Fantasy Football: All Hail to Duke Johnson in 2017?

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Recently in a team preview, Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot shared a startling statement about the lovable, losing Cleveland Browns saying that Duke Johnson has a shot at being the “starting slot receiver” in 2017. This news caused quite a stir as analysts begin to envision what could be for the 3rd year RB. I went back and listened to an interview she did with RotoViz to verify and confirmed that she simply stated that Johnson has received “slot receiver reps” and that she wouldn’t be surprised to see Johnson in that role. Let us be clear that this is not set in stone and just another piece of the pie for us to sort out as training camps start.

For argument’s sake, let’s examine the Duke’s numbers leading up to 2017 and project moving forward what could be in store with an even more expanded passing role. We want clear, actionable data about his pass catching chances before starting the engine behind a fantasy hype train.

Career Recap

Through his first 2 seasons, Johnson has been utilized mostly as the 3rd down, check-down guy behind Isaiah Crowell. After watching game film all the way back from Duke’s rookie year (woohoo Browns circa 2015), it’s clear they toyed with the idea of using him in the slot as early as Week 1 against the Jets. Johnson in the slot isn’t new but definitely wasn’t emphasized last year with head coach Hugh Jackson.

Year Rush Attempts Rush Yards Targets Receptions Rec. Yards Yards Per Touch
2015 104 379 75 61 534 5.5
2016 73 358 74 53 514 6.9

The knock in terms of fantasy production has been the lack of scoring opportunities Johnson has found thus far. With Isaiah Crowell locked into the goal-line role coupled with the Browns low scoring ways, it’s been clear Duke has received very little red zone looks.

Despite seeing fewer opportunities, Johnson was even more efficient in 2016 ranking 3rd among all RBs in yards per touch (6.9). And while efficiency metrics aren’t the most repeatable year-to-year, it’s clear that when the ball does get in Johnson’s hands, he makes the most of it. According to PlayerProfiler, he ranked 2nd in juke rate among all RBs, which divides the number of broken tackles by number of touches. Overall, the Duke thus far has been an efficient yet low ceiling RB option specifically in PPR leagues. He finished as a top 12 RB once last year and a top 24 option only 6 times. If you drafted him in the last two years, he was most likely a rosterable yet hardly exciting startable option even at the FLEX.

Projecting the Duke for 2017

What could 2017 look like in terms of fantasy production if Johnson becomes a hybrid slot receiver?

Getty Images Sport / Jeff Gross / Stringer

In terms of targets, Johnson has already placed 5th and 6th respectively among RBs to start his career, an impressive feat given the fact he’s seen only 50% of snaps. If he’s lined up in the slot with regularity while also maintaining much of his 3rd down role, we can expect much more than a 13.53% target share.

We also must keep in mind that a reception in the slot is much different than out of the backfield. He won’t be Tavon Austin-level of receiver although both stand at a diminutive 5’9. However, we also cannot elevate him as a now unstoppable swiss army knife. The type of routes on his route tree as well as the separation needed against cornerbacks does change things in terms of his after-the-catch efficiency numbers. Johnson has excelled as an elusive back able to make defenders miss and gain yards after contact. To put this in perspective, take a look at a number of pass catching RBs from 2016:

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Player Target Share Targets Yards After Contact Per Touch
David Johnson 20.88% 120 1.3 (20th)
Le'Veon Bell 15.9% 96 1.5 (10th)
James White 16.15% 86 0.4 (79th)
Bilal Powell 13.84% 75 1.4 (15th)
Theo Riddick 11.44% 67 1.0 (45th)
LeSean McCoy 12.53% 58 1.5 (10th)
Duke Johnson 13.53% 74 1.9 (5th)

While one could assume that with a higher usage rate his yards per touch will decrease much like these other backs, it still leaves him in a pretty elite company in terms of volume. Ultimately, volume is king and what we are looking for from his 2017 campaign. A 15% target share is not out of the question and something seen by only 3 backs last year. The best comparisons might be the roles Danny Woodhead and Theo Riddick carved out in 2015 with both seeing over 15% of their team’s respective targets.

Player Year Rush Yards Targets Receptions Rec Yards Total TDs PPR Rank
Danny Woodhead 2015 335 107 81 756 9 RB3
Theo Riddick 2015 133 99 80 697 3 RB18
Duke Johnson 2017* 382 93 74 698 2 ?

*Projection

Woodhead and Riddick thrived in an overall down year for RBs and with teams who specialized in being horrific on the ground. The Chargers and Lions were the two worst in terms of rushing yards per game with backfields ridden with injuries and offensive lines unable to clear lanes. The biggest hindrance to Johnson hitting a monster total as a pass catcher could be the forecasted success in the running game with Crowell. “The Crow” has been pumped up all offseason by many fantasy experts to go along with an O-Line that Pro Football Focus rated as the 2nd best going into the season. Despite big free agent additions in the injury-plagued J.C. Tretter and former Bengal Kevin Zeitler, this is somewhat a lofty projection in my opinion given this unit ended 2016 as PFF’s 16th ranked unit.

Nevertheless, even if Duke’s rushing attempts remain in the 75-100 range as the change-of-pace back, my projections still like a RB capable of 1,000+ yards from scrimmage with a real shot at solid RB2 numbers in PPR leagues. Those projections would’ve placed him as RB19 among 2016’s RBs. However, we must temper these end-of-season projections given the fact that Johnson is more of a season-long compiler than a big weekly threat given his extremely low TD rate.

Conclusion

The Duke is a tasty late-round selection as the current 46th RB off the board in PPR drafts according to FantasyFootballCalculator. Expect him to creep up as we move closer to the preseason. However, as the projections show, he could easily return value for owners with the added upside of even more carries if Crowell were to go down. Hail to the Duke… as your 4th or 5th RB.