Going Deep: The Duke Johnson Trade
The Houston Texans have acquired Duke Johnson from the Cleveland Browns in exchange for a fourth-round pick that could become a third-round pick if he is active for 10 games this season. Johnson was rarely more than a desperation flex in Cleveland, but a change of scenery and coaching staff might unlock more fantasy potential in the 5th year running back.
Duke’s New Team
The initial thought is that Lamar Miller will retain the early-down snaps and Johnson would slot in as the pass-catching back. However, the Texans rarely utilize running backs in the passing game and only targeted them on 13.5% of passes in 2018 – the lowest rate in the league. In 2017 they ranked 28th (16.7%) and in 2016 they were 31st (14.4%), per fantasypros.com.
Instead of dumping off passes to his running backs, Deshaun Watson prefers to scramble or wait for deeper routes to develop. According to Next Gen Stats, he was tied for 3rd in time to throw (3.01 seconds) and 5th in average completed air yards (6.8 yards) last year. Holding on to the ball longer leads to more sacks, and the Texans lead the league in sacks allowed last year with 62. To keep Watson healthy they need him to make quick passes and take fewer hits.
Duke’s New Role
When Watson was forced to make a quick throw, he preferred to pass to slot receiver Keke Coutee, who received the second-most targets per game behind DeAndre Hopkins. Although he was a wide receiver, Coutee’s route charts looked more like that of a running back and very similar to Johnson’s charts.
This bodes well for Duke Johnson, as he was used as a slot receiver often by the Browns in 2017 when he lead the team in receptions. He’s even said he’d “rather be a slot receiver than a running back” in the past. If Keke Coutee’s knee injury causes him to miss significant time, expect Johnson to fill in as Watson’s beloved slot target.
Will Johnson be limited to catching passes out of the backfield and slot or is he competing for the starting job? His main and only competition for the RB1 spot is fellow University of Miami alum, Lamar Miller. Here are both of their career numbers:
Miller has Johnson beat in total rushing numbers, but Johnson is equally efficient on the ground and has better receiving stats. Duke Johnson also ranked 2nd in yards/play, 3rd in explosiveness, and 7th in play success rate on early-down rushes and targets the past three years (out of 62 qualifying RBs), per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis.
There are concerns about Duke Johnson’s durability under a starting running back workload, but he does have bell-cow experience. In his three years at Miami, he carried the ball 526 times and only missed time because of an unfortunate ankle fracture caused by two linemen falling on his leg. Johnson is listed as 5’9” 207 lbs, not much smaller than Lamar Miller who is 5’11” 218 lbs. Johnson is also three years younger and has 1,055 less NFL carries than Miller.
It was reported by Ian Rapoport that Bill O’Brien was the one on the phone making the trade with Browns’ GM John Dorsey. If the Texans pick conveys as a third-rounder, it will be the highest pick traded for a running back since the Colts traded a first-rounder for Trent Richardson in 2013. O’Brien spent starting running back trade capital for Duke Johnson.
Even if he is not the starting running back, Duke Johnson would still be valuable in fantasy. The Texans offense was 15th in total offense and 11th in points per game last year and should improve on both of those marks in 2019. With Johnson receiving consistent snaps and touches for the first time in his career, look for him to become a consistent flex play with potential RB2 upside in PPR.
His ADP has not had time to adjust to this news of his trade, but do not expect to get him for free anymore. He will probably be chosen around the same area as Austin Ekeler (ADP of 6.09 according to Fantasy Football Calculator) when all is said and done. If I were choosing between the two, I’d take the potential value in Duke Johnson.
(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)