Duke Johnson is probably the Browns’ third-string running back, but locking him up for three more seasons isn’t a horrible move by Cleveland.
You have to give Duke Johnson some credit for being willing to stick with the Cleveland Browns. Even though he’s only experienced winning four games in his first three seasons, he’s excited to be in Northeast Ohio when things turn around. The team has rewarded his loyalty with a new contract that should keep him in Cleveland for the foreseeable future.
The new deal will give Johnson the chance to earn as much as $15.6 million over the next three seasons. Notably, he does receive a $5 million signing bonus and a total of $7.74 million in guaranteed money. This deal won’t break the Browns’ salary cap, but it is a slight overpay for a player who will largely be used as a third down back.
Johnson’s worth to Cleveland will almost entirely be a result of his ability to catch passes out of the backfield. He caught 74 passes for the Browns despite their shaky quarterback play last season. It’s possible he could produce better results with Tyrod Taylor or Baker Mayfield throwing him the ball this season.
He is not going to run the ball much for this team. Carlos Hyde was brought in via free agency to be the starter, and it’s hard to imagine second-round pick Nick Chubb being displaced as the backup. Look for Johnson to get most of his playing time in passing situations.
Given Cleveland’s propensity to lose games, it’s reasonable to expect he’ll see plenty of playing time in 2018. Even if the team takes a step forward under Hue Jackson, it’s still going to play from behind an awful lot. That will give Johnson a chance to earn his money.
The struggle with this deal is that is becomes worse for Cleveland if they mature into a playoff team. If that happens, it will likely be on the strength of their running game. Hyde and Chubb will need to be used as battering rams to soften up the defense. Johnson doesn’t run with the sort of physicality required to wear down an opponent.
In the end, the Browns are slightly overpaying Johnson based on what he’s likely to produce on the field. That isn’t a tragic sin considering the team’s struggles to land players via free agency. There’s something to be said for locking up a player you know wants to be in Cleveland for the long haul. There aren’t too many young player anxious to commit their long-term future to the Browns at the moment. Johnson got a little more money for being a rarity.