Running backs adept at catching the football are often revered in fantasy football. They can turn an average fantasy scoring day into a good one, a good one into a great one, a great one into a historic one and a historic one into something you think is really, really awesome. More importantly, backs who catch the ball can alleviate the pain of a bad fantasy day on the ground, which allows the running back to become 'matchup proof.'
What is 'matchup proof?'
'Matchup proof' means a running back is startable no matter who he's playing against, and one way a receiving back becomes matchup proof is by defying game script. For example, if a running back finds his team down by 30 points in the first half and his team needs to pass more to get back into the game, he'll still accrue fantasy points because he'll likely be targeted on check down passes.
While receiving is a big factor in creating consistency among RBs, it's not the only trait a running back needs to possess. He also must be a talented inside runner, a back who can generate tough yards after contact with big defenders on runs up the gut and also possess the vision and instincts to make sharp cuts up the field. This is even more true in zone blocking schemes.
Among the traits listed above, Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson definitely fits the receiving mold, and while he hasn't shown the ability to run the ball effectively between the tackles, it's unfair to think he can't do it because he hasn't gotten a real shot at the team's 'feature back' role. He also possesses the kind of instincts and athletic ability required to make plays in the run game. In this piece, we will examine if Johnson could emerge as a breakout fantasy candidate in 2017.
Where he could be of considerable value
Going back to Johnson's receiving ability, it's very clear he's had potential in PPR leagues. Johnson was targeted 68 times in 2016, good for 5th most among all NFL running backs. He also ranked seventh in yards per reception at 9.7. Despite all this though, he only finished RB48 in PPR leagues, right around where T.J. Yeldon, Theo Riddick and Alfred Blue ended up.
While the result wasn't ideal, the potential was definitely there given Johnson's role in the offense. More importantly, we've seen smaller receiving backs have very good fantasy seasons — even in standard leagues.
One example of this is Danny Woodhead in 2015. Featured in a passing offense alongside Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers, Woodhead finished as a Top 10 fantasy back in 2015 and it was largely due to his receiving stats. Woodhead caught 80 passes for 755 yards and scored six touchdowns that season. He was also targeted over 100 times total.
Standing just 5'8, 200 lbs, Woodhead benefited from an offense that scored a lot, which allowed him to see 37 red zone targets in 2015, which far exceeded anyone else on the team.
Like Woodhead in 2015, Duke Johnson's role in the passing game was prominent in 2016. Unlike Woodhead though, Johnson didn't have a Pro Bowl quarterback in Rivers throwing him the ball. He instead dealt with a merry-go-round of QBs that consisted of a still-inept Robert Griffin III, a veteran in Josh McCown who also struggled, and a rookie in Cody Kessler who was actually the best of the bunch.
Overall, the poor situation hurt Johnson's touchdown value, as he saw only 14 red zone looks in 2016. If we're going to expect bigger things from Johnson in 2016, the Browns must improve their quarterback situation.
Hope for a bigger role
Johnson also had to deal with playing second fiddle to Isaiah Crowell, who saw 34 red zone attempts in 2016 also.
While Crowell was the team's dominant inside runner in 2016, he struggled with consistency as 518 of his 952 rushing yards came in four games, making him a liability from week to week. He was also woeful in pass protection.
Crowell also finished out the final year of his contract in 2016 and the latest talk of an extension appears unlikely. While Crow managed 7 touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards on the year, it's likely the Browns will want to spend their money elsewhere since Crowell was only valuable on first and second down and didn't change the course of the Browns dismal 2016 season.
Crowell and Johnson are not too far off from each other in terms of talent either. According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson and Crowell graded out about the same in running and receiving. Plus, Johnson carried the ball only 73 times in 2016, which gives him less wear-and-tear for next season and makes you wonder if he could play better if he gets more carries in the offense.
Hope for a better situation
It's likely Cleveland will improve its situation at the quarterback position in 2017. Imagine if they locked down a quarterback like, say, Jimmy Garoppolo from New England? A quarterback with better accuracy could allow Johnson a lot more opportunity to catch the ball in stride and make plays out of the backfield. This will be something to monitor heading into the offseason.
It's absolutely possible Duke Johnson could put together a 700+ yard receiving season given his talent, but he needs some help. He has the talent as a receiver and a good coaching staff that can maximize his skill set. He just needs a quality quarterback to go along with a bigger role in the offense next season. The latter variables could definitely turn in his favor in 2017. Keep an eye on how things fall together this offseason.
