​Is Duke Johnson the Next Big Thing?

Johnson has already flashed play making ability coupled with a dynamic skill set. Can he catapult the Cleveland Browns (and your fantasy team) to the top?

I started playing fantasy football in 2004. That season, we played on a now-defunct website that was difficult to use, didn’t have live scoring, and allowed for very unique scoring categories. For example, a running back would receive six points for a rushing touchdown but 12 points for a receiving touchdown.

At the time, running backs were, ya know, runners. When they caught the ball, it was considered the exception to the rule -- thus the extra points for a receiving touchdown.

Things have changed since 2004.

The NFL is skewing toward the pass. The evidence is endless. Passing records are broken almost annually, it seems. 12 of the 14 seasons with the most passing yards ever have occurred in the last five years. Rookie wide receivers are now expected to make immediate impacts.

And of course, the running back position has changed drastically.

In 2004, according to Pro-Football-Reference, 4 running backs finished the season with at least 70 targets. In 2015, 13 running backs are on pace to finish the season with at least 70 targets.

One of those 13 running backs is Cleveland Browns rookie Randy “Duke” Johnson Jr. Despite receiving zero passing targets in this season’s first two weeks, Johnson is on a pace for 80 targets in 2015. He’s additionally on pace for 128 carries.

Based on recent usage, he could easily surpass both of these paces. Johnson has converted a ridiculous 21 out of 25 targets for catches, a catch rate of 84 percent, which ranks second among the 8 running backs with at least 25 targets.

Johnson has certainly shown some serious play making ability, as well. Check out this gorgeous touchdown catch from Week 4.

So what makes Johnson so dangerous? What’s his potential in Cleveland? Where is his standing in fantasy football leagues? Let’s find out.


We’ll start by taking a look at Duke Johnson’s college career.

At The University of Miami, Johnson rushed 526 times for 3,519 yards (6.69 yards per carry) and 26 touchdowns. He added 69 catches for 719 yards and another 4 touchdowns through the air. Despite missing most of his sophomore season with a broken ankle and declaring for the NFL draft after his junior year, Johnson broke Miami’s all-time rushing record, previously held by O.J. Anderson.

A true double threat, Johnson was heralded as one of the most dynamic running backs in an otherwise deep draft class. According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson ranked 2nd in the country with 1.69 yards per route run. As a junior in 2014, Johnson was selected First Team All-ACC.

At the 2015 scouting combine, Johnson, also a college track star, ran an impressive 40-yard dash time of 4.54 seconds, ranking 8th among the 31 running backs who participated in the drill. At Miami’s pro day, Johnson improved his 40 time to 4.47 seconds.

Despite his smallish size (5’9”, 210 pounds) and questions about his pass-protection abilities, Johnson appeared to have the speed and skill set to step onto an NFL field the moment Cleveland selected the former Hurricane with the 77th overall pick.

­The Cleveland Show

In Cleveland, Johnson joined a team that had lacked offensive identity for many years. Except for the sad story of Josh Gordon, the Browns have been bereft of offensive playmakers for a very long time. Notoriously, the Browns have started 23 quarterbacks since 1999.

As training camp opened, the Cleveland Browns' running back corps was also in a state of flux. Last year’s leading rusher, Terrance West, continued to show consistency issues on top of maturity concerns. This led to his eventual departure to Tennessee via trade just before the season began.

Coupled with the departure of veteran Ben Tate, 277 carries from 2014 were left available for the taking. With presumptive starter Isaiah Crowell sitting atop the preseason depth chart, Johnson would be asked to help fill the roles left behind by West and Tate.

Preseason injuries put a serious damper on Johnson’s rookie training camp. First, a hamstring injury left him sidelined. This was quickly followed by a concussion, rendering Johnson’s preseason an almost non-factor.

As the season began, it was obvious that second-year back Crowell would start while Johnson was still getting acclimated to the NFL game.

Through week 5, however, it has become apparent that this backfield is, at best, an even timeshare. It appears that Johnson has every opportunity to dethrone Crowell atop the depth chart (recently acquired Robert Turbin is still recovering from a high ankle sprain).

Crowell’s fumbles and mental mistakes are well documented, and the Browns are not afraid to put their rookie running back on the field during the most crucial times of the game.

Let’s take a look at the snap/touch counts for Crowell and Johnson through five weeks:

Player Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5
Isaiah Crowell 35/14 24/15 30/10 27/15 34/15
Duke Johnson 31/7 26/12 33/10 45/17 56/15

Johnson has easily surpassed his backfield mate in snaps. While touches remain close to even, it is obvious that the Browns coaching staff prefers Johnson to Crowell at this point in the season.

The next component we must look at is Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is our signature metric at numberFire. When a player contributes positively to his team’s chances of scoring points, his NEP increases. When he contributes negatively, his NEP falls. For more information about NEP, check out our glossary.

Player Rush NEP/P Success Rate Rec NEP/Tar Success Rate Total NEP
Isaiah Crowell -.046 .403 1.65 .857 8.69
Duke Johnson -.140 .400 .386 .667 4.06

When looking at this information, it’s easy to state that Crowell has been the more effective player.

Their near-identical Success Rate, the percentage of carries that lead to positive NEP, indicates that Crowell hasn't exactly been more of a steady, straight-ahead rusher. Johnson is just as consistent in terms of moving the NEP sticks. Still, Johnson's Rushing NEP per carry (-0.14) ranks him 48th among 58 backs with at least 20 carries. Crowell's -0.05 ranks 31st.

We must remember, however, that Johnson has been an NFL running back for only five weeks, and barely participated in training camp and preseason. It’s fair to expect his efficiency to rise as the season progresses, but he does have a way to go before becoming an efficient player.

The Sky’s the Limit

Cleveland Browns fans have a lot to be excited about these days. Coming off a thrilling overtime victory in Baltimore, the Cleveland offense has looked…surprisingly good.

Josh McCown ranks seventh in the league in Passing NEP and is fourth in Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs this season.

In McCown’s last two starts, he’s amassed an astounding 813 yards, with a touchdown to interception ratio of 4:0. In that same timeframe, Johnson has totaled 32 touches for 193 yards and that gorgeous touchdown catch. The Browns have scored 60 points in their last two games. They scored 58 points in their first three games. The more Johnson plays, the more the Browns score. That’s not totally a coincidence.

His short area quickness, mixed with his stocky build and above average power, makes him a nightmare matchup for linebackers in the slot or coming out of the backfield. Cleveland’s offensive mission should be to exploit these matchups as often as possible.

Other than Travis Benjamin and Gary Barnidge, the Browns lack serious play making ability at their other skill positions. The presence of Barnidge and Benjamin will only help to improve Johnson’s chances of making an impact in the short to intermediate areas of the field.

By this time next year, we may be talking about the most dynamic running back in the NFL. Only time will tell if his potential is realized.