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Is Duke Johnson Ready for the Big Time?

The fantasy football community was sent into a tailspin over the weekend with two major pieces of news. Of course, we have all heard about the Andrew Luck retirement and its ramifications. But Texans RB Lamar Miller was lost for the 2019 season due to a torn ACL. With many drafts already come and gone, it sent owners scrambling to their team page to see if they were hit with the news. If you dodged the bullet in either case, consider yourself lucky.

Now with Lamar Miller on the sidelines, the question becomes how will the Texans backfield shake out? Many unproven talents are vying for the starting RB job. Among them are Josh Ferguson, Buddy Howell, and rookies Karan Higdon and Damarea Crockett. The two rookies have been gaining steam throughout the preseason, but are likely not ready for a large piece of the workload.

The player that has everyone buzzing right now is the newly acquired Duke Johnson. But what does he truly bring to the table for fantasy owners now that he finally has a chance for a bigger role, as he has always craved?

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Underused Efficiency

Since being drafted in 2015 to the Cleveland Browns, Johnson has been largely viewed as a pass-catching third-down specialist. His lowest reception total coming just last season with only 47 as the team began to phase him out of the gameplan and give a majority of the workload to Nick Chubb. During his time in Cleveland, Johnson has been a usable commodity in fantasy due to his skills as a PPR asset, finishing as high as RB11 in 2017 with 74 receptions on the year. Outside of that season, he has been a consistent option as an RB3/Flex play.

But now with Miller gone, can we expect for Johnson to become more of a featured back in the NFL? History in the league would tell us no. His 104 carries in his rookie season are the most that he has had in four seasons. Over the last two seasons, he has only carried the ball 122 times. The argument can be made that he has fresh legs and would be able to withstand an increase in workload. He has shown in the past that he can handle a three-down job during his days in college (242 carries in 2014).

The 2018 season for Johnson was a bit of an up and down year from a statistical standpoint. His 87 touches accounted for only 20% in the Browns backfield that consisted of Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb. But in those 87 touches, he ranked third in the league in yards after contact at 4.13. So you could say that he should have demanded more usage in the backfield with that type of elusiveness.

His 1.47 points per touch was also a stat that ranked high among other backs in fantasy a season ago. Putting him ahead of players like Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey. Am I making the case that Johnson is on the same level as those players? Not at all, but what that shows is that Johnson could be a player with untapped potential and the Texans could be smart to feature him for the 2019 season.


RB1? Not So Fast

But such is the case in today's NFL, a player such as Johnson is likely to not see a bell-cow job just handed to him due to the injury of the incumbent starter. He deserves the chance to show the team what he can do and with the way things ended in Cleveland, he could be playing with a large chip on his shoulder. How I expect for this situation to play out is for the Texans to watch the waiver wire very closely over the next week for some talented backs to be shown the door.

Players like Carlos Hyde and LeSean McCoy are the two names to watch in particular. They will bring a veteran presence for HC Bill O'Brien to use in the backfield. This team is poised to make a run in the playoffs and he may not be comfortable riding out the season relying on an unproven rusher such as Johnson. So to answer the question that I pose in the title of the article, I do think that Johnson has the capabilities to be ready for the big time as a three-down NFL back. But with the possibilities that the Texans likely make this a shared backfield, it's hard to buy in on Johnson as his draft stock is already skyrocketing.

Since the Miller injury on Saturday, Johnson has already been seen creeping up into the early stages of the fifth round in drafts. That puts him in the range with players like Tevin Coleman, Miles Sanders, and Austin Ekeler. Where things stand right now, drafting Johnson could be a cautionary tale as we don't have all of the story quite yet. If the team decides to go with what they have into the season, Johnson could rise from his RB3 value up into high-end RB2 territory.

If you have a draft coming up, keep an eye out on all of the news. For dynasty owners, strike while the iron is hot with Johnson. His value will never be any higher than it is now based on the perception. At least throw some offers out there to gauge the interest of RB needy owners in your league.

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