Scouting Report: Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
Sir Duke is a linebacker's nightmare
Duke Johnson. The name has that NFL ring, doesn’t it? While having a throwback name is nice, Duke also has some serious game, and that’s what we're here to talk about today. Johnson is the kind of player evaluators hate because it’s not always easy to figure out why he’s so productive or whether he can do it at the next level the way he did it in college. There are a few things folks should remember when they evaluate this kid. First, remember that quickness is actually more important than long speed for a running back. Second, they still haven’t come up with a way to measure heart.
Johnson is a red light performer, and one of Rotobahn’s favorite 2015 rookies. The more I watch Johnson, the more I see a bigger version of DeAnthony Thomas. Duke and The Mamba have a lot in common. They are both natural ball carriers and receivers. They both run with wonderful patience combined with timely decisiveness. They both see the field and know how to use their blockers. They both have NFL skills. However, there’s one big edge that Duke has on DeAnthony: size. Johnson outweighs Thomas by about 30 pounds, and let me tell you, those are 30 big pounds. The differential makes Thomas a very talented role player and it gives Johnson a shot at being a lead back.
Johnson may not be suited to the kind of high-volume role we see with Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster or Adrian Peterson, but he could be a very effective player if he can carve out a gig like Ahmad Bradshaw has had throughout his career. Bradshaw was the better half of any combination he was a part of. Duke could be that kind of back.
- Height - 5’9”
- Weight - 207
- Hand - 9 1/4”
- 40 - 4.54
- Vertical Jump - 33.5”
- Broad Jump - 10’1”
What part of your game are you proud of?
“Being able to receive out of the backfield is the No. 1 thing. I’m a mismatch with linebackers. I can catch the ball really well.”
On being able to protect the passer…
“I think I have the willingness to take one for the quarterback and make sure the quarterback doesn’t get touched. With the right team and the right coaching staff and teaching me their way of doing it, I don’t think I’ll have a problem doing it.”
On where his ability to make people miss comes from…. “That’s God given.”
- Feet - Johnson has quick feet to put it mildly and it’s potentially his most important physical trait. And, Johnson’s diligent when it comes to his feet. He keeps them moving through contact which is something you want all backs to do.
- Cuts - Duke’s cuts are sudden, and he does something that I like to look for. He doesn’t brake needlessly or cut wastefully. He sets up defenders well and makes them miss—often with just a subtle shake or lean. Here’s a play that may not get much attention in the flow of a game, but watch it closely. Johnson gives a quick fake to the sideline and blows by the defender vertically. One good sell and then it’s north south. How many times have we seen backs waste time juking out one defender while giving too much time for the extra pursuit to come in? Johnson sets up would-be tacklers quickly and gets what’s there. Don’t underestimate the value of this skill over time.
- Smarts - He’s a competitive runner and a greedy one, but as I alluded to above, he has the wisdom to take what’s there and the ability to get all the yards available.
- Competitiveness - As I said in the opening, you can’t really measure the heart. Duke Johnson runs with great will and wonderful urgency. He’s got a motor that’s built to last.
- Speed - He ran 4.54 at the combine, but he looks faster in pads to us, so his game speed may be faster than his timed speed implies. Watch some of his college film and make your own determination. Duke’s no burner, but he’s got enough speed to make his overall skill set work. It's also worth noting that Johnson clocked a pair of 4.47 runs at Miami's pro day.
- Quickness - Even if you question Duke’s speed, it’s hard to deny his quickness and his ability to motor plan at light speed. He reacts really well to what goes on around him and it’s always sudden, which is why he wins at his size so often in confined space.
- Vision - All backs are continuously making choices as they run. We define the quality of these decisions when we grade for vision. Johnson sees the field well and makes a high percentage of good choices as a ball carrier. He knows how to use his blockers and cuts off of his blocks well. Once he gets into the open field, he runs to daylight.
- Feel and awareness - Some backs see the field well, but few backs feel what they can’t see. Johnson, like Marcus Allen, Walter Payton and Arian Foster, is one of those backs. It’s a rare trait. Johnson has outstanding feel for where he is in relation to the gridiron and all the players on it. He’s a natural athlete and that’s why certain things appear easy to him on film. If you watch enough of his footage, you’ll see him gaining extra yards and at times inches in creative ways. This kid almost never gives up on the play. He exploits every crease and is always looking for an edge. Watch the way he uses a spin move at the end of runs, as he’s going down, to roll off of defenders and get that little something extra. Duke’s a savvy player.
- Decisiveness - Not only does Johnson have speed and quickness, he has the vision and awareness to use the two to their maximum value. Decisiveness is where all these traits meet. You’ll rarely see Duke get caught thinking out there. He processes and reacts as well as any back around. This has the effect of making him faster in traffic.
- Defending his body - In addition to his disengaging spin move, Duke’s got a good stiff arm and he knows when to use it. He’s the exact opposite from a guy like Charles Sims, who has all the talent in the world, but lacks Duke’s innate ability to defend his frame. This is one area where the move to the NFL is a concern. He’ll be trying these power techniques against more prolific athletes with longer arms. Johnson will need to pick his spots a little more with the stiff arm.
- Pad level - One of the ways Johnson compensates for a relative lack of size is by playing with good leverage and running behind his pads. He gets his pads down on most inside runs and falls forward often for a 207 pounder.
- Receiving ability - He’s an excellent receiver out of the backfield and a linebacker’s nightmare. This is a skill that could separate him from a lot of other backs the next level.
- Pass blocking - While being inconsistent in this area, Duke shows some good form at times and can get in the way at the very least. More will be expected of him here at the next level, and he’s the type of kid who should accept the challenge. Still, this area is huge for Johnson, who can’t use his full skill set without being able to protect the passer. His pass blocking will be a defining element career-wise.
- Production - Take a look for yourself. He’s been prolific in his four seasons.
Here are two games with a lot of Johnson. Go to DraftBreakdown if you are looking for more. They have broken down ten of Johnson’s games. Here’s a look at Duke’s highlight reel.
Duke Johnson can play. We’re sold on his talent. His fantasy future depends on four primary things, none of which can be predicted with certainty at this point.
- Durability - Duke broke an ankle back in 2013. His 2014 film indicate that he recovered quite well, but at his size, you want to see as few injuries as possible. Duke also has a history with migraines and perhaps concussions, and though they appear to be under control, it’s always worthy of note these days.
- Ball security - He’s had some fumbling issues and was below average statistically in terms of ball security, but he’s a sound fundamental player and it does not have the look of a career killer. Still, we’ve seen certain coaches who have a near zero-tolerance policy with fumbling, so it’s worth mentioning and reevaluating after the draft.
- Role - Like many of the backs in this class, Duke has a lot of upside right away if he lands in a good spot. If he is getting playing time, the next hope would be a versatile offense that uses the backs.
- NFL Team - This knowledge could give us some insight into what his role will be and how long it will take him to get on the field consistently.
As far as comparison’s go, Johnson exists in the area between Andre Ellington and the aforementioned Ahmad Bradshaw. If he can stay healthy, Johnson’s fantasy production should come down to pass protection, because if he can protect effectively, he’ll get more love in the red zone and thus, more scores. This is important because, while Johnson has a nose for the goal line, his lack of prototypical size means he could be pulled when his team gets close to the stripe.
As always, I’ll firm up the player’s fantasy value after the draft once we know where he’ll be playing, but Johnson should have success almost anywhere, because he's a natural football player capable of playing in any scheme.
More 2015 Scouting Reports:
- Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
- Kevin White, WR, West Virginia
- Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
- Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
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