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On Wednesday's show, The Fantasy Football Helpers are joined by Adam Inman of FFLockeroom.com. Adam talks about different backup running backs who he thinks you should draft to your team for the coming 2015 season.
The first backfield they go over is the Arizona Cardinals. Starting running back Andre Ellington has been stifled by injuries throughout his career and the latest addition of Dustin Johnson via the 2015 draft creates intrigue. Johnson dons prototypical running back size at 6'1 and could be a strong candidate for more carries in his rookie season if Ellington gets hurt.
Now, of course it's always tough to predict injuries. But, Ellington has a strong history of struggling to stay 100 percent throughout his career going back to his college days at Clemson. Since he began playing at the collegiate level, Ellington has undergone two surgeries, one on his foot and one on his ankle. He's also dealt with concussions and hasn't played a full season once in his two-year career. It's important to see the trends when identifying injury risk, and Ellington has them unfortunately.
The next backfield up is the Tennessee Titans. Since he lives in Washington, Adam Inman followed Titans RB Bishop Sankey quite a bit while he played at Washington. Inman was always a believer in his talent and isn't ready to give up on him just yet, however, Sankey struggled mightily as a runner in 2014 and didn't look like he had any special trait that he could beat defenses with on a consistent basis. Fellow rookie running back David Cobb, out of Minnesota, possesses the receiving ability you want out of a running back in addition to a good burst through the hole which could itself to a more consistent rushing attack. Sankey will likely still see the bulk of the carries early on, but if he slips, watch out for Cobb. Consider drafting Cobb in the very late rounds of your redraft league and you should have a chance at landing a steal.
The next running back tandem discussed comes out of Cleveland. Podcast host George Banko admits he's a big believer in Duke Johnson as a potent receiving back but also admits he's a big injury liability. Inman reiterates that current top RB Isaiah Crowell should be the top guy and Johnson looked like he got hurt on seemingly every carry while playing at Miami in college. Either way, this is a backfield that's tough to judge given the inconsistency of the Browns' offense and also the uncertainty at the quarterback position. Probably best to stay away from this one until it becomes less of a blob of bodies and more of a group built around a consistent identity.
The fourth and final backfield discussed is the Detroit Lions. Joique Bell looks like a prime candidate for regression coming off a dismal 2014 season and rookie Ameer Abdullah has been drawing tons of hype since getting drafted. Abdullah is undersized, but plays strong and has the potential to be an elite receiving back. Adam and George both agreed on this one, that Abdullah has amazing potential and could be one of the best handcuff backs to pick up in 2015.
On Wednesday's edition of Treatmant, the Helpers discuss more rookie running backs and their fantasy situations. Jay Ajayi, Tevin Coleman, Duke Johnson, David Cobb.
Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins running back
Well, that escalated quickly. That's about all I can say about Ajayi's knee issues. There were reports that it was bad, there were reports that it wasn't that bad, and then we saw what it amounted to come draft day. It was Ajayi getting drafted in the fifth round. The fifth round of all places. It was clear this wasn't an Eddy Lacy situation, where there was some hesitance but the team that chose him (Green Bay) but ultimately decided to risk it. This was different. Teams were afraid of this guy. Eddie Lacy was drafted in the second round, pick No. 61 overall. Several running backs went before him. This almost seems like a 'whatever' pick at this point.
I've been high on Ajayi since I studied him a bit on film. Liked his running style, his receiving ability and his love for creating contact. He comes to a Dolphins team with a crowded backfield. You have Lamar Miller, Damien Williams and LaMichael James there. The Dolphins may have found their true workhorse back in Lamar Miller, after he turned in a solid season last year with 1,099 yards. Back when they had Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas. The Dolphins upgraded their offensive line last season bringing in Branden Albert. Bill Lazor has also worked with Chip Kelly and infused some of his principles into his own offense. Mainly the uptempo style, which is I think we saw some big plays drawn up for Mike Wallace in the beginning of last season and it paid off in the touchdown category.
Still, it's highly unlikely Miller (at just 24 years of age) takes a backseat after the kind of season he had last year. The Dolphins are a team that has flirted with the playoffs before.
Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons running back
There's a lot to like with Coleman. He runs fast in the open field. 4.4 speed. He's listed at 6'1 but he's always been charted at 5'11. I never know truly how tall some of these running backs are.
