Duke Johnson's Fantasy Football Outlook Just Got a Boost

The eventful week for running backs of the Houston Texans continued on Thursday. The team released D'Onta Foreman on Sunday, reportedly unhappy with Foreman's work habits. Then on Thursday, Houston sent a fourth-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns to secure Duke Johnson.

With Johnson moving from Cleveland's loaded backfield to the thin depth chart of Houston, his fantasy value gets a boost. How big of a boost? Let's take a look.

Wantaway Finally Gets Away

Johnson had been unhappy with his role on the Browns for some time, and he had made no secret of his desire to be traded. Despite repeated statements by the team stating that they would not be entertaining a trade, they obviously felt the Texans offer was too good to turn down.

Johnson had spent his entire four-year career with the Browns, amassing 1,291 rushing yards on 301 carries (4.5 yards per carry), scoring five touchdowns. His rushing attempts fell dramatically after his rookie season, in which he enjoyed a 27.4% rushing market share that produced 104 carries for 379 yards.

Year Rush Attempts Market Share Rush Yards Rush YPC Rush TDs
2015 104 27.4% 379 3.6 0
2016 74 21% 366 4.9 1
2017 82 21% 348 4.8 4
2018 41 10% 198 4.8 0
Totals 301 19.85% 1291 4.5 5

He was never a particularly efficient rusher on a per-play basis whenever he got the chance to carry the ball. According to our Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Johnson averaged -0.01 NEP per attempt as a Brown. Only once in a season did he post a positive Rushing NEP per carry -- back in 2017, when he averaged a sparkling clip of 0.12.

Of course, running the ball isn't what Johnson does best. While Johnson he was never able to establish himself as the leading rusher in Cleveland amidst competition from the likes of Isaiah Crowell and Nick Chubb, he was frequently able to showcase his skills as a pass catcher. Johnson is second among all running backs in the NFL since 2015 with 236 receptions, trailing only James White (243). Johnson has the edge over White in terms of yards however, with a league-leading 2,171.

His pass-game skillset is very valuable in today's NFL. Will he get a chance to show his talents in Houston?

Johnson's New Team

Johnson joins a Texans team with Lamar Miller entrenched as the starting at running back. Miller has been quite productive ever since joining Houston from the Miami Dolphins. He is 4th in running back rushing attempts since 2016 (717), trailing only Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Jordan Howard. These three players plus Melvin Gordon are the only running backs with more rushing yards in that span than the 2,934 Miller has amassed. Disappointingly, Miller has only scored 13 rushing touchdowns in the last three seasons, but touchdowns canbe fairly random.

It would be accurate to say that Miller has not exactly been among the league's most efficient rushers, however. The following table shows his seasonal Rushing NEP per carry as well as his rank in the metric among running backs with at least 200 carries -- so how he stacks up versus other high-volume rushers.

Year Rushing NEP Per Carry Rank
2016 -0.07 18th of 19
2017 -0.07 15th of 18
2018 0.02 9th of 14

The idea that Johnson will immediately be brought in to usurp Miller holds little water if we consider that Miller actually showed some improvement last season. It was his first full season playing with Deshaun Watson, after all. Miller may have enjoyed some freedom in his own game with defenses having to at least account for the rushing ability of his quarterback. Watson finished 2018 with 551 rushing yards of his own.

Where Johnson Fits

But if there is one area that Johnson can have a role immediately, it would be as a pass catcher. This has been a role in which he has enjoyed most of his success, after all. It is also an area at which the Texans could considerably improve. Since Bill O'Brien became head coach in 2014, Houston has been without a serious pass catching weapon out of the backfield for much of the time.

Only four running backs have caught at least 40 passes over this time, and of the four, only Miller (2.1) and Arian Foster (3.5) averaged more than a reception per game. Over the last three years, Texans running backs have seen receiving target shares of 14.4%, 16.7% and 13.8%. The NFL averages in those seasons were 18.8%, 21.6% and 21.3%.

The Texans use of their running backs in the passing game in the O'Brien era has been among the league's lowest across all major categories.

Stat Total Rank
Targets 441 29th
Receptions 326 30th
Receiving Yards 2,583 30th
Receiving Touchdowns 17 11th

Johnson gives the Texans a weapon they have not had for much of O'Brien's tenure. Importantly, it gives them a lifeline by which they can protect their quarterback. With question marks still surrounding the Texans' offensive line, Watson has been quick to scramble when recognising danger. This potentially puts him in dangerous situations probably more than the team would like.

If the team can encourage Watson to make use of Johnson as a safety valve, it prolongs his time on the field and also allows Johnson the chance to earn a few fantasy points despite not being seeing the majority of the snaps.

In Summary

In an ideal world, this move would be seen as a triumph for long standing supporters of Johnson. In actuality, it appears to be simply a change of scenery, one that allows him to continue in a similar vein to the first three seasons of his career. In that time, despite never becoming the leader of his backfield, Johnson still averaged a respectable 10.9 PPR points per game. That tally would have been solid RB3-type (top-36) numbers in 2018.

Johnson will still be under contract for the next three seasons, while Miller will be a free agent in 2020. Johnson may get a chance to be The Guy next season, but for now, he'll likely be a pass-game maven in what should be one of the league's better offenses, putting him firmly on the PPR radar.