Duke Johnson Jr.'s defining role
When attempting to determine what Duke Johnson Jr.’s role with the Browns might be this season, I recall something Ernie Accorsi said many years ago regarding a former Brown with similar talents to Johnson.
Accorsi, the general manager responsible for landing Bernie Kosar in the mid-1980s, was asked what the best position would be for Eric Metcalf, a running back he drafted in 1989 who had very good hands for catching passes.
“Just get him the ball,” Accorsi replied succinctly. It made no difference whether Metcalf lined up at running back or flanked out as a wide receiver or when he returned kicks. When he had the football in his hands, he was dangerous. He made plays.
And while it would be foolish to totally compare Johnson to Metcalf in that regard, the young man from Miami of Florida has made things happen when in possession of the football in his two seasons as a professional.
The two are somewhat similar in physical stature. Metcalf played at 5-10, 190 pounds. Johnson is an inch shorter and 15 pounds heavier. Johnson is a more effective runner from scrimmage comparatively speaking. But like Metcalf, he is not terribly strong between the tackles.
Metcalf had a greater initial burst and lateral movement in addition to remarkable instincts to change direction in the blink of an eye.
Johnson does not have the speed or extraordinary elusiveness of Metcalf, who also starred as a return specialist, but he has proven dangerous in the open field. He makes opposing defenders miss.
The biggest controversy when Metcalf was on the roster was whether he was a better running back or receiver. (Remember Metcalf up the middle?) Drafted out of Texas as a running back, he never ran more than 633 yards (in his rookie season) in a season in six seasons with the Browns.
But he put up decent numbers as a receiver out of the backfield. And when he left the Browns for Atlanta, the Falcons knew immediately where he belonged. They made him a wide receiver and he caught 104 passes for nearly 1,200 yards in his first season.
The same question can be asked regarding Johnson. Is he a better runner or receiver?
In his two seasons with Cleveland, he has run the ball 177 times for 737 yards and one touchdown. But he has caught 114 passes (on only 148 targets, a 77% clip) for 1,048 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a variety of roles.
He racked up 903 of those receiving yards the last two seasons after making the catch. That’s more than 86% of his total receiving yardage. In other words, get him the ball via the pass and he’ll do some damage.
Johnson, who has dropped only five passes, caught about half of those passes either circling out of the backfield or as the checkdown receiver. The other half of the time he either was flanked wide or stationed in the slot.
“He can catch the ball out of the backfield,” said coach Hue Jackson. “He runs the ball. We line him up in different places where we can get an advantage with him. He is a weapon for us. We’re trying to use him as much as we can.”
When you look at the Browns’ wide receivers corps this season, one thought jumps to mind. It is arguably worse than last season’s group, which was one of the worst in the National Football League.
Making Johnson exclusively a wide receiver would give the Browns quarterbacks not only a reliable short- to medium-range target, but one who can catch the ball and make big plays. Can’t say that about the others.
Jackson’s goal on offense this season is to run the ball more, a lot more than last season when they ran it only 38% of the time. Predictability like that does not produce positive results..
If Jackson sticks to his goal, that means more work for Isaiah Crowell, who averaged a little more than 12 carries a game last season, a number that should increase substantially this season, especially for someone who averaged 4.8 yards a tote in 2016.
It appears as though Johnson still might occasionally be used as a running back, mostly in third-down situations. But his talent needs to be out on the field much more often than it was the last two seasons.
This season, he can also concentrate on offense after spending time last season as the chief punt returner. With Jabrill Peppers on board, he can devote all his time to honing his game on offense.
Johnson had 126 touches last season, nearly eight a game, averaging nearly seven yards a touch. In order to be effective, he needs a lot more than eight touches a game. Makes no difference how he gets it.
So when it comes to determining the best role for Duke Johnson Jr. this season, the correct answer appears to lie in the words of Ernie Accorsi all those years ago.
Just get him the ball.