The Cleveland Browns and Duke Johnson seem destined for a divorce, and the Browns have options to replace Johnson if they decide to trade the running back.
Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson’s trade request has been one of the biggest stories of Cleveland’s offseason. Since Johnson’s trade request became known in April, more pieces have been added to story every month.
The most recent piece to Johnson’s trade request was Drew Rosenhaus becoming Johnson’s new agent. Rosenhaus is notorious for getting whatever his clients desire, so he may make a Johnson trade happen sooner rather than later.
With Johnson making his desire to be traded known and saying there is no way the Browns can reconcile their relationship, it’s surprising that Cleveland has been so patient with a potential trade.
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One of the reasons they may be holding onto Johnson is because they want him to be the No. 2 running back during the first half of the season. With Kareem Hunt suspended for the first eight games of the season, the Browns may want a proven veteran behind Nick Chubb.
But if the Browns decide to trade Johnson before the season, there are still veteran free agent options available who could fill that No. 2 role. And they may not even need to fill the No. 2 role if the Browns are as confident in Dontrell Hilliard as they reportedly are.
Hilliard has shown the ability to be a solid receiver out of the backfield in his short NFL career, which is Johnson’s biggest strength. The biggest question is if Hilliard can excel running the ball, as he has never registered a carry in the NFL.
Even if the Browns decide Hilliard could be the team’s No. 2 back, it would be smart to have a veteran running back if Johnson is traded. And despite most of the top free agent running backs being signed, there are still tempting options available.
Jake Burns of cleveland.com mentioned free agents Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles as options for the Browns on Wednesday. Ajayi is arguably the best running back still available, but Sproles is the free agent who resembles Johnson’s abilities the most.
Ajayi is the most intriguing option because he has proven to be an effective runner with a career 4.5 yards per carry and 13 touchdowns. He also rushed for over 1,200 yards in 2016. But if the Browns want a pass catcher in the backfield, that does not exactly match Ajayi’s style, catching only 63 passes for 419 yards in 42 games. However, he is coming off a torn ACL suffered early in 2018, which could be the reason he remains unsigned. He will reportedly be ready for training camp.
Sproles would make a lot of sense for the Browns because of his prowess as a receiver out of the backfield. He is also at the end of his career, and would only want a one-year deal. The biggest concern with Sproles is that despite showing he can still be a solid receiver out of the backfield, he has only played in 11 games the last two seasons. If he still wants to play, Sproles would be a good option as the No. 3 back to provide veteran depth until Hunt returns.
Other than Ajayi and Sproles, there are a few other options available, including Jacquizz Rodgers and Corey Grant. Both would be cheap options who will also provide depth the Browns could move on from after Hunt’s suspension ends.
Rodgers has made a career as a receiver out of the backfield. He spent the last three seasons in Tampa Bay with Todd Monken as his offensive coordinator, and caught 38 passes for 304 yards in 2018. He also has an excellent career catch percentage, catching 81.8 percent of his passes. Rodgers would fit Johnson’s mold and is familiar with Monken’s offense, so he could be at the top of the list of targets for the Browns if Johnson is traded.
Grant has been effective despite only small showings in his four-year career. In 38 games, Grant has rushed for 454 yards and three touchdowns on 81 carries. He has not provided too much in the passing game, however, catching only 18 passes for 156 yards and one touchdown. Grant did have a strong showing as a receiver in the 2017 playoffs against the New England Patriots, catching three receptions for 59 yards. Similar to Rodgers, Grant would be a cheap veteran option, but has proven to be a good runner in short stints.
The Browns may be holding onto Johnson until they get the compensation for Johnson they want or so they have a veteran backup for the first half of the season. But if they do decide to trade Johnson before the season, there are still veteran running backs available to be the depth the team wants to start the season.