Duke Johnson is Dynasty Gold

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Let’s begin this article with an exercise. Close your eyes (not really because then you would not be able to read this) and imagine the player I am describing.

In his first two years, he has totaled 1,793 total yards and three touchdowns on 178 rushing attempts and 114 receptions. In 2015, he finished as the RB23 in PPR formats and the RB30 in 2016. Throughout his career, he is averaging almost 10 fantasy points per game and just over one fantasy point per touch (his 1.14 fantasy points per touch in 2016 was good for 5th most among qualified running backs). Did I mention this player is in his third year, is only 24 years old, and is being taken in the middle of the 8th round in dynasty startups?

By now, you are probably drooling over this player’s production, price, and age, only to find out this player is none other than Cleveland Browns RB Duke Johnson. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Over the past two years, Johnson has been a quiet fantasy producer, but a consistent one. Johnson has seen five or more receptions in 18 of his first 32 games. Furthermore, he has recorded at least eight fantasy points in only 22 of his first 32 games. This shows you Johnson’s reliability on a weekly basis with a high floor due to his work in the passing game. So what makes Duke Johnson synonymous with fantasy gold? Let's take a look.

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The Present

Looking now to 2017, Duke Johnson and the Browns have five games under their belts. In those five games, Johnson has totaled 347 yards and three touchdowns on 16 rushes and 23 receptions. At this pace, Johnson is on track to have the best season of his young career, totaling over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns, with most of that production coming in the passing game. This may come as no surprise, given that the Browns utilize Johnson as their primary slot receiver. Additionally, given Johnson’s role and skillset, his production is game script-proof, meaning he is on the field regardless of the score. This is extremely beneficial to Johnson owners, who do not have to worry about his touches dropping when the Browns fall behind in games.

Because of his role, Johnson has already eclipsed 20 fantasy points twice and tallied three top-12 performances in 2017. Despite that, some people might be questioning the ceiling for Johnson as true dual threat given the presence of fellow back Isaiah Crowell. Heading into this season, Crowell was hyped up by many analysts in the community, myself included. While I continue to be extremely high on Crowell’s outlook, I recognize his ceiling is capped due to game script. As mentioned before, this is not the case with Duke Johnson, given his primary role as a slot receiver who doubles as a running back. We already see this unfolding at the start of the 2017 season when looking at snap counts for each back.

As you can see from the graph above, the distribution of weekly snap counts is relatively the same through the first three weeks and Week 5. Week 4 is where we see the biggest difference in snap counts. In that week, the Browns were losing the entire game, even as bad as 31-0 in the fourth quarter. This drastically shifted the Browns focus away from the run (and Isaiah Crowell) into a pass-heavy offense, much more suited for Duke Johnson.

Another point of emphasis is the percentage of offensive snaps each back is playing, shown in the graph by the numbers above each bar. You will notice that after Week 1, both Crowell and Johnson have played on around 50% of the Browns offensive snaps each week. This was surprising to me more for Duke Johnson than Isaiah Crowell. Since the Browns have never held a lead in 2017, I would believe Johnson would be on the field more as a pass-catcher. This has not been the case in 2017, but can be a positive for Johnson’s outlook in the future. If Johnson were to receive more snaps on a weekly basis, his volume should increase as well, leading to a potential 250-touch back in the near future.

Additionally, Isaiah Crowell has struggled through the first five weeks, especially compared to Duke Johnson. Through Weeks 1-5, Crowell is the PPR RB40, behind players like Charcandrick West, Jerick McKinnon, and Shane Vereen. On the other hand, Johnson is the PPR RB7 through five weeks, ahead of players like LeSean McCoy, Carlos Hyde, and Ameer Abdullah.

Looking at the graph above, we can get a clearer sense of just how much better Johnson has been compared to Crowell on a weekly basis. In all but one week, Johnson has more than tripled Crowell’s fantasy production. In fact, Johnson has also been the better back on the field as well. Here is how the two players stack up through the first five weeks of the season:

Despite Crowell being the main running back, Johnson has averaged more yards per carry and scored one more rushing touchdown than Crowell. When it comes to the passing game, Johnson is by far the premier player and the stats show it.

 

The Future

Despite his performance on the field, Browns head coach Hue Jackson has stated that Crowell is their feature running back. Both Jackson and OC Kirby Wilson view Johnson as a satellite back and a passing-downs specialist. This is extremely frustrating for Johnson owners who have been waiting for Johnson to receive more volume as a runner to complement his pass-catching abilities. Through Johnson’s first two seasons, he is averaging 1.07 fantasy points per touch. When Johnson exceeds 10 or more touches in a game, he is averaging just under 13 fantasy points per game. When Johnson sees 15 or more touches, he is averaging almost 18 fantasy points per game.

Finally, through the first five weeks on the season, Johnson is actually being underutilized compared to his first two seasons. Looking at the table below, you will notice that while Johnson is on pace to play more snaps in 2017, he is seeing less touches per snap. If Johnson saw touches at his career average of 28.5% of his snaps, he would be on pace for 185 touches in 2017. Even if he saw touches on 25% of his snaps, he would still be on pace for 163 touches. While Johnson is currently the RB7 in PPR formats on an 19.6% touch rate, imagine his fantasy production with even more touches. Given 163 touches at his 1.07 fantasy points per touch average, Johnson would be on pace for 174 fantasy points in 2017, good for a low-end RB2 in 2016. I think I speak for all Duke Johnson owners when I say, “GIVE DUKE MORE TOUCHES!”

From a dynasty aspect, Johnson is still an appealing player. He is a 24-year-old running back who doubles as a slot receiver, giving him a safe weekly floor in PPR formats. Despite having finished inside the top-30 in his first two seasons, Johnson can be had on the cheap, but the window is quickly closing; he is currently on pace to finish as a top-10 fantasy running back in 2017. Johnson offers you a safe weekly RB3 floor with RB1 upside. He offers substantial standalone value while also serving as Isaiah Crowell’s primary handcuff. Should Crowell miss any significant time, Johnson would be in line for a major increase in volume. Buy Johnson now before his price catches up to his production and you miss out on a potential dynasty goldmine.

 

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