Can Duke Johnson Emerge Despite a Crowded Depth Chart in Cleveland?
Miami, one of the top running back factories in college football, has churned out recent studs such as Frank Gore, Lamar Miller, Edgerrin James, Willis McGahee, and Clinton Portis over the past decade and a half.
Next on the list? Duke Johnson, Miami's all-time leader in both rushing yards and all-purpose yards in school history.
That's right. The newest Miami running back to enter the NFL could have a chance to follow in those greats before him and perhaps (fingers crossed, Cleveland fans) become the next superstar running back from the University of Miami.
The diminutive 5'9", 207-pound running back isn't the biggest back by any stretch of the imagination, but boy, is he entertaining to watch. Johnson steamrolled the ACC this past year on his way to 1,652 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He also picked up another 421 yards through the air on 38 receptions, showcasing the versatility that is almost required of today's backs if they want to stay on the field all three downs.
Unfortunately, Johnson's size has been a knock on him throughout the entire draft process, as he's been questioned whether or not he can hold up at the next level or if he's more suited for a running back by committee.
A disappointing performance at the combine didn't help.
As evidenced in the spider graph above from MockDraftable.com, Johnson's performance fell short in nearly every category at the combine. A few things of note worth pointing out -- these numbers didn't include Johnson's 3-cone drill (6.88) or his short shuttle time (4.16) -- two important drills when evaluating running backs.
Those times were taken at Miami's pro day and ended up being respectable among this running back class, ranking fifth and 10th, respectively. Johnson also improved his 40-time at his pro day by clocking a 4.47 (an improvement from his Combine 4.54) and benching 225 pounds 18 times.
Suffice to say, Johnson wasn't going to let one poor outing -- albeit under national scrutiny at the combine -- take anything away from his chances of becoming a professional running back.
One thing that separates Johnson from the rest of his peers is his explosiveness. You can tell his special teams return skills have translated to his rushing style as he is always looking for that tiny crease for him to hit the burners and fly through with his 5'9" frame. He has the burst and balance to hit these holes and reach the second level with regularity.
The former number-one running back out of high school has many redeemable attributes you look for in a running back. He is a tough, hard-nosed runner with the patience to let his blocks develop, the burst to jump through holes, make a move, and then run for daylight to paydirt.
Johnson finishes his runs well, taking defenders with him picking up those extra yards in the process. Those extra yards often translated into first downs for the Miami Hurricanes. Duke Johnson had the second highest percentage of his carries go for first downs in the FBS last year -- 29.8% of his carries moved the chains -- trailing only Todd Gurley's absurd 35.0% rate.
Johnson also has some of the best hands in this rookie class among the running backs -- something the Cleveland Browns could use help with. Running backs Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West accounted for only 20 receptions collectively in 2014. Johnson picked up 58 targets last year hauling in 38 of them while picking up first downs regularly his last year at Miami.
The Browns are hoping those skills translate to the NFL and can help improve their third down conversion rate. Last year the Browns had the lowest rate in the league at 29.47%. Having a multi-faceted running back able to pick up first downs either on the ground or through the air will be a beneficial weapon for new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
How Johnson Fits With the Browns
DeFilippo joins Cleveland after serving as Oakland's quarterback coach following Kyle Shanahan's departure to Atlanta. The first-time offensive coordinator at age 36, will be Cleveland's sixth offensive coordinator in as many years. As a newcomer to the team, DeFlippo's lack of allegiance to either Crowell or West bodes well for Duke's early chances to see the field.
Of the 54 running backs that had 80 or more carries over the 2014 season -- at least 5.0 carries or more per game on average -- Crowell and West ranked near the middle of the pack or lower in almost every one of numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) categories. NEP quantifies a team or player's production and compares it to league expectation levels.
|Rushes||Rushing NEP||Reception NEP||Total NEP|
|Isaiah Crowell||149||-4.73 (25th of 54)||3.74 (39th of 54)||-0.99 (31st of 54)|
|Terrance West||171||-8.87 (36th of 54)||2.87 (41st of 54)||-5.99 (41st of 54)|
The first thing that stands out is their lack of production in the receiving game. While the Browns may have had less than ideal quarterback play in 2014, the inefficiency of both running backs didn't exactly help bail out their quarterbacks. Cleveland's leading passer Brian Hoyer ranked 25th per drop back in Passing NEP out of all quarterbacks that dropped back at least 100 times last year. Implementing Duke Johnson into these passing down situations will provide the Browns with an immediate upgrade.
Neither Crowell nor West were incredibly efficient rushing the ball either. Rushing behind one of the top offensive lines according to Pro Football Focus, Crowell and West's inefficiencies did not result from line play. The explosive, young Johnson should have an immediate opportunity to come in and compete for the starting role.
In Duke Johnson, the Browns are getting a tough 21-year old running back with the tenacity to pick up first downs regularly. After three straight years of being in the bottom 10 of third down conversion percentage, the Browns could use that sustainability keeping drives moving. Johnson has the NFL translatable skills for him to come in and become an immediate contributor as a third-down or change-of-pace back in a worst case scenario.
Best case scenario?
Duke Johnson could become the franchise running back Cleveland had hoped former first-round pick Trent Richardson would become -- and at a fraction of the draft capital.