second most rush attempts and the second most rush yards.  Most impressively, perhaps, is having the second highest career rushing yards per attempt in the ACC since 1956.

Sure, throwing Johnson all over the offense and special teams could just be the act of a desperate franchise, who’s crowning achievements in the off-season include acquiring two wide receivers that caught a total of two touchdowns in 2014 and a Pro-Bowl punter (not that there’s anything wrong with that), trying to manufacture excitement, but perhaps this is something more.  Apparently, this might be some sort of plan to copy the NBA’s increasing trend of player versatility and play, as Dan Labbe of Cleveland.com calls it, “positionless football”.

In short, that would keep versatile players on the field doing a little bit of everything, which I assume would help confuse the defense and increase ball distribution to the most dynamic players on the team.  Of course, this assumes that the Browns actually want to implement something that complicated.  Truth is, it’s more likely that the Browns want to continue with a hot hand approach to a running back by committee.  Just look at what happened in 2014.

Coach Mike Pettine didn’t show any propensity to consistently stick with one running back.  The Browns had three different backs (Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell and Ben Tate) with over 100 carries each, none of which averaged more than 50 rushing yards per game.  So the chance that Pettine decides to use Johnson as his primary back are slim, and perhaps even more slim now that he may be considering “positionless football”.  And it’s unlikely that new offensive coordinator John DeFillipo will change the Browns’ approach to the ground game as his background in the NFL is primarily as a quarterbacks coach.  If anything, DeFillipo already has his hands full managing the Josh McCown versus Johnny Manziel quarterback “competition” and trying to figure out how to replace Jordan Cameron.

Perhaps even more interesting for a back that has been touted as a good pass catcher, Evan Silva of Rotoworld pointed out that the Browns actually were dead last in the number of times they targeted the running back with a pass in 2014.  In fact the Browns’ measly 48 attempts were 16 less than the next lowest team (the 49ers) and a whopping 118 less than the highest team (the Bills).  Maybe they turn the corner and target backs more in 2015 under DeFillipo, but so far, there’s no evidence of that, whether Johnson looks good in minicamp catching passes or not.

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Although many analysts are on board with Duke Johnson taking over in Cleveland, ESPN’s Mathew Berry and Field Yates spoke at length on the June 25, 2015 Fantasy Focus Football podcast about how they don’t totally buy into the hype either.  I tend to side with them on this, but certainly thing there’s room for contribution.

In my opinion, it’s most likely that the season begins with Isaiah Crowell as the early down back with third downs and situational plays set for Duke Johnson and Terrance West.  Could Johnson end up with more snaps than that?  Sure, anything can happen, but I can’t see Crowell losing the majority of touches, unless he starts putting the ball on the ground (he fumbled three times, losing two in 148 attempts in 2014), or significantly falls short of his 4.1 yard per attempt average in 2014.

The bottom line is that there’s no doubt that Duke Johnson is an exciting prospect for the Browns.  And right now, excitement is something the Browns could use more than anything.

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