Nick Chubb has miraculously overcome a devastating knee injury he suffered in 2015, one where he tore the PCL (posterior cruciate ligament), MCL (medial collateral) and LCL (lateral collateral) and Kareem Hunt is set to miss the first eight games of the season due to a suspension. While Chubb’s injury seems to be behind him after his very successful rookie campaign in 2018, the only constant in the Cleveland Browns’ backfield heading into the 2019 season is Duke Johnson. Entering his fifth season in the NFL, the running back has played in all 64 games (10 starts) so far in his career.
That, among other things, is one of the many reasons the Browns shouldn’t trade Johnson, at least not until after Hunt returns from his suspension. Best-case scenario, none of the three get hurt and we get to see how head coach Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken find a way to use each player’s strengths to not only maximize the offense’s potential but keep each player as fresh as possible as well. The worst-case scenario is that Chubb somehow goes down and the Browns still have Johnson (assuming it’s prior to Hunt returning), rather than having to lean on a guy like second-year running back Dontrell Hilliard to carry the load.
What’s in the past is in the past. General manager John Dorsey took advantage of Hunt being a free agent even though his off-the-field circumstances were the sole reason why that was the case. It was more of insurance in Cleveland’s backfield, giving the Browns yet another playmaker at a key skill position. Signing Hunt wasn’t a knock on Johnson or the type of player he is and can be. The problem was that he took it that way and the relationship between him and the team has gone downhill ever since.
He first requested a trade, which made many reporters and fans alike begin to figure out if the Browns should trade him and if so, what/who they would get in return for the running back. Even so, Dorsey and Kitchens have both repeatedly made it known that they want to keep Johnson in the fold and are excited for what he can bring to the offense, especially with so many other playmakers and Baker Mayfield leading the charge. Whether that’s to possibly force other teams to give a stronger offer in a trade or if they truly are excited to keep Johnson on the team remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: No matter how bad off the relationship currently is between the 25-year-old and the Browns, the team wants to keep him.
Then came mandatory minicamp last week. Like Odell Beckham Jr., Johnson skipped out on all the voluntary workouts and made his first appearance in Berea when it was mandatory. Once again, he reiterated his stance, telling reporters that his trade request still stands after all of that news made him feel “unwanted”.
— Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) June 4, 2019
“My trade request was to meet them at a middle ground. I was put on the trade block a month before I requested a trade,” Johnson said. “I was put on the trade block to kind of see what the team could get,” he said. “And I mean, at the end of the day, I understand the nature of the business, I understand his job, John Dorsey’s job, is to do what’s best for the team and the organization. And again, if that’s getting rid of me for a bigger piece, for a better piece, then I’m OK with it.
“I’m not sitting here hoping that, ‘pretty please, can I get traded?’ I want to be here,’’ he said. “I’ve always wanted to be here, but at some point, if he trades me, he trades me. I’m not going home every night wishing and praying, but if it happens, it happens.’’
Following those comments, Kitchens made it known that he simply doesn’t care about Johnson’s request and will continue to do what’s best for the team.
“He wants to be traded. I want to win the lottery. It doesn’t matter. He’s under contract. He’s a Cleveland Brown. He’s going to be used to the best of his ability in what benefits the team.”
“I expect Duke to be a professional, and I think he will be”, Kitchens said. “He has never been anything but a professional. Whatever his personal feelings are, those are his personal feelings. I am not going to dictate someone’s feelings. Just like I told you about other players in the past, whatever their feelings are, they are free to voice whatever they want to say. Alright? Duke is a part of the team. All of the other stuff is just hyperbole, just inventing, imagining or thinking or reacting or something like that.”
Like his head coach, Baker Mayfield didn’t hold back either. Heading into his sophomore season, the quarterback has become one of the loudest vocal leaders on the team and speaks his mind, as he showed when talking about Johnson and his trade request.
“That’s something that we’ve been dealing with for a while. If we have guys that want to be here, they’ll show that, they’ll voice that. Obviously he’s going to handle his stuff how he wants, but you’re either on this train or you’re not, it’s moving. You can get out of the way or you can join us. so it is what it is,” Mayfield said. “It’s not awkward. It’s self-inflicted. It is what it is. It’s not awkward, for anybody else in this building. He’s got to do his job. He said he’s a professional, I hope he does his job.’’
“I wouldn’t say I’m not happy about it. It’s just the way he’s handled it. It can be a stir-up in the media, it can be however it wants, but if somebody wants to be here, they’ll be here in that situation. You’ve got guys within our locker room that are dying to get playing time, that are dying to be here, and I get it. Duke’s been here for years and I respect that, but it’s about ‘what are you doing right now?’ The past is the past. My rookie year, I’ve got to learn from it, I’ve got to move forward. It’s about right now and what we’re going to do.’’
Where things may have gotten awkward following the trade request was when, following Mayfield’s comments, 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell tweeted about the situation. Luther so happens to be the husband of Johnson’s agent, Kristin Campbell.
“F— Baker Mayfield for saying that dumb s— about Duke Johnson,” Luther said in a tweet. “I guarantee you be the one to divide this locker room up. You are not in Texas at Cracker Barrel.”
Hey @bakermayfield this will be my last tweet to you.
Brett Favre traded
Joe Montana treated.
Peyton Manning traded
Drew Brees traded.
