Passing fancy: Cleveland Browns running backs returning to passing game


Sep 28, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes running back Duke Johnson (8) runs with the ball during the first quarter against the South Florida Bulls at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Browns have a long and productive history of incorporating running backs into the passing game.

Hall-of-Famer Bobby Mitchell averaged 11 yards per reception and scored 16 touchdowns in four years with the Browns in the 1960s. Greg Pruitt had 323 receptions and 19 touchdowns in his nine years with the Browns. Eric Metcalf averaged more than nine yards a catch and scored 15 touchdowns over his six years in Orange and Brown. Herman Fontenot averaged almost 11 yards per reception over four years.

When you take a look at the single-season records list, both Pruitts and Metcalf are in the top 20 in receptions with 60-plus each As recently as 2010, Peyton Hillis caught 61 passes out of the backfield.

The Browns have lost their way in recent years when it comes to throwing the ball to their running backs, bottoming out last season as Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell and Ben Tate (before he was released) combined to catch just 29 passes. Overall, the running backs were last in the NFL trailing, 12 receptions behind San Francisco. In addition, West was the only running back to catch a touchdown pass and he only did that once.

But that looks to be changing under first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who wants to return the running backs to the passing game.

“What’s really undervalued with Duke is his hands. He’s great out of the backfield.” – Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo

“That’s going to be something that we do,” DeFilippo told The News-Herald. “Is that something we are going to major in? We’ll see how good we get at it, but that’s something we will have in the package, yes.”

The recommitment to throwing to the running backs was evident on draft day when the Browns selected Miami running back Duke Johnson, who had 38 receptions for the Hurricanes in 2014 – more than all the Browns running backs combined. Over his last two seasons with Miami, Johnson caught 65 passes for 642 yards.

“The thing about Duke you notice first on tape is obviously his explosiveness and how he can run the football. What’s really undervalued with Duke is his hands,” DeFilippo told the team’s website. “He’s great out of the backfield. He can run a choice route for you and he can beat a linebacker or DB one-on-one in a pass route. I think again, the versatility of our players we drafted is going to show on the field.”

Johnson rushed for 1,652 yards last season and finished his four-year college career as the Hurricanes’ all-time leading rusher – ahead of Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Frank Gore and Alonzo Highsmith, names you may be familiar with – so he should be an asset in the running game. But his biggest impact could come as a receiver.

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“I want to give us another dimension on offense,” Johnson told the team’s website after a recent workout. “It could help us out with mismatches, when need be. I think I came out here and showed what I can do, and I had fun with the guys.”

Johnson’s versatility and willingness to do whatever the team needs is what made him attractive to the Browns on draft day.

“He’s got a unique skill set that will affect our roster in multiple ways,” general manager Ray Farmer said. “We love the fact that he’s quick and agile. One of my favorite things that I’ve watched is you watch the kid run through trash and if guys are on the ground, he’ll jump over people, hit the ground and make a cut and keep balance. A lot of good things we like from him.”

Farmer’s willingness to draft a player that fits into what DeFilippo wants to do on offense is also a positive sign that the Browns are done selecting players and then forcing them into roles they are not suited for.

The Browns have a long history of using their running backs in the passing game, and Johnson could be the team’s next explosive weapon.

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