Anyway, he goes to a team in the Falcons who have a lot of questions in the run game with the departure of Steven Jackson and the slow start of Devonta Freeman, a rookie last season. This is a pass-heavy offense, and Coleman wasn't asked to do a whole lot of that in Indiana. Caught 25 passes for 141 yards in his Senior season. This is a home run hitter type of running back. He'll have days where he rushes for 150 yards on seven carries and have a 70-yard touchdown.
He comes into a situation where Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme might not work for him, as it requires a lot of cutting and quick change of direction. We saw Darren McFadden struggle in the same kind of offense with Oakland. I liken Coleman to that same kind of runner. He will probably not flourish is this kind of scheme. He will need big holes and that just won't translate to his style of running. Not saying he can't be an effective zone runner. It just doesn't play to his strengths. The Hoosiers did run some zone blocking plays and Coleman is good at reading his blocks. I'd just be surprised if he makes an immediate impact in his first season with Atlanta.
Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns running back
Of all teams I thought of selecting Johnson, the Browns were definitely not one of them. They seemed more like a power running team, and Johnson is a playmaker with gifted vision, receiving and return abilities. Not knocking the pick, just didn't see it coming.
It also pains me because he's such a gifted receiver and he's going to be catching passes from arguably the worst quarterback tandem in the league. You got Johnny Manziel and Josh McCown throwing him passes. It's going to be difficult to see that working out well. Only two games of over 300 yards last season, the one nice thing is the Browns will probably be down a lot so maybe McCown will have to throw more. Still, that doesn''t really play to his strengths. And we know Manziel is a work in progress and he really lived up to every knock people had of him coming out of Texas A&M. I'm not going to get into all his off the field issues but this Browns looks bad. Like really bad. No receiver depth, just added Dwayne Bowe from Kansas City.
There are some plus signs. The Browns are looking to run the ball a lot. They had two backs last season combine for over 1,000 yards rushing. They also have one of the better offensive lines in the league and went out and added depth with their selection of Cameron Erving on Day 1. I always like when teams build from the inside out.
Today's podcast on running backs is a continuation of our Draft series pods. You can find Part I here. On part II, we discuss the top running backs in the 2015 NFL Draft class including Jay Ajayi, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon. And that list was in no particular order.
Enough RB's come with enough, enough stylee. But when Ajayi busts a run we all know it's wicked and wiley. That's a lyric from the band sublime off 40 oz to freedom on a song called DJ's. Great song, and when I see Ajayi run he in fact does run wicked and wiley. He's my favorite running back in this draft Josh. You can check out an earlier article i wrote about Ajayi back in March here.
The one thing you immediately notice when you see Ajayi run is his sense of purpose. He runs with a supercharged burst of energy and he also catches the ball well out of the backfield. There have been ongoing concerns with a knee injury which has been discussed in greater detail on many other blogs. But let's just assume for a second that it's not a big deal which all reports are currently indicating it isn't.
Ajayi has incredible feet. He was a former soccer player and he loves to initiate contact. He might be the most aggressive runner in this draft. You'd be hard-pressed to find another runner with more heart than Ajayi. That being said, that same heart can also be a weakness. He sometimes stretches plays out for too long when he should just take a 3-yard gain. He's also had fumbling issues that will have to be taken care of if he expects to stay out of coaches' doghouses. But Ajayi has great size at 6'0 221lbs. He's your prototypical NFL running back. If the knee is not an issue, I really think he's a top 3 running back of this class and I would put him just behind Todd Gurley.
In a league where you constantly hear reports that running backs are no longer valued, in walks a potential Top 10 pick at the position. It goes to show you that the draft is never about position aside from kickers and punters, it's all about value at a certain position. Sure, a running back likely will never go No. 1 overall, but any RB going in the Top 10 really says something about the potential Gurley has.
Josh you've delved into Gurley a bit more than I have. I know you mentioned his off field issues with autographs but that can't possibly be a huge deal in the NFL can it? I mean, he's going to get showered with love for signing autographs and instead of shunned for it because of the out-of-touch NCAA rules.
Below you'll see a highlight tape of Gurley. The biggest thing I've noticed about Gurley is his deadly combination of elusiveness and explosiveness through contact. Unlike Ajayi, who twists and turns and runs a little bit out of control at times, Gurley doesn't waste any motion when he runs. He's a slippery as they come in terms of shedding tackles, and he does it without making it look like he just poured out half a glass of his energy. There's also a smoothness to the way he's able to simply change direction slightly when he reaches the second level and run past the safety en route to the end zone. People have been calling out for everybody to slow their roll when it comes to comparing Gurley to the potential great runners and while I see their point, because he's not quite as explosive as say an Adrian Peterson. But there are runs where he looks a lot like Peterson. Peterson who take a hit and keep his legs churning then two or three more guys would jump on him and he'd be able to still create forward motion despite all those guys trying to push him into the opposite direction. Gurley shows that at times. You have to get really excited at the prospect of having this guy on your team.
