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Changing Times: Can Duke Johnson be a King in Cleveland?

The ever changing landscape of the NFL saw seven teams crown new head coaches following the end of the regular season. With all seven from offensive backgrounds, there will no doubt be a lot of changes on each of these teams. With this in mind, I take a look at the new coaches, and offer some thoughts on players who should significantly benefit. Next up: the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns, after blowing up their franchise – again – gave Hue Jackson his second chance to be a head coach, after he went 8-8 in his one and done year with the Raiders in 2011.


Widely praised for his work with the Bengals’ Andy Dalton, it should be noted that Jackson has worked with running backs going all the way back to his time at Cal State Fullerton in 1990. He served as running backs coach under Jay Gruden, before replacing him when Gruden left for Washington. In the last two seasons, the Bengals finish fifth and seventh in rushing attempts, sixth and 13th in rushing yards, and second and fourth in rushing scores. His Raiders teams were also fruitful when running the ball, with his 2010 unit finishing second in yards, touchdowns and yards per attempt.


For many years, Cleveland have professed a love for “pounding the rock,” wishing to become a physical bully in the rugged AFC North. This would seem to be an ideal situation for a back like Isaiah Crowell, now going into his third season in the league. But given recent history, it might actually be better news for Duke Johnson. The all time rushing leader for the Miami Hurricanes, Johnson saw more snaps than Crowell last season, but was given 81 fewer rushing attempts (104 to 185). It was the Duke’s skill as a pass catcher that kept him on the field longer, as he saw the sixth most targets of all running backs with 70. If you need a recent comparison of how Jackson uses his scat back and his bruiser, the chart below regarding the 2014 Bengals should be an eye opener.

SPG =  snaps per game, SNP.PCT = the percent of snaps the player played in games they appeared in, OPPS = rushing attempts + targets, OPP.RATE = OPPS/SNAPS, RUYPS = rushing yards/snap, RECYPS = receiving yards/snap. Note that snap percentages shown on this tab only reflect games the player appeared in.

Giovani Bernard 16 580 36.25 0.55 220 0.38 730 472 1.26 0.81
Jeremy Hill 16 458 28.62 0.43 242 0.53 794 79 1.73 0.17
Rex Burkhead 12 58 4.83 0.07 19 0.33 4 94 0.07 1.62
Cedric Peerman 3 0 0.00 0.00 0 0 0

There is a case to be made that Crowell is a similar type of back to Jeremy Hill, namely an early down bruiser used to set the tone of an offense. But Jackson was not at all shy in favoring his more elusive, better receiving back in Giovani Bernard last year. This is very good news for Johnson. There were many comparisons made last year between Johnson and Gio Bernard, and the prospect of an offensive mind like Jackson getting his hands on Johnson is an enticing one. The Browns roster is not exactly a goldmine of offensive talent, and given the current uncertainty surrounding their QB position (if current is the right term for something that’s been an issue for a decade and a half) there is likely to be a lot of opportunity for a back like Johnson to get on the field. His receiving skills should should once again keep him on the field ahead of Crowell, and experts like Mike Clay believe that the Browns should consider handing him the lead role in the backfield.


The question marks over the Browns offense in general means that Johnson’s fantasy draft price shouldn’t be too expensive, but he could be a steal as a flex option even if he just remains as a scat back (which I doubt he will). He should certainly be on any and all PPR radars. I know, it’s hard to truly trust a Browns player in fantasy, but for most of the last decade the same could be said of the Oakland Raiders. And it should be remembered that only two tailbacks averaged more fantasy points per game from 2010-2011 than the 16.7 per game produced by Darren McFadden… when he was coached by Hue Jackson.

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