Duke Johnson, Isaiah Crowell, and the Browns Backfield

From Cleveland.com:

“Obviously Isaiah is very explosive,” [Hue Jackson] said. “He’s got quick feet, he’s fast in the hole, he runs with good pad level.”

In Johnson, Jackson sees an elusive runner and dynamic receiver in the mold of Cincinnati’s Gio Bernard, who rushed for 730 yards (4.7-yard average) and two TDs, and caught 49 passes for 472 yards and no TDs.

Johnson (5-9, 210) finished second to Crowell with 104 carries for 379 yards (3.6-yard average) and caught 61 passes for 532 yards, both of which were third on the team. He was also tied for third with two touchdown catches, and will be continue to be featured in the passing game.

“I think he’s going to have a great year as well,” Jackson said. “Duke has suddenness and quickness and he can go catch the ball with anybody. He does so many different things that gives your offense a boost.”

That all might sound like coach speak because Jackson is complimentary to both of the Cleveland running backs in ways that you can usually dismiss as fluff. However, I do think Jackson’s comments get at a real issue which is that the range of outcomes for both CLE RBs are pretty wide.

Consider that Duke Johnson’s comps in the RB Sim Score app include Devonta Freeman, Ray Rice, Jamaal Charles, and CJ Spiller (along with Jacquizz Rodgers and Kevin Faulk, just to illustrate the other side of the coin). Then, Isaiah Crowell’s comps include Frank Gore, DeAngelo Williams, and Lamar Miller (along with Andre Williams, Knile Davis, and Jonathan Dwyer… to illustrate the other side of the coin). Crowell wasn’t extremely impressive last year although it is worth remembering that he’s played two seasons in the NFL and will be just 23 during the 2016 season.

According to the Sim Scores app Crowell has the higher median projection while Johnson has the higher ceiling. However, our projections have Johnson ahead by a decent margin1 and that is consistent with current ADP. Our projections are preliminary and will be updated throughout the offseason but right now we’re projecting Johnson to capture more rushing carries and once again lead the backfield with 56 receptions in the passing game.

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My view is that Duke Johnson represents a rare opportunity in fantasy football. Consider that he finished as RB23 last year while only handling about 100 carries. He’s available as RB27 in MFL10s.

It seems like at worst you can get a young running back entering his second year in the league at a slight discount to his rookie year finish. At best you could get a player who improves his rushing attempts to get into the 200 carry range and becomes a real difference maker for your fantasy team.

Also, the most likely situation that would involve Crowell actually maintaining his carry lead would be a Cleveland offense that’s much improved. If the Browns struggle to keep the score competitive it will be Johnson on the field catching passes. So Johnson might still benefit from more scoring opportunities2 even if the game script is such that the team can still utilize Crowell in 2016.

For further reading note that Duke Johnson made the list of our favorite dynasty buy lows, and also earned praise from Neil Dutton.

  1. projections are currently showing in the Best Ball App although we’ll have a dedicated app later in the offseason  (back)
  2. Johnson had zero rushing touchdowns in 2015 and the entire offense only had five rushing touchdowns  (back)
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