The Cleveland Browns have several items to check off this summer during training camp and the preseason.
At the top of the list is filling the open position at right guard. They also need to round out the second unit on the defensive line and work on the configuration of the defensive secondary.
General manager John Dorsey may also have to do something about running back Duke Johnson, who is entering his fifth season with the team and is currently seeking a trade.
Johnson has been a bit of an enigma since joining the Browns as a third-round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft. On the one hand he always seems to make something happen when he has the ball, and he set a franchise record for receptions by a running back with 74 in 2017.
But he has also seen his opportunities decline each year, from 104 rushing opportunities his rookie year to just 40 last season, as the Browns have worked to improve the running game. And after being targeted an average of 80 times a year in the passing game his first three seasons, Johnson only had 62 passes thrown his way last year and that number will likely decrease this year with wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. now on the roster.
Johnson has shown up every week — never missing a game so far in his NFL career — and signed a contract extension with the Browns last summer despite experiencing firsthand the 1-31 nonsense of former head coach Hue Jackson.
Now, with the emergence of running back Nick Chubb in the rushing game, the eventual return of running back Kareem Hunt from an eight-game suspension, and the elevation of the wide receiver group, Johnson is looking for a new opportunity somewhere other than Cleveland.
So what is Dorsey to do?
Befitting a player that three head coaches (two full time and one interim) could never figure out what to do with, exactly, the options are all over the board regarding Johnson’s future.
There is the measured approach, as championed by Scott Petrak at The Chronicle-Telegram:
I’ve changed my mind about Johnson. Not about him as a player. Or a teammate. But whether the Browns should trade him. After Johnson’s trade request became public April 1, I thought it would be in the best interest of the Browns and Johnson for Dorsey to make a deal, even if he didn’t get fair value — a fourth-round pick or quality player — in return. With the Browns seemingly on the cusp of something special, any distraction seemed unnecessary. But with the passage of time and the return of Johnson for mandatory minicamp last week, I’ve decided the Browns are better off keeping him.
There is the “let’s move on already” approach, presented by Mary Kay Cabot at cleveland.com:
When your quarterback starts calling you out and your agent’s legendary rapper husband claps back, you’ve reached the point of no return. That’s exactly where the Browns and Duke Johnson are right now: It’s over and it’s in the best interests of both sides to part ways as soon as possible.
Bonus points for letting Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew help fuel your opinion:
Fuck @bakermayfield for saying that dumb s*** about Duke Johnson . I guarantee you you be the one to divide this locker room up you are not in Texas at Cracker Barrel— Luther Luke Campbell (@unclelukereal1) June 5, 2019
Finally, there is the unhinged argument of cutting Johnson and getting nothing in return to … send a message? … as presented by Nate Davis at USA Today:
If I were Cleveland Browns GM John Dorsey, I wouldn’t trade Duke Johnson, either. I’d cut him. Yesterday. Unceremoniously even — maybe with a 10-word press release transmitted to the backup running back and his agent via ESPN’s ticker. Seriously, the nerve of this guy.
So back to the original question: what should the Browns do with Johnson?
Releasing him is absurd and should be a complete non-starter if anyone within the halls of Browns HQ were to ever bring it up. Johnson may no longer have a role on the Browns, but it is silly to try and argue that he is not a viable NFL player. He’s tough, reliable and is an asset in the passing game.
Saying the Browns should trade him for whatever they can get to eliminate a “distraction” is a bit disingenuous. Johnson’s trade request is only a distraction if the media continues to bring it up to the coaches and players which, when you think about it, makes the media the distraction.
Johnson has said he will not cause trouble and there is nothing in his time with the Browns to indicate that he is being dishonest. It’s true that his time in Cleveland may be winding down, but that doesn’t mean that Dorsey should not maximize his value.
Which brings us to option three, which is to keep Johnson on the roster — at least for now.
It is likely that a team will find itself in need of a running back near the end of the preseason due to an injury or an unexpected turn of events with a player. When that day comes, Dorsey can then look to make a deal on even ground.
Waiting will also give the Browns more opportunities to see what second-year running back Dontrell Hilliard can bring to the field. The coaching staff seems pretty high on Hilliard’s ability, but he only had nine receptions and zero rushing attempts last season, so maybe it would be prudent to see a bit more of what he can do before reaching any conclusions.
If nothing materializes before the start of the regular season, the Browns can simply keep Johnson on the roster and make the best of the situation. Hunt will not return until the second half of the season, and even though it will be the Chubb and Hunt show from that point forward, the Browns could use a player like Johnson in the early part of the season.