Cleveland Browns rookie running back Duke Johnson is set to see his first regular-season action on Sunday when the team takes on the New York Jets. The 2015 second-round pick has been shouldering high expectations since the Browns drafted him, including his running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery comparing Johnson to Buffalo Bills’ Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas in June because of Johnson’s ability to work as a runner and receiver from multiple spots on the field and to create defensive mismatches.
That hype train was derailed somewhat during the summer, as Johnson missed the Browns’ first two preseason games with a hamstring injury. Then, after playing just five snaps in the team’s third preseason contest, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he suffered a concussion that knocked him from the game. He had rushed only once for four yards and caught a one-yard pass before being injured.
Johnson was cleared to play in Sunday’s game on Wednesday and Browns head coach Mike Pettine does think a big role for Johnson could be in the cards. Though Isaiah Crowell will be the Browns’ lead back and though Shaun Draughn should be called up from the practice squad any moment now, the versatility and playmaking potential of Johnson should see the football make its way into his hands as well on Sunday. But just how much can we expect to see from the rookie in his debut, especially having missed so much work during the summer?
Pettine did acknowledge that Johnson’s missed time “factors in there some,” but did add that, “if [Johnson] has a couple of solid days of practice, there’s no reason to think he’s not going to play a significant role in the game.” It is going to be hard to limit him if he starts to catch fire, that’s certain. Johnson, after all, was Miami’s leading rusher, totaling 3,519 yards and 26 rushing touchdowns on 526 carries over a three-year span. And he’s also a receiving weapon, having caught 69 passes for 719 yards and four scores during his collegiate career. And the Browns simply don’t have many bona fide playmakers on the offensive side of the ball; any advantage, whether from a defensive mismatch standpoint or simply because Johnson’s talent level is so high, the Browns will gladly welcome.
But Johnson’s missed time over the summer and his recent concussion are reasons to temper expectations for the rookie. Add into the equation a very tough Jets defensive front versus a smaller back like Johnson and the yards could be hard to come by for him. Protecting him somewhat, via a pitch count or simply by picking the battles he participates in, could be in the cards. Another option, especially given that the Jets could be stingy against the run on Sunday no matter who gets the carries, is to use Johnson more as a receiver this week.
The other consequence of the Jets being stout up front is that the defensive line and linebackers could bring heavy pressure on Browns quarterback Josh McCown. In that case, any gains in the passing game need to come from quick throws. Johnson, with his speed, size and background, would be the perfect screen and pass-out-of-the-backfield target for McCown. It’s something that very well could make Johnson the star of this game while still ceding the majority of the ground-game work to Crowell.
At some point, Johnson is going to break out. The Browns would prefer that to happen sooner than later. But because of the time he’s missed, the injuries he’s battled and the nature of Sunday’s opponent, he may have to take on a more specialized role to start the season. It’s a role that at least suits him and allows the Browns to maximize some of Johnson’s strongest skills, while also not exposing him to the rigors of the NFL too quickly.