In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, we spotlight emerging players to keep an eye on in 2016. Whether rising from no-namer to quality starter or jumping from standout to superstar, each of these individuals is poised to break through in the coming campaign.
When Hue Jackson took over in January as Cleveland's head coach, his immediate challenge was clear: transforming the fortunes of a talent-poor offense that has floated through the league without an identity since 1999. Sporting one of the NFL's most unproven gaggles of skill players, the Browns are hardly fodder for Making the Leap -- right?
Wrong, because of what we already know about Jackson and his ability to flip the switch on young running backs.
Why Duke Johnson is on the list
The Browns didn't have much to smile about last season, but Johnson's handiwork was a treat that fell under the radar. The former Miami star didn't see a heavy load as a runner, but he had 61 receptions, making him just the eighth back in league history to record 60-plus catches as a rookie. While much of that production came in games where the Browns were mired in garbage time, Johnson's physical gifts can't be denied.
At 5-foot-9 and 210 pounds, Johnson overcame summertime concussion and hamstring issues to emerge as Cleveland's most tantalizing threat. Browns run-game coordinator Kirby Wilson recently called the second-year back an "ultimate weapon for us," saying: "Duke has a lot of those qualities that a lot of great running backs have, in terms of being a receiver."
Last year's tape proves Wilson's point, with Johnson flashing 4.54 speed, outstanding lateral movement and good vision as a pass catcher. Playing with three different Cleveland quarterbacks, Johnson made plays no matter who was under center -- and in any type of weather. Check him out in snowy December against the playoff-bound Steelers:
Johnson is on the small end of the spectrum for a potential feature back, but he hit the NFL at the same height and weight as early-period Frank Gore. Former Browns general manager Ray Farmer compared Johnson to Giovani Bernard and Brian Westbrook, while NFL Media's Bucky Brooks drew a pre-draft parallel to LeSean McCoy. The Bernard typecasting is especially apt, considering Jackson set Gio free in Cincy as a change-of-pace weapon alongside Jeremy Hill.
All the attention on Johnson's pass-catching prowess overshadows his skills as a runner. As Miami's career leader in rushing yards, Johnson posted a whopping 1,652 yards as a senior, along with 26 rushing touchdowns over three seasons. He saw just 104 totes as a rookie, but it's hard to ignore how Johnson plowed through Seattle's nasty defense in a late-season loss. This 39-yard blast up the gut was capped by a stiff arm on Pro-Bowler Earl Thomas:
Much of his production came with a free-forming, detached Johnny Manziel floating passes into the flats. In that same tilt against the 'Hawks, Johnson tractor-beams this floater from Johnny before hopscotching Jeremy Lane for extra yardage:
"I think he's going to have a great year," Jackson told The Plain Dealer in May. "Duke has suddenness and quickness and he can go catch the ball with anybody. He does so many different things that gives your offense a boost."
Obstacles he'll face
The obvious obstacle for Johnson is the team he plays for.
Cleveland has rotated through quarterbacks and struggled to build a balanced attack for a decade-plus. Nothing has changed on paper, with the enigmatic Robert Griffin III ticketed as the presumptive leader in the clubhouse to start Week 1. It's entirely possible that Josh McCown, Austin Davis or even rookie Cody Kessler could make starts this season, which won't help Johnson's development.
The Browns are a team in tremendous flux. No roster is more fluid. If rookie wideout Corey Coleman fails to take off, defenses will be free to key on Johnson week after week. If, though, Jackson can coax solid play under center and get the most out of his young roster, Johnson -- and his numbers -- will benefit tremendously in Year 2.
Expectations for 2016
Instead of finding himself on the bubble under a new regime, Johnson has already won over Jackson, who acknowledged that the second-year pro reminds him of Bernard and could play a similar role in 2016. Jackson also sees plenty of hope in backfield-mate Isaiah Crowell, saying the two "are as good as I've seen in a while," adding "their talent is extreme."
Draping Browns skill players with this kind of praise feels like lip service, but Jackson backed it up by ignoring the running back position in the draft. Outside of adding former Bengals back Terrell Watson, nobody else was brought aboard, leaving Jackson to tell reporters: "It says that I'm very happy with the guys that are here."
Cleveland's offense is flush with holes and unanswered questions, but Johnson caught 61 balls as a first-year pro mired on a chaotic team. Eighty receptions is entirely possible, along with a bigger role on the ground. His 379 rushing yards could double for a Browns club likely to finish in the top 10 in rushing attempts -- just like Jackson's Bengals did a season ago.