Duke Johnson Jr. is one of the Cleveland Browns most electrifying playmakers on offense. Although his team went 0-16 last season, the third-year running back showed off his versatility no matter where he lined up on the field. His 1,058 all-purpose yards led the team, just ahead of Isaiah Crowell. Whether he was lined up at running back, in the slot, or out wide, the 5-foot-9, 210-pound do-it-all playmaker proved that he as long as he had the ball in his hands, he can be counted on to make positive plays happen.
With the Browns adding guys like running back Carlos Hyde and wide receiver Jarvis Landry, to go along with rookie running back Nick Chubb, and in addition to a more developed tight end David Njoku in his second year, the 2018 offense will most likely look much different (and better) than in 2017. Not to mention the fact that Cleveland actually has a semi-legitimate group of quarterbacks that includes Tyrod Taylor and rookie Baker Mayfield. With those changes and additions to the Browns offense, there is hardly any doubt that the offensive production will be much, much more entertaining this fall than it’s been in recent memory.
In 2017, Johnson lined up wherever he could best help the offense and receive the most touches. To say that he played all over the field would be quite an understatement. He had 462 snaps at running back, 83 in the slot, and 18 as a wide receiver.1 This season, with so much more talent around him, the fourth-year product out of Miami (Florida) prefers to play out wide rather than at running back.
“I would rather play wideout. I think that I enjoy wideout and have more fun playing wideout than I do playing running back,” Johnson said during training camp on Monday.
It’s not because it’s easier to catch a ball as a wide receiver rather than a running back, but it seems as though part of the reason why he wants to make the change is due to how much time he has spent preparing as a wide receiver, both in terms of learning the routes and it’s seemingly more fun.
“When the ball gets there, catching is catching. It depends on how much separation you create between yourself and the defender. Same to me,” the playmaker said of wanting to make the switch.
“I have been working on it for a while now. Some are harder than others, but for the most part, I can do most of the things. No meetings. I have to learn them all on my own.”
Although Johnson wants to officially switch from running back to wide receiver, head coach Hue Jackson wants none of it. Due to him speaking to the media after Johnson, he was asked about Duke’s comment about wanting to make the position change. Jackson shot it down and made it clear that he will continue to be a running back.
“Let me make this clear, Duke’s position will not change. That is first and foremost,” the head coach said. “Will Duke get the opportunity to go out there as a back in our packages and play receiver? Yes, he will. Duke is a very vital part of what we do on offense. He has to continue to learn the system and get better. He will. He has been a playmaker ever since I have been here. He will continue to do that.”
With a loaded backfield (when healthy), it’s going to be tough to find the right amount of carries for Hyde, Chubb, and Johnson. While offensive coordinator Todd Haley will find ways to do so, whether it be playing Johnson all over the field, much like he did last season, or in other ways, it seems as though Jackson would prefer to keep all three at running back rather than move most of his most electrifying playmakers on offense out wide, at least for now. Add in the fact that outside of Landry, there are so many question marks at receiver. When will Josh Gordon return to the team? Will Antonio Callaway be able to stay on the field? How will Rashard Higgins develop? Those are just some of the many questions that have not been answered quite yet.
Things can change once the season kicks off or even at some point during the season, but as of now, Jackson seems to not want to make the change even though Johnson admitted to the media that he wants to do so. Then again, he may have no choice other than to move Johnson to wide receiver if some of the questions above go in the wrong direction.
There’s a reason why the head coach has the final say, but also making one of your best playmakers and a guy you will count on to make plays all season (and for the foreseeable future) as happy as possible seems ideal as well. Hopefully, both Jackson and Haley will find a way to get the ball in Johnson’s hands, no matter where he is lined up at the snap. If they want to maximize the talent they have offensively and win games for a change, they would be wise to do so.
- Thanks to Pro Football Focus for doing that work for us. [↩]