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Duke Johnson: Most talented running back in the draft?

Looking at a talented running back in the draft who is much more than a home run hitter

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It's no secret that the Chargers are in the market for a running back and when you never want to pay for past production all signs point to looking to the draft for a running back. With Ryan Mathews only logging 165 snaps this past season, San Diego will need somebody who can be an every down back. Many fans will cite that Brandon Oliver deserves a shot since he performed admirably considering the circumstances. The best way for me to describe this is by using a past example. Here is a quote from my sophomore basketball coach when I asked why I was coming out of the game:

"We're not taking you out, we're putting Leon in"

Sure, Oliver did fine, but there are other backs available that can bring more to the table than Oliver. One of those is Miami's Duke Johnson. Miami runs a lot of similar run concepts as San Diego, they'll mix in some powers/counters, but predominantly run inside, outside, and stretch zone. That gives you an excellent feel for how Johnson would fit in San Diego.

Games Watched

Draft Breakdown has 5 games from 2014. I watched those 5 and Johnson's bowl game at South Carolina. Want to thank Draft Breakdown for their work and allowing me to write this.

Pre Line of Scrimmage

One of the best NFL writers out there, Joe Goodberry, described what pre line of scrimmage means as "vision, patience, footwork, manipulating linebackers to open space, pressing the hole and then bursting through it." That's a hell of a description and I believe all are incredibly important. It's an area most(all 3 San Diego backs struggle with.) Duke Johnson is not one of them.

On these zone runs, specifically when Johnson is in a single back set, he does a good job of letting the play develop, pressing the hole(without running up your offensive lines back *cough Donald Brown cough*) and then putting his foot down and exploding through the hole. Here are a couple examples.

Johnson could easily explode through the hole and try to challenge the linebacker himself. Instead, he waits just long enough giving a slight hesitation that allows the pulling lineman to make the block and he turns it into a big gain. Here's another example of patience, pressing the hole, and vision.

Initially it looks like nothing is there, Johnson could easily just run it for 2 yards. He does a good job of pressing the hole, letting the play develop, and at the last minute finding a crease. These are the runs that Oliver and Brown struggled with in 2014.

The one knock I had was that occasionally Johnson would rely on his athleticism and bounce it to the outside. It works in college but in the NFL you just have to stick your foot in the ground and take that 1 or 2 yard gain and live to fight another down. You can't put your team in 2 and 13 because you were looking for the home run.

Post Line of Scrimmage

This is where you'll see the running back show off his power and leg drive by pushing the pile. Or show off the speed to out run angles by linebackers. You'll also see backs set up defenders with a move, sometimes layered moves if they're special. Post line of scrimmage, Duke is special.

Games Touches Yards Broken Tackles YCo
6 145 1084 35 374

Those numbers in 6 games are very impressive. 34% of Johnson's yards came after contact. He had nice holes at times, but Miami was 50th in adjusted line yards in the country. Duke creates on his own, and that's what you have to do. Once every 4 touches Johnson broke a tackle. I'm interested to see how that stacks up against the other runners in the class because it sounds mighty impressive now.

Below is a run where I mean "layered moves." Johnson is setting up the 1st man in space, already thinking of what he's going to do next. This is what great backs do. There's no dancing here.

He definitely has that stiff arm you see at the end down pat. It's his go to move and it's very effective when he uses it.

Sometimes in the NFL, you just have to make a play. There's going to be a free rusher in your face, or a linebacker in the hole 1-on-1 and it's on you to make the play. Johnson proved time and time again that the 1st man doesn't tackle him. He shows the kind of competitiveness you want in a running back.

Whether it's moving the pile an extra yard or two with his underrated power. Or cutting on a dime and exploding past defenders. Johnson showed that he can be the total package as a runner.

Passing Game

This is everything from protecting your quarterback in pass pro, catching the ball with your hands out of the backfield and being a reliable target, running crisp routes, and recognizing coverages. Johnson is serviceable at best as a blocker. At times, he was the aggressor and met linebackers in the hole and got the job done. Other times, he would attempt to make a cut block and come up empty. Johnson seemed to have a good understanding for recognizing coverages. He knew when to sit down in zone and when to out run the linebacker in man. He did seem to "baby" the ball in as a receiver, occasionally making a nice hands catch. It's no surprise where he is most dangerous is out in space.

Against Virginia Tech he had an opportunity for 3 big plays in the passing game. Each time he was 1-on-1 with a linebacker and each time it was a complete mismatch. One time it was Johnson out of the backfield on a wheel route and he made an outstanding diving catch. The below vine is him 1-on-1 with a linebacker and he sets him up nicely on this "Texas" route, showing off his quickness and change of direction skills.

That'll be a big play next year, Duke.

The final route is a seam route where Johnson has to get inside the linebacker. If he crosses his face, it's a touchdown.

He's a dangerous player in space, to say the least.


Multiple Pro Bowl Player, Top 10 8.5 – 9.0
Highly Productive Starter, 1st Round 8.0 – 8.4
Very Good Starter, Early 2nd Round 7.8 – 7.9
Reliable Starter, 2nd Round 7.5 – 7.7
Potential Starter in Year 2, 3rd Round 7.0 – 7.4
Backup/Spot Starter, 4th Round 6.5 – 6.9
Productive Backup, 5th Round 6.0 – 6.4
Very Good Backup/STs, 6th Round 5.5 – 5.9
Quality Backup/Good STs, 7th Round 5.0 – 5.4
Backup/STs/Project Player, 7th Round 4.5 – 4.9
Priority Free Agent w/ Limitations 4.0 – 4.4
Non-Draftable 4.0

Trait Weight Grade
Pre-LOS 4 3.7
Post-LOS 4 3.9
Quickness/Burst 3 3
Speed 2 2
Power 2 1.7
Passing Game 2 1.7
Ball Security 2 1.8
Durability 2 1.3
CoD 2 1.9
Versatility 2 1.9

Johnson grades out to an 8.24. He'll be a very good player in the NFL, provided his health. I don't want to pretend that I know anything about injury issues, but Johnson has allegedly had a history of migraines, had season ending surgery in '13, and numerous other small injuries throughout his career. He did stay healthy for 2014. On the field, there's not much to complain about. Yeah, he's not a great pass blocker. Yes, he will try to bounce it instead of taking what's there. There are aspects of his game that aren't duplicated in the rest of this class, and for that he is likely the best back when it comes to on the field in the class.

How He Fits as a Charger

It's pretty cut and dry. Johnson can be a home run hitter(13 touches went for 20+ yards and several other were 10+) with an average line. He is a dangerous player in space. You can use him in multiple roles and there's a good chance he'll be one of the faster players on the field. Johnson consistently turns 2 yard runs to 7 yard runs. He's that type of game changer. Now, do you think he's past previous injuries? That's the risk you run with the draft. That's a risk I'd be willing to take.