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School: University of Miami
Weight: 194 lbs
Position Rank: Top 10
Accolades: 2012 ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, Second-team All-ACC (2012,2013), First-team All-ACC (2014)
Elusive, speedy, and great instincts. These are some of the words thrown around when you mention fantasy dynasty prospect Duke Johnson. Johnson possesses the kind of explosiveness only seen among elite running backs. It was with t
Quick start in college
As a true freshman, Johnson exploded onto the scene in his very first game with the Hurricanes against Boston College, rushing for two long touchdowns. Although he was splitting carries with teammate and future Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Mike James, Johnson finished with 135 yards on just seven carries (19.3 yards per carry) while James tallied 54 yards on 14 carries (3.9 ypc).
But much like catching a fish on your first cast can be a bad omen, Johnson failed to eclipse the 100-yard mark for the next seven games during his 2012 freshman season. He was held in check by defenses such as Notre Dame, a team led by Heisman finalist Manti-Teo, and Florida State's stout defense that would later go on to win the National Championship in 2013.
But Johnson eventually broke out, and turned in his first real big time game against ACC rival Virginia. Johnson finished with 16 carries for 150 yards and while he didn't score a touchdown, he threw for a score off a running back toss-pass play and ended up returning a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. He also finished with 214 net return yards.
In 2012, Johnson led the nation in plays of 50 yards or more from scrimmage with 11.
As you can see in this video, notice how Johnson keeps the play alive by changing his field across the middle. He doesn't run violently or look to initiate a whole lot of contact, rather preferring to make defenders miss with quick lateral shifts. He whips out the stiff arm when he can, but he's not somebody who's going to run defenders over, especially at the NFL level. Overall, Johnson excels with his ability Most running to convert his vertical north/south energy to east/west almost seamlessly. That, combined with his great instincts when it comes to knowing where the defenders are on the field and exactly how his shiftiness will be applied in a way that nets him the most positive yardage is a skill only truly gifted running backs have. You throw in his receiving ability and you've got a potential fantasy juggernaut on your hands.
- Elite speed
- Aggressive in the open field, extends plays
- Natural receiver
- Plays big for his size, can move defenders
- Gets to top speed quickly
- Runs with purpose decisive when hitting the hole
- Pass blocking needs improvement
- Small size may prevent him from being a true workhorse back
- Small size may also prevent him from getting goal line carries
Injury bug bites sophomore year
Johnson was on his way to a breakout season in 2013 after rushing for more than 150 yards in three of his eight starts. But against arguably the Hurricanes biggest game against Florida State, Johnson saw his season come to an end after breaking his ankle. It's worth noting he rushed for 97 yards on 23 carries (4.2 ypc) against the Seminoles, a defense that was arguably one of the best that season.
A crazy good junior season
Some of Johnson's best performances came in 2014. At that time, Miami wasn't as potent of an offensive team due to their lack of consistency at quarterback, which resulted in Johnson carrying the load. It was because of this, combined with Johnson's maturity as a player, that allowed him to compile his most successful season. Johnson totaled 1,652 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns his junior year, scoring a touchdown in 9-of-14 games. His best effort came against Virginia Tech, where he demolished the Hokies for 249 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries. It was the most ever rushing yards by an opposing player at Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium and had Johnson not left the game after twisting his ankle with 5:59 left in the fourth quarter, he might've eclipsed 300 yards.
We mentioned his receiving ability as well. Here's an example of Johnson's catching ability out of the backfield.
When it comes to current NFL running backs who play like Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy immediately comes to mind. Like McCoy, Johnson is undersized, elusive, speedy and catches ball well out of the backfield. Johnson, like McCoy, might have trouble becoming an insider runner at the NFL level due to his lack of size.
McCoy/Johnson physical comparison:
|208 lbs||Weight||194 lbs|
|65 (two seasons)||No. of receptions (college)||69 (two and a half seasons)|
|4.5||40 yard dash||X|
*Listed height, keep watch for his official height/weight measurement at combine
Dynasty grade: Top 5 pick