Obscure Studs of the NFL

Previous: Doug Baldwin 

The Cleveland Browns are in the beginning stage of a full rebuild. With the league’s worst record at 1-14 (as of this writing), the team is definitely a disaster, but this was to expected.

The team’s front office and coaching staff understand this, and are using the season as an opportunity to look at the players they should build around with this regime. Players that are talented and can carry the haul in the long run.

One of those players is 2nd-year running back Duke Johnson Jr. from The U (Miami FL)

Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2015 Draft, Duke is an exceptionally talented back who has proven reliable for the Browns thus far. With 1 game left, Duke Johnson is 4th in receiving yards among all running backs at 514, only behind David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, and James White. Among receivers and running backs, Johnson is also 11th in Yards After the Catch (YAC) in 2016, with 430 YAC.

This is indicative of the quality player Johnson is. He’s a really good back that has been the Browns’ most dynamic playmaker in the last 2 years. Below, I will explain my reasoning.

Play In The Open Field

Duke’s play is dangerous thanks to his awareness and athleticism. Johnson is 5 ft 9 and 210 lb, and uses his small size to his advantage, combining balanced running with shifty, subtle movement. And in the open field, he’s a weapon.

In the first GIF, two Chargers collide into each other trying to tackle Johnson. Johnson only has a split second to react to the incoming tacklers, and pulls off an impressive jump cut at the last second. The back is aware he’s in danger of taking a hit the entire time, and uses his senses to pull off the incredible athleticism for a big gain.

In the 2nd GIF, Duke displays his discipline by initially blocking on the play, allowing the quarterback more time as another lineman picks up on the assignment as Johnson gets open. The back makes an incredible cut as he pushes off his left foot and accelerates forward, dazing the incoming defender and picking up the first down.

The 3rd GIF is one of the young back’s best plays of his career. On 3rd and 5, Duke hauls in a pass from Josh McCown, then making a wicked jump cut just as he gets a handle on the ball for a few more yards after the catch.

Besides his athleticism, what makes Duke such a great receiving back is his ability to sense pressure. His situational awareness and intelligence is what sells the plays and is what makes him such a threat on 3rd downs and in general. He’s able to make a decision right on the spot, and that’s really what stands out the most about him.

Head coach Hue Jackson’s offense centers around running backs and tight ends getting involved in the receiving game, and that’s exactly what Duke has done.

Running Ability

But while Duke is primarily used as a receiving back, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a quality running back either.

In each of the 3 GIFs above, Johnson shows off his patience and ability to run in tight gaps. The first GIF isn’t a tight gap, but Johnson’s patience after the carry allows him to notice an opening as he cuts to the opening for a nice gain.

In the 2nd GIF, Duke runs into a brick wall, but uses his exceptional vision to run outside the wall and press forward for the first down. Johnson isn’t particularly big (zing), but he has an aggressive mentality that allows him to push forward for yards.

In the 3rd GIF, Duke makes his way through a tiny gap and somehow makes a big gain out of it. Johnson’s small size (zing) and nimbleness allows him to be a frustration for tacklers, and it’s shown in this GIF as Johnson runs for a first down.

3rd Down Usage

Duke’s overall skill set is very impressive, and you’ll see him line up behind the QB or as a receiver in Hue Jackson’s offense. But it’s on 3rd down where #29 really seems to shine.

In the first GIF, Duke side steps a tackler before pinballing his way for a few more yards, converting the first down in the process. Johnson is a slippery, small running back, so his cuts make it difficult to tackle him on the first try, and that makes him a perfect 3rd down option. This is further proven in the 2nd GIF, Johnson ducks and cuts the incoming defender all at once. Here, not only is he picking up the first down, but he’s picking up a lot more in the process.

The 3rd GIF may be the best play of the back’s career so far. Here, Duke shows off his ball skills, catching an inaccurate pass before accelerating forward between two Bengals defenders, picking up an improbable first down. Johnson isn’t the fastest running back you’ll ever see, but he makes up for this with his bouncy running; He’ll push off a foot and spring forward. Combined with his nimbleness, it’s no wonder he’s used on 3rd downs as much as he is.


Finally, Johnson shows off excellent situational awareness. I mentioned this in the first section of the article, but this section further examines it on broken plays.

Duke is a really smart player; He understands how to position himself and get himself open. In the first GIF, Johnson does an impressive basketball move on the guy guarding him and posts him up, getting himself open for Cody Kessler to fire the easy first down conversion.

In the 2nd GIF, Johnson notices the quarterback is playing out of the pocket. He also notices a defender coming in to tackle the QB, so he waits until the defender goes ahead before he gets behind, getting himself wide open for the first down. This type of situational awareness illustrates how fundamentally sound and disciplined Johnson is as a football player, and it makes him all the more enticing.


Duke Johnson Jr. is one of my favorite players in the league, and my favorite Cleveland Brown. Beyond that, he’s a great player that is mainly used as a receiving back, but is also a threat in the backfield. His intelligence, athleticism, and feel for the field allows him to be a threat on 3rd downs and overall.

He’s also one of the most, if not the most underrated running backs in the league. Not too many talk about Johnson, but he’s an explosive, efficient, and fundamental running back that deserves a lot more credit than he gets. If he were on a team with more wins, perhaps we would hear more about him, but alas, it is not meant to be at the time.

But for what it’s worth, Duke Johnson is an obscure stud in the NFL. He gives the Cleveland Browns their most exciting running back in a long time, someone that they haven’t had in years, decades. He’s one of the best receiving backs in the league, and their best skill player on offense.

That’s what Duke Johnson brings to the Dawg Pound.

(Featured image via dawgpounddaily.com)


Obscure Studs of the NFL

Previous: Doug Baldwin 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s