The NFL trade deadline has come and gone, and the positional group most represented in the trades was running back. Christian McCaffrey (San Francisco 49ers), Jeff Wilson Jr. (Miami Dolphins), Chase Edmonds (Denver Broncos), James Robinson (New York Jets), and Nyheim Hines (Buffalo Bills) all found themselves on new teams, but there could have been far more changes considering the rumors surrounding the likes of Alvin Kamara, Cam Akers, and Kareem Hunt.
That last name is especially interesting to me. Kareem Hunt has obviously shown the NFL world that he is capable of being a feature back in an offense. After all, he led the NFL in rushing yards during his rookie season in Kansas City. He catches passes, he runs efficiently — Hunt hasn’t had a single season averaging less than four yards per carry) — and isn’t so abysmal at pass-blocking that he becomes a liability. Sure, he’s older now — 27 to be exact — but after years of working in a backup role, his legs are probably very fresh and ready to take on a massive role on a new offense. He even asked for a trade!
The only downside to trading for Hunt would’ve been that everyone knows his potential as a lead back and his price probably would’ve reflected that potential. He’s also a free agent after this season and will likely command an RB1’s salary starting next year. Also, given his value, his price tag would’ve likely been substantially higher than Edmonds, Wilson, or Hines. Perhaps giving up a moderate amount of draft capital for a potential rental isn’t worth the hassle.
That got me thinking…you know who avoids some of those downsides? Hunt’s backup, D’Ernest Johnson.
Johnson doesn’t have Hunt’s pedigree to warrant a shot at a feature role, but in his limited opportunity as a lead back, the undrafted free agent has displayed a tremendous ability to produce lead-back-type numbers. Yes, he’s working behind Cleveland’s offensive line, but so are both Chubb and Hunt and nobody complains when they succeed. In his two games started last season, Johnson recorded 245 rushing yards on 41 attempts. That’s 5.98 yards per attempt. Johnson also flashed solid pass-catching capabilities as he hauled in 7-of-8 targets for 58 yards in his second start. Despite the Cleveland offense getting absolutely manhandled by New England in that game, Johnson proved capable, meaning that even in a bad situation, the running back could potentially still thrive as an every-down halfback.
If you think two games aren’t enough to warrant a chance as a lead back, I agree with you…to an extent. I mean, Jimmy Garoppolo only started two career games before becoming San Francisco’s starter, and running back isn’t nearly as vital a position as quarterback is. You could take a shot on Johnson and not worry about sucking if he doesn’t pan out; just rotate someone else in.
Furthermore, Johnson would come cheap. Like dirt cheap. His current contract, which unfortunately ends after this season, has him earning just over $1.2 million this year. Given his lack of experience in a major offensive role, it’s likely that even if Johnson popped off for another team, he wouldn’t have been as expensive as some of the other options going on the free agent market this coming offseason. Even if he didn’t pop off like the team who traded for him expected, they could’ve just let him walk as a UFA.
Not to mention, the price for Johnson would’ve been substantially less than any other back on the trade block. Jeff Wilson Jr. cost Miami a fifth-round pick? Johnson would maybe net a seventh. For a guy with that kind of upside, shoot, I’d take that any day of the week.
For someone playing in just their third season, Johnson is older than you’d expect. He’s 26, just a few months younger than Kareem Hunt who is playing in his sixth season. However, Hunt has 849 career rushing attempts under his belt. Johnson has 141. Hunt certainly hasn’t experienced the wear and tear you’d expect from someone of his talent, but for someone younger, cheaper, and has shown flashes of greatness given the opportunity, Johnson has so little wear and tear on his legs, he might be able to play at a high level until he’s 32.
Perhaps this is why the Browns were so close to trading Hunt. Ultimately, a deal couldn’t be reached, but maybe their confidence in Johnson as a backup persuaded them to listen to offers for the unhappy Hunt. I don’t blame them for not trading him. If a deal didn’t come along that gave the Browns the value they hold for Hunt, then they’d be stupid to make that trade. I blame other teams for channeling their focus on Hunt when a different, solid, less sure-fire (I’ll give them that) option was right under their noses.
Perhaps Johnson was never for sale and that’s why we never heard his name circling the rumor mill. We can’t be sure. All I know is that Hunt wanted a trade. He had a great market, and there was a capable backup waiting in the wings. Shame on the Browns for not trading Hunt, and shame on all 31 other NFL teams for not asking about Johnson.