Don't expect Duke Johnson Jr. to disappear in 2018

Eric Karabell
ESPN INSIDER


There hardly needs to be some grand investigation into why the most underrated running back in fantasy football, at least for standard point-per-reception formats, got that way. Duke Johnson Jr. plies his trade for a franchise that has won a grand total of one regular-season game the past two seasons, and four over his three seasons.

Some people simply assume the Cleveland Browns cannot produce a valuable, viable fantasy option when they are this awful. Well, Johnson is valuable and viable. A mere 10 running backs scored more in PPR formats last season, and it was not a fluke season.

And yet, when I look at Average Draft Position (ADP) at ESPN Fantasy, which tends to be driven in the summer months simply by our composite rankings except for the top quarterbacks, who always get reached for, I am flummoxed. Johnson is going in the ninth round, behind 30 other running backs, including six rookies -- it would be quite the season if six rookie running backs were that valuable -- and several veterans with various, shall we note, question marks. Johnson in Round 9? I would start considering him in the fifth.

Johnson has caught 188 passes the past three seasons for 1,741 yards, each of which is the most for running backs, and has an average of 62.7 catches per season. Last year, Johnson caught 74 passes on 93 targets. A few others had more catches and more targets, but then again nobody is saying Johnson is Le'Veon Bell or David Johnson, either. The great Christian McCaffrey was the No. 10 PPR running back last season and people love him, but Johnson was next, outscoring many players who do not deserve to be rostered ahead of him.

I do think fantasy managers have an inherent bias against running backs that do not pile on their points in the traditional sense of accumulating rushing yards, but I am not sure why. It is 2018. I do not care how players score the points, as long as they do. Fantasy managers treat running quarterbacks similarly, to some large degree, perhaps due to the extra fear of injury. Carolina's Cam Newton did not reach 4,000 passing yards when he was fantasy's No. 1 player in 2015. Points are points and Duke Johnson piles on the points.

Of course, you might be chomping at the bit to point out to me that we do not draft for last season's numbers, as that is fraught with danger. Indeed, the fact that Johnson is one of the preeminent pass-catching running backs hardly guarantees him future successes, except ... the Browns love him and would be nuts to abandon what works. Yes, they signed former San Francisco 49ers underachiever Carlos Hyde in March, roughly six weeks before drafting Georgia's Nick Chubb in the second round. Skeptics think those talented players will push Johnson aside. Eh, I do not think so. Johnson signed a three-year contract extension in June worth $15.6 million.


Competition can be a good thing, but I think the real battle is between Hyde and Chubb for the market share of carries. I suspect neither is going to see much action on passing downs or approach 30 catches. Hyde finally caught passes for last season's 49ers, but he was not the least bit efficient or a game-breaker in that role. He averaged 5.9 yards per catch and did not score a touchdown through the air. Chubb certainly played no role as a pass-catcher in college. These fellows will fight for snaps while Johnson will not. If anything, I would worry about free-agent acquisition Jarvis Landry stealing targets from the slot. Johnson lined up outside the backfield on occasion. Still, it is not as if he will lose all his rushing attempts; he averaged fewer than five per game over the past two seasons. I will grant you that Johnson is unlikely to rush for another four touchdowns, but chop it in half and this is still a top-20 option.

The key to Johnson retaining value is his role remaining constant in an improved offense, and it sure looks like the Browns are in a better place to compete this season -- not simply win a few, but perhaps win half their games. Hey, do not laugh! Colleague Mike Clay thinks this team is a wild-card contender now that there is a legitimate quarterback under center, and years of high draft picks have brought in defensive standouts as well. For our purposes, Tyrod Taylor simply needs to be competent, which is an upgrade in itself, and Landry, Josh Gordon, one of the run-first running backs and the offensive line need to do the same. I can see this happening. Then Johnson can do what he does best, which is catch passes and help fantasy teams. I will be an investor.