Cleveland Browns: Rosenhaus seeks free agent deal for D’Ernest Johnson

Oct 21, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns running back D'Ernest Johnson (30) leaps over Denver Broncos safety Kareem Jackson (22) during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 21, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns running back D'Ernest Johnson (30) leaps over Denver Broncos safety Kareem Jackson (22) during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports /

Cleveland Browns RB D’Ernest Johnson has hired Rosenhaus Sports to negotiate a true deal as a Restricted Free Agent

D’Ernest Johnson is a fan favorite. A blue-collar kid who came from out of nowhere to earn a job with the Cleveland Browns.

Now, as a Restricted Free Agent, it looks like he’s getting his payday since the Browns have tendered him $2.4 million dollars. However, appearances may be deceptive.

The rules of NFL free agency are sufficiently complicated that it is still possible he could wind up with nothing at the end of training camp. He probably made the right move to hire superstar agent Drew Rosenhaus and his firm Rosenhaus Sports to try to negotiate something real — i.e., with some guarantees.

Rosenhaus has the reputation of being a sharp — even ruthless — negotiator. According to their website, they have handled over $7 billion worth of contracts in their corporate history. In this case, Johnson simply needs a decent contract by April 22.

Under the terms of Restricted Free Agency, the Browns have the right to match that offer, or could be persuaded to trade his rights to the interested team. More about that a bit later.

As for D’Ernest Johnson, he is a player from a small college, the University of South Florida, which is an FBS school. At his Pro Day, he ran a 4.81 second 40-yard dash time. What you need to understand is that there are 80-year-olds who run faster than that while wearing ankle weights.

Hence, Johnson went undrafted. He had a tryout with the New Orleans Saints but did not stick and went to work on a fishing boat. His career to that point sounds a little like a real-life Forrest Gump.

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He credits Olympian Tim Montgomery of Numa Speed for setting him up with a training regimen that improved his speed, quickness, and strength. To make a long story short, Montgomery worked him so hard that he about puked his guts out, but it appears to have made a dramatic difference.

Johnson got a shot with the Orlando Apollos of the Alliance League, where he caught the eye of John Dorsey who brought him to camp with the Browns in 2019. We don’t know his actual 40-yard dash time now, but his game speed is way, way faster than 4.81 seconds.

The numbers speak for themselves. In his three-year career, he has 137 rush attempts and 721 yards, or 5.26 yards per carry. At some point, you have to admit that is good enough to stick around in the NFL. Jim Brown had many more years and many more carries, but his career average was 5.22 yards per carry.

No one is saying that D’Ernest is better than Jim Brown, but your humble correspondent does claim that he at least belongs in the NFL and deserves an NFL contract. Hopefully, most fans are on board with that.

That brings us to his current status as a Restricted Free Agent. Like many things in the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, Restricted Free Agency is complicated and does not make all that much sense, and sometimes does the opposite of what it is intended to do.

What actually happens, sensible or not, is that the Browns have given DEJ the lowest RFA tender, which is a $2.433 Million non-guaranteed contract, which contains a “Right of First Refusal.” The non-guaranteed contract means that the Browns can take that off the table at any time.

Say he suffers a severe injury. Zap! Your contract is worth $0, Mr. Johnson. Non-guaranteed contracts are the work of Mephistopheles, and any decent agent (which certainly includes Rosenhaus Sports) has got to replace that with something real.

Right of First Refusal means that DEJ and Rosenhaus Sports can go sign a deal with another team, but the Browns can match the offer and keep him under contract. The architects of Restricted Free Agency were probably thinking of the situation in which the player was going to be worth a lot more than $2.433 million for one season.

So, say DEJ signs a deal with the Bengals (just hypothetically, now, no secret sources have indicated this is really happening, okay?) for $5 million over two years, 50 percent guaranteed. The Browns would have the option to acquire that contract, DEJ reverts back to the Browns, and both sides have to live by the terms of the deal. The Bengals get nothing, but at least they forced their rival to spend some cap dollars.

But what if no NFL team actually believes that the player is worth $2.433 million? In that case the player and his agent still have the option to seek a deal for a lower amount of total dollars, and presumably with some guaranteed money and protection in case of an injury.

Say, the agent shops around and the best deal out there is $1 million and 40 percent guaranteed. That may well be worth accepting, but the player may be disappointed that the value is less than the tender of $2.433 million. That $2.433 million may be a psychological barrier to getting a deal done.

That seems to be what happened to KhaDarel Hodge, who was a Browns RFA last year. Cleveland truly valued his services, but not at the $2.133 million level (the RFA tender was $300 K lower in 2021 than in 2022). So, for whatever reason, Hodge and his agent were not able to come up with any offers whatsoever on the free agent market and went with the non-guaranteed $2.133 million deal with the Browns.

