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If I were Cleveland Browns GM John Dorsey, I wouldn’t trade Duke Johnson, either.
I’d cut him.
Unceremoniously even — maybe with a 10-word press release transmitted to the backup running back and his agent via ESPN’s ticker.
Seriously, the nerve of this guy.
The buzzy Browns are suddenly all the rage in the NFL, loaded with talent and widely regarded as a championship threat for the first time in the three decades since John Elway (with an assist from Earnest Byner) buried Cleveland’s long-unfulfilled Super Bowl hopes.
Dorsey hasn’t been on the job for two full years yet has transformed a roster once saddled with predecessor Sashi Brown’s dubious analytics-based selections into one that arguably boasts the most enviable core of young players in the league — headlined by Dorsey’s shrewd selections of quarterback Baker Mayfield and corner Denzel Ward atop the 2018 draft, followed by the veritable heist of Odell Beckham Jr. from the Giants this spring.
Yet Johnson seems like a callback to the franchise’s rampant pre-Dorsey futility, a guy possessing a me-first attitude but evidently no self-awareness — made worse since his ratio of on-field impact to compensation is also out of kilter.
You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of Duke Johnson. If Dorsey keeps him, he ultimately projects as Cleveland’s third-string back. He’s never rushed for as many as 400 yards in any of his four NFL seasons, has topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage just once and has 13 career touchdowns.
In fairness, he is a capable third-down back, averaging nearly 60 catches per year, and, for that, Dorsey rewarded Johnson with a three-year extension last season that averages $5.2 million — more lucrative than all but 10 backs in the league, a list that includes Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott and other far, far more accomplished performers than Johnson.
Yet this guy has the gall to be upset, skipping voluntary workouts all spring before reporting to this week’s mandatory minicamp and doubling down on trade demands, apparently upset with Dorsey’s due diligence whilst assessing Johnson’s trade value after the addition of Kareem Hunt to back up Nick Chubb, the club’s leading rusher in his stellar rookie campaign.
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“I want to be somewhere I am wanted,” griped Johnson. “I think at the end of the day that is all this is about is about being somewhere you are wanted.
“If you don’t want me here, there is no need to keep me or force me to be here if you don’t want me here. I will always want to be here, and I made it very clear, especially after going 1-15 and 0-16 and re-signing here.”
So, basically, Johnson, a third-round pick who never helped the University of Miami (Fla.) even win a bowl game before becoming a, ahem, key player for Cleveland teams that went 4-44 over the next three years now has a chance to help build something special in a playoff-starved town … and wants no part of it because his role has been reduced and Dorsey had the audacity to float his name to other personnel executives.
For your own sake, Duke, zip it, because it sure sounds like you’ve got a loser’s mentality. If Dorsey had found a partner willing to take a one-dimensional, $5 million player off his hands, don’t you think he would’ve pulled the trigger? As for those greener pastures you seem to think await you, remember what happened to ex-teammate Carlos Hyde just last season, when Dorsey shipped him into relative exile and dormancy in Jacksonville to make way for Chubb’s emergence?
For the record, I tried to talk to Johnson, thinking he might want to shed more light on his perspective or convince me he’s merely a competitive guy who wants to play. I didn’t hear back from him. But if you buy into the notion that the Browns’ biggest hurdles to success in 2019 will be managing outsized expectations and their own relative inexperience (and perhaps immaturity), I give you Duke Johnson.
By my estimation, he is roughly the Browns’ 14th-most valuable player — on offense. (Yes, I value the entire line and backup quarterback Drew Stanton more.) Yet Johnson has a golden opportunity to make himself a significant presence, perhaps finally play meaningful games in December and January, and maybe boost his trade stock in the process. Remember, Hunt will miss half this season serving a suspension, and Johnson should get plentiful snaps subbing for Chubb, especially on obvious passing downs — when dump-offs from Mayfield can easily turn into long gainers given defenses will be far more preoccupied with Beckham, Jarvis Landry and David Njoku.
Johnson should be thankful for whatever shot he has to fuel a long-awaited turnaround (can you imagine what Joe Thomas would give to play for this kind of squad after gracefully toiling in Cleveland for so long?) considering history could otherwise judge him as a linchpin of the worst teams in NFL annals.
But don’t take it from me.
Rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens is clearly over the drama, telling NFL Network, “(Johnson) wants to be traded. You know, I want to win the lottery. So, it doesn’t matter — he’s a Cleveland Brown, he’s under contract, he’s gonna be used to the best of his ability and what benefits the team, and that’s what we’re going with.”
Meanwhile, Mayfield, who led the club to its best record (7-8-1) since 2007 during a record-breaking debut is already laying down the law in an apparent bid to break with the franchise’s long-entrenched impotence.
“You are either on this train or you are not,” the second-year star said Tuesday. “It is moving. You can get out of the way or you can join us.”
Or you can take a now-deserved pink slip and rack up all the yards you want in the XFL.
Your move, Duke … unless Dorsey makes the right one first.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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