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The Wrong Read – Episode 21: Is Duke Johnson the Next Le’Veon Bell?

Welcome to the 21st installment of the “The Wrong Read,” an article series that reflects on recent podcast episodes, pushing the ideas discussed on the podcasts to their logical conclusions and offering some further thoughts on the topics broached by the guests and hosts. A couple recent guests on the RotoViz Mailbag have defended Amari Cooper, echoing my mid-season analysis that it’s far too early to write him off.

My title is not a typo. I did mean to write Duke Johnson, not David Johnson. The former was the subject of a discussion on the latest episode of the Dynasty Tradecast. It was suggested on that program that Johnson is being undervalued. At the time the show was recorded, the guys didn’t know that Todd Haley was going to be the Browns’ new offensive coordinator. This is important because of Haley’s history of running back usage. Haley of course has coached Le’Veon Bell through four elite RB seasons, and a fifth that was on pace to be elite if it hadn’t been shortened by injury. Could Johnson occupy Bell’s role in Haley’s new Cleveland offense?

A History of Todd Haley RBs

The following table shows the RB1 in every Todd Haley offense since 2007, according to total opportunities per game:

In six out of 11 seasons, the RB1 in a Todd Haley offense has averaged at least 22 opportunities per game. In five of those seasons, Haley’s RB1 got more than 75 percent of the team’s carries in games that player appeared in.1 Haley’s RB1 has also seen at least 11 percent of his team’s targets in eight different seasons.

But How Do We Know That Will Be Johnson?

Johnson is currently the most likely to end up as the Browns’ lead back in 2018. Isaiah Crowell is a free agent this offseason and has suggested he might prefer a different situation. Assuming the Browns do not resign Crowell, Johnson immediately steps into a workhorse role. This is a role he’s never occupied in the NFL, but it’s important to remember that Johnson was a prolific runner in college, rushing for over 3,500 yards in three years at Miami, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

Here it’s worth comparing Johnson to two of the RBs Haley has coached in the past. Although Johnson doesn’t have Bell’s size or Charles’ athleticism, he outplayed both of them in college in terms of raw rushing production:

He also outplayed them both in terms of raw receiving production:

Johnson’s collegiate production suggests he is more than capable of handling a workhorse role in a Todd Haley offense. Indeed, in a somewhat expanded role last season, Johnson showed glimpses of being one the NFL’s elite playmakers. Among backs with at least 50 total opportunities on the season, only Alvin Kamara and Chris Thompson had a higher percentage of their total touches gain 15 yards or more. In fact, Kamara, Thompson, and Johnson are the only three RBs to gain at least 15 yards on more than 10 percent of their touches. Kamara’s season was historic. Thompson ended 2017 ranked inside the top-10 RBs in fantasy points per game. Johnson is in good company.

Of course, Kamara, Thompson, and Johnson are all pass-catching backs, so it makes sense that they would excel in a stat that rewards pass-catchers more than other RBs. But Johnson was equally explosive in the running game. Among backs with at least 50 carries, only Kamara, Matt Breida, and Aaron Jones had a higher percentage of their runs gain at least 10 yards.2 Johnson’s explosiveness in both phases of the game suggests at the very least that he ought to be used more. At the most it suggests he could be among the NFL’s elite RBs if given the opportunity.

The Outlook for Johnson’s 2018

Do I actually think Johnson is the next Bell? Could he be the RB1 overall in 2018? Let me put it this way: if he does indeed end the season as the RB1, I’ll probably be less surprised than most people. But that said, I’m not quite ready to predict that it will happen. If Crowell does go elsewhere and the Browns do not pick Saquon Barkley with the fourth overall pick, then I’ll be a lot more confident about projecting Johnson for a workhorse role. If the Browns do take Barkley, who is the perfect RB prospect, then all of this probably applies even more to him. In that case Johnson’s best-case scenario is likely a full-time role as a slot receiver.

  1. Note that 2011 was the season Jamaal Charles got injured in his second game. If you take out the game in which he got injured, he would have had 16 opportunities per game in 2011. Including Charles’ 2011 would mean that in nine out of 11 seasons Haley’s RB1 averaged at least 16 opportunities per game.  (back)
  2. Interestingly, Charles ranked just below Johnson in this metric.  (back)

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