One of the most intriguing picks the Cleveland Browns made during this year’s NFL Draft was former Miami Hurricanes running back Duke Johnson. Thanks to solid seasons from Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell last year, the backfield didn’t really seem like an area in need of improvement for Cleveland. So, when Johnson was selected during the third round, it certainly turned some heads.
Of course, when you broke it all down, the move made plenty of sense. The Browns are clearly being built to be a run-first offense this season, and selecting Miami’s all-time rushing yards leader seemed like a pretty solid addition to this game-plan.
Unfortunately, the buzz around Johnson died down significantly after an injured hamstring sidelined him just days into training camp. While he was out, Crowell, West and the rest of Cleveland’s backs were chastised for their lack of effort in vying to be the team’s starter. Suddenly, a position of strength was looking like an area of concern for the Browns.
However, good news arrived this weekend in the form of Johnson’s return to the practice field. After missing 12 practices and two preseason games, Johnson is ready to prove his worth to the Browns, news that should be welcomed with open arms and plenty of excitement.
While Crowell and West each have their respective strengths, Johnson brings a completely different element to the field. He’s explosive out of the backfield, and will likely have no trouble breaking through the holes made by the now-full strength Cleveland offensive line. Additionally, though, it’s Johnson’s soft hands which likely have the Browns eager to work him into the weekly game-plan.
Johnson’s pass-catching abilities have been raved about almost every day since being selected by the Browns. All you have to do is listen to backs coach Wilbert Montgomery’s assessment of what Johnson brings to the table to see why the team was so anxious to get him back on the field.
“(Johnson) gives you another dimension that we don’t have in the group that we had last year because Duke can be a slot receiver, he can line up wide, and you can move him all over the field,” said Montgomery. “It’s like he’s a total mismatch.
“In my report, I wrote him up as a Thurman Thomas-type running back when he came out because he can be in any spot and he can take full advantage of his athleticism.”
As you can see, Johnson finally healing up is clearly reason for excitement in Cleveland. This is an offense which really doesn’t have a ton of weapons on its hands. In Johnson, the Browns potentially have a multi-threat running back who can add a whole new component to the offensive unit.
His return is important, too, because of the aforementioned criticisms Montgomery tossed at the rest of his running backs.
Neither Crowell nor West have stood out in terms of their attempts to be the bell cow for Cleveland. All other backs have either been unimpressive or are currently nursing injuries. None of this is exactly great news when you’re considering the fact the Browns are trying to do most of their damage on the ground.
The hope is, with Johnson’s return, the running game can finally start to show some signs of life in the remaining weeks of camp. Ideally, the team can get Johnson a good chunk of work in this Saturday’s preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Unfortunately, despite his getting back on the field, Johnson is likely going to be taking it easy throughout the rest of camp. He’s dealt with hamstring issues since his days playing high school football, and almost quit the sport altogether when the injuries kept occurring while at Miami.
So, while the Browns are no doubt thrilled to see the return of a player they’ve been gushing about since OTAs, they also know they can’t throw him right back into the deep end just yet.
Regardless, seeing Johnson back at practice is still a gigantic positive for Cleveland. He still needs to gain some ground and stay healthy enough to see an increase in his workload. But, if he can indeed stay healthy, if the oft-aggravated hamstrings can cooperate from here on out, he could potentially be one of the team’s biggest offensive weapons this season.