So, as was 100 percent predicted by this analyst, the Browns simply cut him at the end of training camp. The Lions picked him up for $1 million and only $80 thousand guaranteed. Needless to say, that was an awful process.

Perhaps Hodge wanted to gamble on himself and the agent could not convince him otherwise, or perhaps there just were no offers involving guaranteed money. In any case, Rosenhaus needs to avoid putting his client in this situation if at all possible.

If Rosenhaus shows up empty-handed on April 22, then the negotiating rights revert back to the Browns. A non-guaranteed deal at the $2.433 million level is essentially no deal. It’s simply a club option that comes due at the end of training camp — an extended tryout.

Johnson is not allowed to negotiate a deal with another club at any price. Moreover, If the Browns decide that they do not want him at the end of camp, Johnson will simply be waived, and if he is not claimed, he will be cut and at that point, the contract is completely dead.

More likely, however, Rosenhaus Sports will in fact come up with some sort of reasonable deal that has some guaranteed money attached to it. Ideally, it would be a multiyear deal for somewhat above the NFL minimum, and some guarantees. But how much is Johnson actually worth?

That is tough to say. The numbers suggest he can do some of the same things as Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, though obviously he lacks the top gear that those fellows have. However, general managers around the league might believe that the rushing average is as much a tribute to the Browns offensive line as Johnson himself.

Your humble correspondent is not the best talent evaluator in the world, but let’s just ask in the form of a question: have any of you fans out there seen any back in the NFL who is better at using his blockers than D’Ernest Johnson?

He’s patient, makes his read, and then boom — makes his yards through the hole that the O-Line creates for him. That however, is a two-edged sword. What if the prospective new team does not have Wills, Bitonio, Tretter, Teller, and Conklin to run behind? Will Johnson still be a five-yard-per-carry back?

The Browns coaching staff was not exactly in love with Johnson this season, preferring to keep him on the bench as long as possible. In the Arizona game, Chubb was out and Hunt stayed in the game with a calf injury and aggravated it. Johnson could have played, but didn’t until it was too late.

Because of that episode, Hunt may not have been entirely thrilled with the coaching staff, and Johnson was entitled to feel the same way. Still, Johnson got his chance because of the faux pas by the coaching staff.

The following week, Johnson gained 146 yards in 22 carries versus Denver, which helped the coaching staff to realize that Johnson might be able to make a useful contribution after all. He wound up with 671 yards from scrimmage on the season. That is not half bad.

With Austin Hooper and Jarvis Landry gone, there could be additional snaps for Kareem Hunt at slot receiver, meaning that Johnson could get more snaps in the backfield. Finding snaps for Johnson is not that big of a problem.

Guessing here is that $2.4 million is not that far off from Johnson’s true value. Spotrac estimates he might be worth $5.2 million over two years. Spotrac does not estimate what fraction would be guaranteed, but as a rough guess, perhaps half of that figure would be guaranteed.

The addition of a second year would result in a bit of a first-year discount for the team that signs Johnson, and give him some continuity with the team, whether the Browns or someone else.

Andrew Berry will be faced with the question of whether to match the offer sheet and keep Johnson on the roster or try to negotiate a deal that would benefit both sides. The Browns might be able to obtain a late-round pick, and shave some money off the payroll. Where they really need help is with the 2023 budget and roster, however. Might it make sense to ask for a higher-round pick in 2023?

In other words, if the reader will indulge in a fantasy for a moment, suppose the contract is along the lines estimated by Spotrac, a two-year deal for $5.2 million, 50 percent guaranteed from an NFC team. Let’s say that the team is the Atlanta Falcons, who really had trouble running the ball last season, just to give them a name.

The Browns would have the right to obtain Johnson under this contract. But the Falcons might propose, “how about you keep the money, let us have Johnson, and we will throw in a sixth-round draft pick for 2022?”

That might be a fair deal. The Browns are a little short on draft capital this season. But Andrew Berry might make a counter proposal. “How about instead of this year’s sixth rounder, you give us a fifth rounder in 2023? Or what about a fourth rounder in 2024?” The Browns are really going to be short on draft capital by 2024. That’s so far in the future, a team like the Falcons are not even sure it actually even exists. They might make that deal.

That hypothetical deal is the type of deal that might be made if the front office is still using analytics to make decisions. Admittedly, recent evidence suggests that the Browns really don’t care about what happens in 2024 and are willing to let the salary cap structure fall apart. In such a case, they unquestionably would match the offer sheet and simply bring back Johnson to the Browns for 2022.

If Johnson signs nothing, like KhaDarel Hodge and his agent did last season, it would represent a major setback to his career. Hodge found out the hard way that non-guaranteed contracts cannot be counted on. As Browns fans, we want to find a way to keep Johnson in Cleveland, but we do not want to see him get shafted at the negotiating table, either.

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He deserves a contract offer from Restricted Free Agency, and hopefully, Rosenhaus Sports will come up with a deal that satisfies everyone.