Salary Cap Economics May Force the Browns to Drop Duke Johnson

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 23: Duke Johnson #29 of the Cleveland Browns carries the ball in front of Vontaze Burfict #55 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 23: Duke Johnson #29 of the Cleveland Browns carries the ball in front of Vontaze Burfict #55 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) /

Duke Johnson’s contract pays him too much to be a third-string running back with the Cleveland Browns and could lead to his departure

The Cleveland Browns may part ways with Duke Johnson, as somehow they find themselves in an insane salary cap situation, which calls for them to pay him $13.8 million over the next three years. That’s a lot of money to pay a player who projects to be the third-string running back and occasional slot receiver.

The Duke will be operating behind Nick Chubb, the sensational rookie from Georgia, and at some point, he will be joined by Kareem Hunt who is due to get suspended for alleged violence-related issues. When Hunt does join the team, he will give the Browns two backs capable of playing at the Pro Bowl level.

Moreover, rookie Dontrell Hilliard made the most of his limited opportunities in 2018, catching nine balls out of ten targets out of the backfield, which is a very high percentage.  Maybe the kid might be pushing Johnson for his job in 2019.

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Johnson gained over 1,000 all purpose  yards in both 2016 and 2017, and led the team in receiving yards in their 0-16 season in 2017. He was the best position player by far from the 2017 team, especially since there was no way to re-sign disgruntled free agent Isaiah Crowell.

At the time, it probably made sense to reward Johnson with a three year contract extension worth $15.6 million, even though he would not have been a restricted free agent until the following year.

That sent a positive message to the rest of the team, and it made pragmatic sense. Without the extension, the likely prospect would be that Johnson would have become a restricted free agent in 2019, and the presumption was that Johnson was going to be due for a major pay hike in 2019, so why not preempt it with an extension, lock him up early, and make everyone happy?

The problem was that his performance faded in 2018.  The acquisition of Jarvis Landry meant that there was not much need for Johnson to play in the slot, and Nick Chubb was so hungry to be fed the ball that there were fewer opportunities in the backfield as well, even after Carlos Hyde left in a minor trade.  No matter how good Johnson actually is, it is very hard to justify spending millions on a third string running back.

Johnson’s cap number is $3.05 million for 2019. Of this amount, the Browns could recover $800,000 by cutting or trading him. However, a trading partner would have to be willing to take on his 2019 salary of $1.8 million, plus roster and workout bonuses amounting to $500,000.

That might have seemed reasonable when the contract was signed, but now that is a very high number. Johnson, after all, did not take many snaps in place of Carlos Hyde, and Hyde impressed no one last year except Todd Haley. So Johnson just did not impress anyone as a threat to be the number one back. Some team would probably like to audition Johnson in the slot, but can you see any team willing to anoint him as the starter? If not it is very hard to justify $2.3 million for a second string or situational player.

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Another problem is that Johnson’s 2020 salary balloons to $3.6 Million plus another $500,000 in roster and workout bonuses that the new team would be on the hook for. That $4.1 million total price tag absolutely requires that Johnson and his agent must be willing to renegotiate his salary or he is exclusively a one year rental. That really harms his trade value.

These “balloon contracts” are what get teams into trouble with the salary cap.  \It looks great in year one, but as the salary increases year over year, eventually the team has to cut ties. Too many of these contracts can cause a team to fall apart.

In the salary cap age, Johnson has become an “overvalued asset,” or one who is paid more than he is worth. He essentially is of negative value to a new team, if he brings his present contract with him. It’s similar to the situation with Brock Osweiler, in which he was viewed as so grossly overpaid that the Houston Texans gave the Browns a second round draft pick just to pick up the check for his salary. indicates that Duke’s salary for 2019 become guaranteed on March 15. That means that the Browns are on the hook for an additional $1.8 Million if he is cut. That’s a lot of money for a third string running back and backup slot. Perhaps they can trade him for someone else’s overpaid player, or the most likely outcome is that they will simply cut him before March 15.

And now some editorial advice for Cleveland fans:  don’t blame Duke Johnson for his contract. The kid has given everything he could to the Cleveland Browns and has always put out 100 percent on the field. In the dark days of 1-31, he was one of the few stars on offense. If he is overpaid, that is the responsibility of the General Manager, John Dorsey.

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Duke’s contract to some degree made sense when it was signed, locking up early a player who was regarded as an emerging star.  He is still a top third down or change-of-pace running back, and  it would not be a shock to see him re-emerge as a slot receiver for his next team.