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Duke Johnson Is Fantasy-Relevant Once Again

I was facing a dilemma in one of my fantasy leagues last week with Patriots rookie Sony Michel (knee) questionable to play in the Sunday night game. Should I risk rolling with him and then possibly having to pick up Cordarrelle Patterson or Jamaal Williams at the last minute if Michel was inactive?

My other option was to bench Michel in favor of Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson. I really didn't want to have to go that route, but I had to consider it. I even scoured the waiver wire to look for other potential flex options -- I briefly considered Bears rookie wideout Anthony Miller and even Redskins receiver Paul Richardson (gasp!).

I came to my senses and decided to bench Michel and start Johnson. I thought, Cleveland is playing the one-loss Chiefs, who will probably blow the Browns out, right? That should mean a lot more work for Johnson, I thought. My thinking was correct, as Johnson caught a season-high nine passes (nine targets) for 78 yards and his first two touchdowns of the year. It worked out well for me, although I still wound up losing my matchup (thanks Bears defense). The question now becomes, can we expect more of this out of Johnson the rest of the way or was this more of a one-week outlier?

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Where Was He This Whole Time?

Let's be clear: Johnson has only really been a consideration in point-per-reception fantasy leagues. His skill set makes him much more attractive as a pass-catcher out in space out of the backfield. He had 104 rushing attempts in his rookie season in 2015 but dipped to 73 in his sophomore year and had 82 attempts last season.

But we knew that when the 2018 season started, Johnson's opportunities would be few and far between after Carlos Hyde was added to the backfield and Nick Chubb was drafted in the second round. There was still some faint hope that Johnson would be involved enough to make him fantasy-relevant, since Chubb and Hyde are more in the mold of between-the-tackles runners on early downs.

That didn't happen, though, as Hyde was used as the workhorse with Chubb and Johnson fighting for mere scraps behind him. In the first six games, Johnson ran the ball just 19 times and caught 14 passes. The logjam in the backfield had rendered Johnson useless, even though Cleveland needed a jolt in the passing game behind Jarvis Landry.

Then came the trade of Hyde. That would surely open up more opportunities for the team to use Johnson's skills. Think again. In the two games following Hyde's trade, Johnson ran the ball three times and caught six passes. A failure to jump-start the offense led to the firing of both head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Good riddance.


Johnson's Case As An RB2 Moving Forward

It's not a coincidence that in the first game without Jackson and Haley running the show on offense, Johnson had by far his best game of the season. Game script helped, too, as the Browns were trailing by multiple scores throughout the contest against a shaky defense.

Interim head coach Gregg Williams is a defensive mind, so most of the offensive game-planning will fall to new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens. It also helps that Kitchens, who spent 11 seasons with the Cardinals and worked under bright offensive mind Bruce Arians, was previously a running backs coach.

Going into Week 9 against the Chiefs, it was believed that Kitchens would tailor the offense more to fit rookie QB Baker Mayfield's strengths, something that both Jackson and Haley failed to do. Using the running backs more, which is Kitchens' forte, will surely take pressure off of Mayfield in his rookie season.

Mayfield thrived in an Air Raid offense at the University of Oklahoma, so expect Kitchens to get more creative, use the running backs more and spread things out to avoid playing more of a traditional offense that was implemented under Haley. That will all favor Johnson moving forward and significantly raise his fantasy ceiling.

Besides, why wouldn't you want to get Johnson more involved? I'd argue that he's their most dynamic, elusive and versatile weapon on offense. The numbers back it up, too. Through nine weeks, Johnson averages 5.0 yards per carry on the ground and 9.7 yards per catch through the air. In his four seasons in the NFL, he's averaging 4.3 yards per carry and 9.3 yards per reception.

The former University of Miami product should see more carries now that Hyde is gone, but he'll continue to make his money catching passes. The Browns need favorable game script for Johnson to consistently see targets in the passing game, but that shouldn't be a problem the rest of the way.

Looking at Cleveland's remaining schedule, Johnson and the Browns have a dream matchup right away in Week 10 against the Falcons, who allow the third most fantasy points per week (30.8) to the running back position. They've especially been vulnerable to pass-catching running backs like Johnson. Cleveland should be trailing in that game as well.

The Bengals remain on Cleveland's ledger for two games, including Week 16 (fantasy championship week in most leagues). Cincy allows the fifth-most fantasy points on average to the running back position. While the Panthers could present a problem in Week 14, Johnson will get another favorable matchup on the road in Denver in Week 15.

It's very possible, if not likely, that Cleveland will be trailing often (possibly by multiple scores) in the rest of their games. That means that the Browns will have no choice but to utilize Johnson more like they did in Week 9 as opposed to how the former coaching staff kept him in bubble wrap in the first eight games of the season.

In PPR formats, there's a legitimate reason to believe that he can be a solid RB2 the rest of the way now that Jackson and Haley are out of his way. At the very least, he'll be a great weapon in your back pocket as an RB3/flex. Johnson is owned in just half of fantasy leagues right now. His ownership is bound to skyrocket after his two-touchdown Week 9. Hopefully, you can snag him off your waiver wire. If not, it wouldn't hurt to dangle a buy-low offer to an owner who isn't ready to believe in Johnson's revival just yet.

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