Why Duke Johnson is a League Winner in 2019
When the Houston Texans waived running back D’Onta Foreman last week, many speculated on how their backfield would be impacted. Would Lamar Miller become a true three-down back? Would Damarea Crockett, Karan Higdon, or another relative unknown emerge? With the subsequent acquisition of Duke Johnson from the Cleveland Browns last Thursday, the answer to both questions became a resounding “no.” Miller’s role will not change. He will remain the early-down back in Houston and is still a fantasy asset. Miller is a solid high-floor running back who can still be had at a relative discount. But I believe Duke Johnson will prove to be an even bigger bargain in fantasy football leagues this season.
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Why Duke Johnson is a Great 2019 Value
Last season, Duke Johnson had career-low marks in rushing attempts, rushing yards, receptions, and receiving yards. Despite that, he still finished 37th among running backs in PPR scoring. He had finished 23rd, 30th, and 11th in his previous three years. Johnson is being drafted 58th among running backs in PPR leagues on Fantrax. Now, I will admit that ADP data may be a bit skewed. Since Fantrax is awesome and has leagues forming virtually every day of the year, anyone drafting after the middle of February may have been scared off by Johnson potentially being relegated to third-string status with a returning Kareem Hunt in November. Still, recent ADP trends suggest Johnson is usually available around the 10th round. I believe that is far too low for a player with Johnson’s potential in a potent offense.
Johnson’s three top-30 PPR seasons all took place on Cleveland teams that ranked in the bottom three in the NFL in points scored. Houston has all the makings of a top-10 offense this year. The Texans have plenty of mouths to feed, but I think this is a good thing for Johnson. Defenses will not be able to key in on him when he enters the ballgame. DeAndre Hopkins always demands a lot of attention as an elite NFL wide receiver. Perimeter threat Will Fuller averaged the 18th highest aDOT (average depth of target) among receivers with at least 40 targets last season. Keke Coutee will man the slot, and quarterback Deshaun Watson is always a threat to run the ball. With so many dynamic players around him, Johnson will have one-on-one opportunities all over the field. This is an area where he truly excels.
Since joining the NFL in 2015, Johnson is second among all running backs in forced missed tackles per reception. He also ranks fourth in percentage of receptions which resulted in either a first down or touchdown. Johnson is also seventh in yards per route run during his career. Those stats are courtesy of Pro Football Focus, who gave Johnson the fifth-best receiving grade among running backs during that timeframe, at 90.9. Lamar Miller’s PFF passing grade last year was 49.7. Miller has 92 receptions in 44 games as a Texan. This is not going to be the year he suddenly reaches 50 receptions for the first time in his career. Johnson will be Houston’s pass-catching running back and has already proven what he can accomplish in a similar role.
In each of his four seasons in the league, Pro Football Focus has given Johnson a top-nine elusive rating among running backs with at least 80 touches. Lamar Miller is… not elusive. Miller has forced 62 missed tackles on 499 touches over the last two seasons. Johnson has forced 59 missed tackles in 243 touches in the same span. If you think that discrepancy is solely a byproduct of Johnson’s prowess in the passing game, you would be mistaken. Since 2017, Johnson has forced 27 missed tackles on 122 rushing attempts, for an average of 22.1 percent. Miller has forced just 52 missed tackles on 448 rushes (11.6 percent). Sure, Miller sees a lot more stacked defensive fronts than Johnson. But it shows that Johnson has some legitimate rushing chops. This is significant because I think Johnson will earn a larger rushing role than most are expecting.
Critics view Johnson as a scatback type, but he is not exactly slight of build. Johnson is 5’9” and weighs 210 pounds. For reference, Alvin Kamara is 5’10” and 215. Christian McCaffrey stands 5’11” and weighs 205. Concerns about Kamara and McCaffrey being able to handle full workloads were soundly squashed last season. Per Warren Sharp, Johnson ranks second in yards per play, third in explosiveness, and seventh in success rate out of 62 running backs on early-down rushes and targets since 2016. I would not go so far as to say Johnson should be a lead back in the NFL. His seven fumbles in 299 career rushing attempts are problematic, to say the least. But Houston would not have been willing to part with a mid-round pick for a player they do not plan on utilizing in a significant manner.
Texans head coach Bill O’Brien has seen enough of Lamar Miller over their time together to know what he is. Before last season, Miller’s yards per carry had decreased in three consecutive seasons. Miller enjoyed a more efficient year in 2018 in part because O’Brien has reduced Miller’s workload. In 2016, O’Brien saddled Miller with 21.4 touches per game. That number dropped down to 16.8 in 2018. Miller is now 28 years of age, and I see no reason for that trend not to continue. I would not be surprised to see Duke Johnson set a career-high in touches in 2019.
Last season, Houston’s backup running back, Alfred Blue, had 150 carries. And that number is not overly inflated by Miller having missed two games. Blue carried the ball a total of 24 times in his two starts. That means he still averaged nine carries per game in the 14 games he backed Miller up. If Johnson were to see anywhere near nine carries a game in addition to his receiving role, he would have RB1 upside in PPR formats. If that sounds crazy, remember that James White and Tarik Cohen finished 2018 as PPR RB1s with fewer than 100 carries each. Johnson himself finished as an RB1 in 2017 with a total of 82 carries. Christian McCaffrey was an RB1 in 2017 with 117 rushing attempts.
I firmly believe an RB1 finish is within Duke Johnson’s range of outcomes. Even if he falls short of that perch, he still makes for an excellent selection in fantasy drafts. Owners have begun to draft Johnson a bit sooner following the trade. But the former University of Miami product is still being severely undervalued. Recent ADP data has Johnson as a borderline top-40 running back in PPR leagues. I think that is a worst-case scenario. There is every reason to believe he at least gets back to being a top-30 PPR running back. For those employing a Zero-RB approach, Johnson is an ideal mid-round target. I wouldn’t mind reaching up to the seventh or eighth round to grab him. I think Duke Johnson will be on a lot of league-winning rosters this season.
Mick Ciallela has been writing for FantraxHQ since July 2017. He has also written for Bleacher Report. He is a lifelong sports fan and has been an avid fantasy sports player for many years. Mick was the Overall Champion of both the 2016 Football Challenge – Roto and 2017 Play 3 Football contests hosted by CDM Sports. Mick was born and raised in Mount Vernon, New York and currently resides in New London, Connecticut.
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