- CLUTCH Summary: After previously asking for a trade, Duke Johnson finally got what he wanted, as the Cleveland Browns traded the running back to the Houston Texans.
- The impact it will have on both teams might end up being dramatic, especially since it’s already August.
- At the end of the way, this ends up being a win-win for both the Texans and Browns.
Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson first requested a trade in late March, and he was finally dealt to a new team, just hours before Cleveland played its first preseason game. Johnson is now a member of the Houston Texans, who sent the Browns a fourth-round pick in 2020 that could become a third-rounder if Johnson is active for 10 games. The trade is interesting for both teams, and has ramifications for both now and the future.
Johnson was drafted by the Browns in the third round in 2015. Over his four seasons with the team, Johnson finished with 299 carries for 1,286 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Not great numbers, but he was never the featured back in Cleveland’s offense. Where Johnson did his damage was in the air, as he caught 235 passes for 2,170 yards and eight scores.
He is one of the league’s best receiving RBs, and is a lethal weapon in space. He is a great route runner and extremely shifty. According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson has consistently ranked among the NFL’s best in multiple RB receiving categories.
Johnson also ranks 2nd in forced missed tackles per reception (0.34), 7th in yards per route run (1.73) and 4th in percentage of receptions resulting in a first down or touchdown (44.0%). pic.twitter.com/XxCHQnBRvT
— PFF (@PFF) August 8, 2019
Even though the Browns have two of the league’s best backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Johnson will be a significant loss. Hunt is suspended for the first half of the season, leaving Cleveland with Chubb and the unproven Dontrell Hilliard, who has nine receptions and zero carries to his name. Hilliard has had a fantastic training camp, which made the Browns comfortable with moving on from Johnson.
We may never know why Johnson asked to be traded. It was unlikely he wanted out due to his contract or role with the team; yes, he was going to be the third-string RB after Hunt returned, but he would have been second behind Chubb for the first eight games, and he signed his contract (which makes him the 11th-highest-paid RB in the NFL) after the Browns had signed Carlos Hyde and drafted Chubb last offseason.
When asked about Hunt’s impact on Johnson’s role earlier this year, general manager John Dorsey said that Hunt’s presence “didn’t make [Johnson] expendable yet]. This answer, along with behind-the-scenes goings-on, could have led Johnson to feel disrespected or underappreciated in Cleveland. He did not show up for voluntary mini-camp, but did attend all required offseason activities to this point, although he did missed much of training camp with a suspicious hamstring injury.
Johnson has a reputation for being a bit injury-prone, as he often checks out of the game with minor injuries. But he’s still played in every game to this point, so it’s likely that the Texans gave the Browns a third-rounder for him. If that does happen, it will be the highest price an RB has fetched in a trade since Cleveland sent Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick in 2013.
The Browns do lose a valuable offensive weapon, but they have the personnel to cover for Johnson’s absence. In return, they could be getting a valuable draft pick, a player who could provide cheap depth for a team that’s going to need it. Cleveland also gets out of Johnson’s contract, which saves them crucial cap space for some lucrative extensions that will happen in the near future. Yes, the Browns are a worse team right now. But if the team can survive without Hunt for the first half of 2019, getting that pick will be worth it.
For the Texans, they are certainly upgrading at RB. Johnson will give Deshaun Watson another weapon in the passing game, and a safety valve to dump the ball off to. This will hopefully lead to Watson holding onto the ball less, meaning fewer sacks and a reduced chance of injury. Losing a third-rounder next year hurts, but the team has done just fine with the Browns owning their first and second-round picks in 2018. They’ll need to use their cap space more wisely in free agency next year, as the only veteran addition to their offensive line this offseason was Matt Kalil, who isn’t exactly an upgrade.
Johnson’s presence on the field will likely indicate a pass is coming, but that’s where head coach Bill O’Brien will need to be involved. Johnson touched the ball 534 times over his four seasons in Cleveland, and fans constantly complained about the team underutilizing him. Johnson may not overtake Lamar Miller as the featured back, but he is too good to not be involved in the run game.
Without an actual GM running the team, Houston gave up a lot for Johnson. But they are a better team than they were yesterday, and if O’Brien is able to use Johnson better than the Browns did, the trade will be worth it. Cleveland will miss Johnson for the first half of this season, but after that, they’ll be looking forward to another top-100 draft pick. This is a trade that will likely benefit both teams, just as the previous two deals between the Browns and Texans have.