Dan Marino told to go home
Don't ever turn on your teammates for management you are not exempt
— Luther Luke Campbell (@unclelukereal1) June 7, 2019
Thank you Omar for the validation you have been the beat reporter for the Miami Dolphins for god-knows-how-long and if anyone knows you do. https://t.co/G8tA2tKJGQ
— Luther Luke Campbell (@unclelukereal1) June 8, 2019
Whether it was right or wrong that Mayfield publicly chastising Johnson, it’s clear that his comments got to the running back’s camp. Then again, that relationship can be fixed. Maybe, just maybe, the rapper doesn’t share the same feelings as Johnson and his agent. If he does, then the players have plenty of time to fix it.
It’s been a long offseason. It seems even longer knowing that for the first time in quite a long time, the Browns have plenty of expectations. In the past, the Dawg Pound has been way too optimistic about their team, but this year, that optimism seems real. The feeling of the long offseason has likely trickled down to the players and coaches as well.
Johnson admitted last September that he just wants to win and that a team can never have too many weapons.
“I just want to win,” Johnson told The Athletic’s Tom Reed. “I see people saying my numbers are going to go down. How can having a lot of weapons ever be a bad thing? The only numbers I care about are the number of wins. I have never been an ego guy, so it doesn’t matter to me how we win as long as we win.”
Things have obviously changed, but with the Browns set to compete in the AFC North and with a handful of playmakers surrounding Mayfield, it’s ironic that the running back now wants to be traded. After suffering through a dismal first four years, when Cleveland combined to win just 11 games, seven of which came in 2018, Johnson wants to leave now?
It’s obvious that it’s not only due to the team signing Hunt but also that Johnson career lows in rushing attempts (40), rushing yards (201), catches (47) and receiving yards (429) in 2018, all while averaged a career-best 7.2 yards per touch. All of that came following the Browns signing him to a three-year extension. Whether it’s now playing him as much or not finding ways to give him the ball, Mayfield and Cleveland have found other players across the offense to handle the load. Now that Odell Beckham Jr. is a Brown, those opportunities may continue to drop.
While it seems obvious that Dorsey is just waiting on the right deal and he has yet to get it, which is why Johnson is still in Cleveland, but that right deal may never come to fruition this offseason. If it does, it’s likely that the Browns will trade the running back, but until then, he’s a key member of the offense. Dorsey knows how important Johnson is, even if he has only started 10 games in his career. Totaling 299 carries for 1,286 yards and five touchdowns along with 235 receptions (303 targets) for 2,170 yards and eight touchdowns, the running back is the type of versatile playmaker that any team would love to have. It’s why Dorsey decided to sign him to a three-year, $15.61 million extension in 2018. That $5,203,333 per year is the 11th-highest among all NFL running backs.
You could argue that he isn’t the 11th-best running back in the league, and well, let’s be honest, you’re right. But that’s not the point. The point is that the Browns need Johnson in their backfield, especially while Hunt is forced to miss time. His playmaking ability paired with the fact that he provides depth at a key position is vital.
“With a group of weapons like that, to be able to use him underneath, he would be a huge asset. Somebody will find the right way to utilize him, and hopefully, that’s Cleveland. We’ll see,” said former Browns quarterback Josh McCown.
“As a quarterback, it’s great having a guy like Duke back there on a third down. He knows the protections. He knows how to make guys miss and pick up those extra yards.”
Depth is key in the NFL. No matter how good a team may be, there are bound to be injuries during a grueling 16-game regular season. Having talented starters is obviously the biggest aspect of a successful team, but pairing that talent with solid backups and depth is vitally important for any team that hopes to not only make the playoffs but to bring home the Vince Lombardi Trophy at season’s end as well.
The 2018 Cleveland Browns were lucky. They didn’t suffer too many devastating injuries. That, paired with the emergence of players such as rookies Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb was one of the handfuls of reasons the Browns were able to 7-8-1 last season, giving the Dawg Pound plenty to cheer about and look forward. While they got lucky with injuries last season, it almost seems inevitable that the same won’t be said this fall (and winter). While the team and fans alike hope that the healthiness continues into 2019, there’s bound to be at least one blip. It’s why the Browns need to keep Johnson, at least until Hunt returns to the team in the middle of the season.
If things still aren’t working out, trade Johnson at the trade deadline, a week or two before Hunt returns. That will not only allow the Browns to somewhat showcase Johnson as the backup running back behind Chubb, but it will also allow Cleveland to be sure that they still have a solid option if Chubb misses any time in the first half of the season. That, along with the fact that another may lose their running back due to injury, and it seems as though if the Browns do trade Johnson, they will maximize their return if they do so by trading him at the trade deadline.
Johnson may not be happy right now, but once the season kicks off, he will likely be a professional about the entire situation, put the offseason behind him, and do everything he can to make the Browns as successful as possible.
“There’s obviously an issue there and a hurt that needs to be resolved,” McCown said. “Even if he’s frustrated, he’s going to work hard and do what’s best to help his team play well,” McCown said. “That’s the kind of character that Duke has. … I’m a big, big Duke Johnson fan.”
The running back is a solid playmaker, and let’s be honest, an NFL team can never have too many playmakers. That, along with supplying the team with a solid RB2, is the reason Johnson shouldn’t be traded, at least not yet. Wait until the deadline if you’re going to do so, please, Browns.