Duke Johnson believes his football career would be better with another team, but the Cleveland Browns won’t cut him for a team like Pittsburgh to sign him.
Duke Johnson sincerely believes that his football career would progress better with another organization, but that does not mean that he is a clubhouse cancer, and it certainly does not mean that the Cleveland Browns should subsidize him to go play for the Pittsburgh Steelers or New England Patriots, or other teams that could come back to ruin the Browns 2019 season.
Duke Johnson can still serve a useful role for the Browns on the field, and even if he can’t, he serves a purpose by sitting on the bench and not playing for a team that the Browns need to beat this year.
Let’s stop paying Pittsburgh Steelers players right now.
Fans and even the national media have called for Duke to be cut from the team. They are wrong.
That is not happening for three reasons. First, the window for getting money back has closed. On March 15, Johnson’s 2019 salary becomes fully guaranteed, with a total commitment of $4.05 million spread over two seasons. Thus, the Browns do not get any money back if they cut him, but they can get up to $1.8 million back if they trade him, according to OverTheCap.com.
Thus there is no financial incentive now that the deadline has passed to cut Duke Johnson. There was an incentive to cut him prior to March 15 (and in fact this analyst thought he would be gone), but that window is now closed. They can trade him now and transfer his salary, but cannot recover any money by cutting him. till after the season.
The second reason is that if they were to cut Johnson, they would lose control over where he winds up. By cutting Duke, he gets to negotiate a new contract over and above his 2019 money which is now fully guaranteed. If he has a vendetta against the Browns, they would risk having him sign with the Steelers, Ravens or Bengals or an AFC team that could make the playoffs (hello Patriots), and help them to beat the Browns. Is that punishment? Giving him a pay raise and letting him play for a Browns’ opponent? And the Browns get charged four million dollars? Why is it punishment to give him exactly what he wants: a new start with a new team, plus a pay raise?
Third, there is a good chance that the Browns front office will find a suitable trade partner in the NFC, which would alleviate up to $1.8 million in salary cap charges, and possibly provide a draft pick in return.
Anyway, Duke is not a cancer, so let’s stop that narrative right now. Baker Mayfield called him out for whining to the media too much, rightly so. There has been some backlash from the veterans who want to remind young Mayfield of the unwritten rules of football. Namely, you don’t interfere with contract squabbles. Always support your teammates, blah, blah, blah.
But in this case it’s not about Duke wanting more money, it’s about changing his role with the team. Duke in effect would like to be the offensive coordinator and call his own number more often. That’s not going to happen and he might as well hear it from Mayfield. He’s also heard it from coach Freddie Kitchens via Aditi Kinkhabwala of the NFL Network.
"“I want to win the lottery. It doesn’t matter. He’s under contract. He’s a Cleveland Brown. He’s going to be used to the best of his ability in what benefits the team.”"
Johnson has played his heart out for the Browns and has never missed a game in four years, has 3,456 yards from scrimmage, and has a 4.3 yards per carry career average. That’s not as good as Nick Chubb or Kareem Hunt, but it is very good.
In that regard, can you name the Browns running back last year who had the most offensive snaps in 2018? If you guessed Nick Chubb or Carlos Hyde, you’d be wrong. It was Johnson, with 459 snaps, compared to 395 for Chubb and 237 for Hyde. Johnson was used mainly to set up the screen pass and block blitzing defenders, and he did his job well.
Mayfield stayed upright most of the last eight games, although he hit his wide receivers much more consistently than his predecessor, DeShone Kizer. With Mayfield dealing, the ball came out in a hurry to the wide receivers and there was less need to use the safety valve outlet screen pass to the halfback in the flat. Fewer opportunities for Johnson, in this case, does not mean that he got worse. Rather, there were other targets that were open in 2018.
Cancer? More like mild indigestion. The Duke is on the up and up, although he and his agent are a bit fanciful if they think he is going to get more snaps and a pay raise by pouting. For 2019, he is getting better than average starter money and his position is somewhere between second string and fourth string among Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and Dontrell Hilliard. But with Hunt on vacation for the first eight games at the invitation of Commissioner Goodell, Johnson should have every opportunity to continue his role established last year.
Johnson will be a backup at halfback and also has a shot to be second string at the slot behind Jarvis Landry. Right now it looks like he will be excess baggage when Hunt is activated in Game 9, but that is a long time away. Things might change. Why not wait to see if some other team might find itself short of running backs and make a good deal for him? If not, get as much as you can from him on the field, but do not pay him to play for a rival.
The worst case is if Johnson sulks and just sits on the bench. If he does, so what? At least he is not playing for the Steelers.
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This is not the first time that a player has been upset with his diminished role. Part of the problem is that Johnson has an escalating contract, which automatically creates problems like this. That is, the salary starts smaller in year one but becomes higher every year. The idea is that the player is incentivized to improve and earn those pay raises, becoming a Pro Bowler or close to it. But on the other hand, that escalating salary is an incentive for the team to cut the player. The team can afford a four million dollar salary for a guy who gets 1,000 yards from scrimmage. However, that’s way out of line for a third or fourth string running back. Even worse, whoever employs Duke is on the hook for $3.6 million next year. He needs to repeat his 2017 season, gaining 1,000 yards from scrimmage, in order to come close to justifying that salary.
By not cutting Johnson back in March, John Dorsey is betting that a trade will be made at some point. If some team has an injury to its starting halfback, someone will pick up the phone and offer a late round draft pick or a veteran role player in exchange. At that point, Duke could be traded, preferably to an NFC team where there is a minimal chance that he is going to play against the Browns and cost the team a win.
The Browns have to stop solving their problems by donating players and money to teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots. That might have been okay when the Browns were all about rebuilding and accumulating draft picks, but no longer.
Anyway, this Dukegate scandal is not even close to real drama. Browns fans aren’t used to having good players complain about lack of playing time. That just has not happened very much recently. But this is normal stuff in New England or Philadelphia.
Real contract wars will occur in a year or two later when the Browns’ salary cap is going to get squeezed. Some players — valuable players, not just the players they want to get rid of — aren’t going to be kept. There are a number of big money players who deserve contract mods, and extensions. Not everyone will be accommodated. That’s the nature of the salary cap.
Hence, general manager John Dorsey is unlikely to have pity on Johnson’s Shakespearean tragedy in progress. He’s a good player, and it is in the best interests of the team to not allow him to go play for an opponent. It’s a cliché, but if he wants playing time he is going to have to go out and earn it.
He and his agent may have a faulty idea of how that works, and meanwhile, there is a kid named Dontrell Hilliard who thinks he can do the same job as Johnson for one-eighth the cost.
Because of the fear of sending him to a rival, the last resort is not to cut him, but to keep him on the bench. There’s a nice warm seat on the bench and the Browns should be willing to allow him to sit there the entire season if that is what is necessary to keep him from joining a rival.
But in all probability, Duke is going to suit up and play well for the Browns. He’ll help Mayfield by slowing down the pass rush and operating as the safety valve in the flat, while also drawing a defender away from Mayfield. That may not appear on his stat sheet, but he makes a real contribution. Johnson may or may not finish the season with the Browns, depending on whether the right trade offer comes from an NFC team.