Why Duke Johnson Could Be a Late-Round Steal in PPR Leagues This Season

A product of the University of Miami's running back factory, Duke Johnson's versatility makes him the dark horse candidate to lead the Browns in touches this year.

Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, Willis McGahee.

It's evident that the University of Miami has produced some of the most prolific running backs the NFL has seen the past two decades.

So when the Cleveland Browns landed running back Randy "Duke" Johnson -- the latest product of the U, who also just so happens to be the school's all-time leading rusher -- I knew that this was more than just a move to add depth to their running back position.

This is because, despite the presence of Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West already on this roster, Duke just may be the Browns' best all-around running back and someone capable of giving this offense the spark they've been looking for.

Receiving a Great Opportunity

As far as crowded backfields go, Duke actually finds himself in quite an opportune situation. This is because if we've learned anything from this coaching staff last year, regardless of a player's pedigree, veteran status, or draft position, this team will play the best player available.

Comments by offensive coordinator John DeFilippo this offseason already reflects this philosophy, saying he plans to "go with the guy that has the hot hand." And while veterans Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West may have the inside track to lead back duties for the Browns so far, their grasp on this role is tentative at best.

Trading off starting roles on a week-to-week basis in their rookie seasons last year, Crowell and West failed to make a lasting impression in the running game. Crowell and West managed just 4.1 and 3.9 yards per carry, respectively, resulting in a paltry -4.73 and -8.87 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) each.

For those unfamiliar with NEP, it's an advanced metric which measures a player's contributions to his team's chances of scoring above or below expectation. So from this we can see that last season, Crowell and West were, on average, losing points every time they touched the ball.

All this leaves the door wide open for Duke to come in and steal the starting job right out from under these two second-year tailbacks.

And as far as this goes, Duke is already off to a great start. Reports out of OTAs is that Johnson has been the most impressive running back in camp, showcasing his "versatility and explosiveness" on nearly every play.

While some skeptics may doubt the validity of this claim, those familiar with Johnson's body of work as a Hurricane should not be surprised by this news.

Johnson is extremely agile, which allows him to make excellent lateral cuts and sudden changes of direction to run right past opposing defenders. He also demonstrates above-average balance and is able to take a big hit and stay upright to rack up yards after contact despite his smaller frame (5' 9", 207 pounds). Johnson also makes good use of his stiff arm to deliver the punishment to hapless defenders in his way.

Perhaps most impressively, Duke possesses an explosiveness that he uses to break through the smallest of creases and into the open field. Indeed, it almost looks as if someone were hitting the turbo button on him on his big plays into the end zone.

So with the versatility this team sorely needs to jump start their offense, Duke Johnson may find himself with a much larger role on this team and with a far greater workload than most expect.

Catching a Break

When it comes to Duke's versatility on the field, one area in particular in which he stands out is in the passing game.

Though Crowell and West were at least somewhat competent on early-down duties, they were far from perfect in the passing game. Crowell's 0.27 Reception NEP per target and West's 0.22 in this same metric ranked them 54th and 70th, respectively, among all running backs receiving at least 10 targets last season. And all in all, their combined 20 receptions for 151 yards last year was fairly disappointing given the need of this team's offense for playmakers on passing downs.

Back in March, DeFilippo iterated just how important it would be for his backs to contribute to his aerial attack. "Let's see if they can catch the ball, run a slant, run a hitch, run a go, run a comeback. I want to see if those guys can do those things because that's going to be a big part of the offense that I want to incorporate here."

Taken in this context, it makes even more sense that the Browns would use a third-round pick earlier this year to acquire Duke Johnson's talents.

A back that has demonstrated great pass catching ability during his time in Miami, Duke easily makes over the shoulder grabs look routine. A natural route-runner, he also demonstrates a great ability to track the ball while on the move, and his open-field elusiveness allows him to do quite some damage after the catch as well.

In his final season at Miami, these skills translated into 38 receptions and 421 yards in the passing game for the Hurricanes, to go along with his more than 1,600 yards on the ground.

When we look at this in the context of the Browns' offense, and with the coaching staff already lining him up at wide receiver in OTAs, it's clear that Johnson's presence will help alleviate some of the pains from their wideout department.

Last season, the Browns' lead receiver Andrew Hawkins caught just 63 passes for an unspectacular 824 yards and 2 touchdowns. And those looking to newly acquired receiver Dwayne Bowe to revitalize the Browns aerial attack would do well to do look elsewhere. Bowe's 68.13 Reception NEP ranked him 38th among all receivers last year.

Having Johnson on the field this season will also be quite a boon for Cleveland's new quarterback, Josh McCown. In 2014, McCown completed a respectable 68.9% of his throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. That percentage plummeted to 36.7% on throws made beyond that mark. So it's obvious that having a sure-handed and talented playmaker coming out of the backfield will not only be appreciated by McCown this season but also will more than likely be instrumental to his success as well.

With a lack of playmakers in Cleveland's wide receiver corps, and the prerequisite skill set needed to run DeFilippo's offense, it quickly becomes evident that Johnson will more than likely be heavily involved in the Browns passing game this season.


While it's not every day that a rookie running back overtakes two highly-touted veterans ahead of him on the depth charts to take the lion's share of the workload at the position, Johnson has the prerequisite on-field talent and fit within this team's needs to do so. It also helps that those two highly-touted veterans currently ahead of him in the pecking order have a grand total of two years of NFL experience under their belts.

And with an average draft position currently hovering near the end of drafts at pick number 110 in PPR leagues, his opportunity to become the lead back on this team and, at worst, potential to be a solid target for the Browns in the passing game makes him a perfect option for fantasy football managers in the later rounds.