Duke Johnson Could Be a Major Weapon as a Slot Receiver
NFL preseason overreactions are a yearly tradition. Still, there are things to look for -- you just have to know where to look. Follow the right trends and there might just be something useful, whether it's a rookie emerging or a veteran playing a different role.
That brings us to Duke Johnson of the Cleveland Browns. Over the course of training camp, Browns head coach Hue Jackson noted the team might use the running back more as a slot receiver. On the surface, the idea is intriguing.
Since entering the NFL, Johnson has received the fourth-most targets of any running back in the league, despite playing around half of Cleveland’s offensive snaps in his first two years with the Browns. He’s had 74 targets in each of his first two seasons, which puts him behind only David Johnson, Theo Riddick, and Darren Sproles at the running back position over that span.
As a rookie, he had 104 rushing attempts against those 74 targets, but that shifted in 2016 and he had one more target than attempt on the ground. Just last season, those 74 targets were the fifth-most among all running backs, behind David Johnson, Le'Veon Bell, James White, and Bilal Powell.
He finished fourth in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) among the 32 running backs with at least 40 total targets last season. Meanwhile, despite seeing one more target than Johnson in 2016, Powell ranked 23rd.
While Duke's 31.7 Reception NEP was among the best for running backs, it places him around Nelson Agholor-level when compared to wide receivers -- which is to say, amongst uninspiring company. One reason for that is, running back targets and receptions from the backfield are important, but they rarely make the same kind of impact as those for a wide receiver (since those are often down-the-field throws, as opposed to a running back's catches, which are more often behind, near or at the line of scrimmage). To put that in perspective, David Johnson led running backs with 69.6 Reception NEP last season, but that would have placed just 44th among all wide receivers, between Jordan Matthews and Kenny Stills.
However, if Duke Johnson starts to get some of his targets and receptions from the slot wide receiver position instead of the backfield on a more consistent basis, his potential value increases.
Third Down Impact
The term "third-down back" gets thrown around often, but there aren't many who actually play that part on a meaningful level. Johnson actually did in 2016.
There were 97 players who were targeted at least 20 times on third downs last season, and just seven of them were running backs. Two -- David Johnson and DeMarco Murray -- were their team’s main backs, and two others -- Powell and Sproles -- led their team in running back snaps played despite being considered the number-two rusher on the depth chart. That leaves just three -- Duke Johnson, Miami’s Damien Williams, and New England’s James White -- who could be considered true "third-down receiving backs."
Of that group of seven, Johnson had the second-highest target share on third downs and the fourth-highest Reception NEP per target.
Johnson collected 41.9 percent of his targets last season on third down. Should he become the true number-three slot receiver in Cleveland, he could continue to see those targets with a higher volume of plays on first and second down, too.
A First Glimpse
During Cleveland’s first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, Johnson played a few snaps at receiver. And while there wasn’t a lot of actual action -- he had only one reception -- the Browns showed that rolling him out as a slot receiver could also help open up some other things in their offense.
On an early third down, Johnson got his first look in the slot. He motioned into the backfield before going back to his original position. The play was ultimately flagged for a false start, but Johnson would be back.
Later in the quarter, a penalty set up and 1st and 20 for the Browns. The skill players on the field were Johnson, Isaiah Crowell, tight end Seth DeValve, and receivers Ricardo Louis and Rashard Higgins. In 2016, Cleveland ran the 21 personnel package -- two running backs, one tight end, and two wide receivers -- on 11 percent of their offensive plays, which was tied for seventh-most in the league, per Sharp Football Stats. The Browns also ran the ball 53 percent of the time last season using this personnel.
On this play, the Browns break the huddle, then shift four of the five skill position players around the formation. Despite showing a likely run, the Browns are effectively four-wide, with all four between the numbers. Even though the Saints are in nickel with only two linebackers on the field, one still got caught covering Johnson out of the slot, allowing an easy catch and gain of nine yards.
Cleveland went a step further on a later third down, opening the play with Brock Osweiler under center and the trio of Johnson, Crowell, and Kenny Britt in the backfield. They quickly motioned out and spread four-wide even further to stretch the Saints defense and show their commitment to man coverage.
The result of the play was a bad Osweiler pass, but the pre-snap process is more likely to see time in the regular season. Cleveland could have a field day running out atypical formations from run-heavy personnel to create mismatches all over the field. It’s another reason to buy into the offense this coming season.
Johnson’s ability as a receiving back already gave some intrigue to his game. This added wrinkle, with more time in the slot, should be something to continue monitoring. It could become a major factor in the regular season.
He was already a valuable piece of the offense just with his traditional receiving back ability. With an extra dimension added, he could truly be an exciting weapon for the Browns to unleash in 2017.