Fantasy Football: Duke Johnson Is a Dark Horse to Target in 2018
The Cleveland Browns made splashes this offseason at the running back position.
They let Isaiah Crowell walk in free agency, vacating 206 rushing attempts and 42 targets. They then signed free agent Carlos Hyde to a three-year, $15 million contract back in March, only to turn around and draft Georgia alum Nick Chubb with the third pick in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. What looked to be a wide open backfield less than two months became crowded in a matter of weeks.
The Browns invested all this draft capital and cap space into running backs despite Duke Johnson’s presence on the team. Johnson and the Browns were reportedly working on an extension for the contract-year back, but news on that front has gone silent since the team signed Hyde and drafted Chubb.
There will likely be much debate this offseason over which back to draft in fantasy football this year. The Hyde side of the argument will feature the money the team invested in him and the fact that he set career highs in rush attempts, games played, receptions and yards from scrimmage in 2017. The Chubb side of the argument will highlight the rookie's draft capital, his incredible athletic profile -- he’s a 98th-percentile SPARQ-x athlete -- and his top-notch production at the college level (three 1,000-yard rushing seasons).
Hyde and Chubb both offer nice upside, especially if the Browns finally put together a decent season. If one can seize the lead back role, that player should yield nice fantasy production in the fall. However, you don’t have to draft either, because Hyde and Chubb won’t lead the Browns backfield in fantasy points in 2018. Duke Johnson will.
Allow me to explain.
Not the Popular Play
For comparison's sake, in the lead-up to the US Presidential Election of 1860, there was a fissure within the Democratic Party that produced two nominees for the presidency: John C. Breckinridge and Stephen A. Douglas. Together, these two candidates earned a greater share of the popular vote (47.6%) than the eventual President, Abraham Lincoln (39.8%). However, Lincoln won the election because he dominated the Electoral vote that year, pulling in more Electoral votes than all of his opposition combined.
In a similar fashion, while Nick Chubb and Carlos Hyde compete with each other for the dominant share of the popular vote this year (carries), Duke Johnson should have the Electoral College (receptions) all to himself.
Johnson’s target share has increased in each of his three seasons with the Browns. This culminated in 93 targets in 2017, a year in which he garnered a 14.9% share of the Browns’ passing targets. His target total also ranked fourth in the league at the running back position, while his yards per reception ranked seventh among backs. Johnson yielded a Net Expected Points (NEP) per reception -- the total number of points a receiver can be expected to generate for his team each time he logs a catch -- of 0.55, which ranked 10th among backs with 30 or more receptions this past season.
Johnson’s competition on the Browns have done little to challenge his share of the running back targets. While Hyde set a career-high in targets (88) in 2017, he also demonstrated why he’s never had that many before, as he wasn’t great at catching and converting on those opportunities.
Hyde's 14 drops led the league, and his 0.28 reception NEP per reception was almost half that of Johnson's. In other words, every time Johnson caught a ball, he added almost twice as many expected points to his team's score. It feels safe to say that Hyde will never garner such a high volume of targets again, especially while he shares a backfield with Johnson.
Nick Chubb also doesn’t figure to compete with Johnson’s dominant target share out of the backfield. Over his four year career at Georgia, Chubb caught just 31 passes, and only 13 in his final 3 collegiate seasons. This doesn’t definitively say Chubb can’t catch the ball, but it at least indicates he won’t be an immediate threat to Johnson’s target share.
Will Quarterback Matter?
Despite the substantial turnover on the Browns’ roster, Johnson’s role should remain steady. The Browns drafted Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick in this year’s draft and brought in Tyrod Taylor from the Buffalo Bills to start the season as their quarterback, but Johnson projects to maintain a heavy target share regardless of which quarterback throws him the ball.
While with the Bills, Taylor’s running backs averaged a 22.3% target share. Taylor was never a volume passer, but the rate at which he targeted his backs is very similar to those of Tom Brady and Drew Brees, two quarterbacks known for targeting their guys out of the backfield. In fact, over their past four seasons, the Patriots' and Saints' running backs have averaged target shares of 22.6% and 25.7%, respectively. And, with Taylor as his primary quarterback in Buffalo, LeSean McCoy even led the team in targets last year, so Johnson could definitely benefit from his willingness to check down.
Should Hue Jackson bench Tyrod Taylor, Duke Johnson’s situation might improve even more. In his final two seasons at Oklahoma, Baker Mayfield’s running backs averaged a 22.1% target share. If Mayfield’s prolific production (his 4,627 passing yards ranked second in college football in 2017) and elite efficiency (12.9 adjusted yards per attempt, first in college football) at the college level translate to the NFL, Johnson could be in for a nice surprise.
With Mayfield under center in 2016, Joe Mixon averaged 14.5 yards per reception. The year after, Mayfield’s primary running back Rodney Anderson averaged 16.5 yards per reception. So not only did Mayfield target his backs frequently while in college, he also got efficient production out of those targets.
New Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley also features running backs heavily in the passing game (see: Bell, Le'Veon). Johnson will not become Bell in 2018, but Haley-led offenses have averaged a healthy 20.1% target share for running backs dating back to 2007. In other words, he should reap the rewards regardless of the signal caller.
It's early, but so far in 2018 Hyde has been going as the first Browns back off the board, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. While he's gone, on average, with the 4th pick in the 4th round of standard drafts, Chubb is going in the middle of the 10th while Johnson waits until late in the 13th, as the 51st overall back.
In PPR leagues, Hyde is still the top Cleveland back, as he's being picked in the fifth round of standard 12-team leagues. However, Johnson -- at an ADP of 7.08 -- leapfrogs Chubb (9.08), but does so by just two rounds.
Johnson -- last year's RB11 in PPR leagues -- is the best receiving back on the Browns.
His quarterbacks pass to their running backs, and his offensive coordinator has heavily featured backs in the passing game for a decade. His competition in the backfield should cannibalize each other’s opportunities while essentially being non-factors in the area of the game where Johnson excels. He may not have the contract or recent draft capital Hyde and Chubb have, but he has a great shot at being the most productive Browns running back in fantasy football once again.