D'Ernest Johnson is an example of a promising small sample size. He had two starts when Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt could not go for the Browns in weeks 7 and 10 in 2021. He had another in week 17. In each of those games, he had over 99 yards on at least 19 carries. All three of these games were against good defenses and the Browns won 2 out of 3 of them.
What are Johnson's prospects in the free-agent market at 26 years of age? His situation is a little more complicated as a Restricted Free Agent (RFA). The Browns have placed the low tender on him which may reduce his pool of suitors. This low tender essentially allows any team to make Johnson an offer, and Cleveland has the opportunity to retain his services by matching any offer he receives. Normally, a departure of a low-tendered RFA requires the gaining team to give up a draft pick equal to the RFA's original draft round, but in the case of Johnson, he was a UDFA, and thus there is no draft compensation required. Therefore, a team would only have to offer an amount that the Browns are unwilling to pay Johnson.
Given Cleveland's RB room, it seems to be a luxury to have Johnson there. If another franchise thought enough of what he showed last season, it's unlikely that the Browns would spend the capital when they have more pressing needs.
The data suggests that Johnson took advantage of a good offensive line situation in Cleveland. Success in Power and Counter concepts is extremely desirable, especially considering the prowess in Outside Zone. When a player can be effective across these schemes, the pulling concepts become an extremely powerful wrinkle.
Most of our film sessions should focus on Outside Zone. Power and Counter are good areas to study with a solid sample size, given that Johnson only had a significant load in three games for the 2021 season. Outside Zone success should have us expecting to see burst and efficient upfield cuts as contributing factors.
Before we get into the observations, there is a matter of context we must address. Of the three games where D'Ernest carried the load, the game in week 18 was against second/third-string defense. Even still this is a valuable test. Lack of success in that game environment would be a red flag.
Vision and Burst
This man was a cutback monster! Cleveland ran Outside Zone (OZ) with the 10th highest frequency, and this scheme accounted for 35.7% of Johnson's carries. The crazy thing is he was the best in the scheme for the Browns. Johnson led the running back room with a 77% RBV-ASR in OZ compared to 61.4% (Chubb) and 49.1% (Hunt).
When we watch the tape we gain some understanding of the 'how'. Johnson is nearly a master at finding the cutback lane. He does this by pressing the point of attack consistently with a convincing pad level, which gets defenses to overcompensate. Johnson anticipates the over-aggression and displays very good play speed and change of direction to exploit the situation. Johnson's top speed leaves something to be desired, but his acceleration to said top speed is very good.
These same qualities are present in other schemes. One of the most consistent qualities you will see is his ability to adjust his stride to find the sweet spot in the trenches. He does show some outstanding understanding of the scheme as evidenced by his anticipation of the play's backside situation. Johnson has also shown an awareness of cracks in the trenches when the holes appear pretty well plugged up.
D'Ernest Johnson isn't exactly flashy at the second level. He has solid elusiveness expressed in the way of reducing his tackling surface. He does express good vision at the second level as well, identifying the path to split converging defenders. While he isn't outrunning them, this allows him to fall forward consistently. Solid contact balance, occasionally affords additional yards after contact. As mentioned earlier, his top speed is solid at best, but remember his burst gets him there quickly meaning he doesn't need that top-end speed to do some damage.
Receiving and Blocking
If D'Ernest Johnson is going to be courted by other teams, his third-down skillset will be an important factor. The tape shows he can be a contributor in the passing game as a receiver and protector. His hands are good, but due to only solid body control, he will have somewhat capped upside in the passing game. While he has been split out on occasion, he was only targeted in the short areas of the field. With that said, Johnson shows a quick upfield transition after the catch. If left unattended, he could punish defenses by moving the chains.
In pass protection, Johnson shows good consistency in identifying his assignment, squaring up, and engaging. Adequate use of hands reduces his effectiveness, but his positioning and awareness afford him a good chance to disrupt the blitz. Improvements in his use of hands could translate into a better anchor (solid at best now versus linebackers and defensive backs). Despite being a little more than solid as a total blocker, that consistency to ID his assignment makes him useful in pass protection.
Given all the tape, what team would be interested in acquiring him? What team is the best fit? There are a couple of options.
This is a one-dimensional fit for Outside Zone. They could stand to improve their performance in this area since their success rate is 52.6% in the scheme. He doesn't have the same prowess in the passing game as Cordarelle Patterson, but Johnson is not the pass-catcher that Patterson is. However, if they want to maximize their preferred scheme, Johnson could be the answer. The biggest challenge is the quality of the blocking in Cleveland was far superior to that in Atlanta for 2021. As probably the most important contributing factor to running back success, this should not be overlooked. The increased opportunity of landing here, may not result in production.
New York Jets
The run scheme distribution of the Jets (36% OZ and 15.1% Power) appears to be a very good fit for Johnson. While he is on the lighter side of size (5'10", 208 lbs), his running style could compliment Michael Carter's. Johnson is just different enough in play style that they could be a great 1-2 punch. Their slight differences could be exploited to influence defenses into poor play selection. This complimentary role may not be ideal for dynasty or fantasy players, but it may well be better than being buried under two big names in Chubb and Hunt. In Cleveland, it is a virtual guarantee that he needs an injury for his upside to be realized. A new venue could be the opportunity he needs to succeed.
The Broncos are a total dark horse landing spot, but let's think about it. Russel Wilson was just acquired which means the Broncos will likely enter the red zone more often. This is important because Denver may well prefer a two-headed attack, but may they want to feature Javonte Williams a little bit more than 50-50. Given that Melvin Gordon made about $6.5 million in 2021, acquiring Johnson for a little over half the price may be a steal. Their RBV-ASR comparison is interesting at least. The advantages were as follows: 77% to 71.5%, advantage Johnson; 88.0% to 70.0%, advantage Gordon; 75.0% to 70.8%, advantage Johnson. Half the price, advantages in 2 out of 3 schemes?
This could make sense as a landing spot, so if this ends up being true, what does this mean for Johnson's value to us? Sorry to say, it may only have RB3 upside in lieu of an injury that no one is hoping for. Even still, a 40% carry share for Johnson would be valuable nonetheless. Realistically, Williams would probably monopolize goal-line carries, but there is an opportunity for Johnson to do some damage.
This season the open lead back opportunities are extremely thin. Most teams have an established lead back or a good committee. Given this situation, Johnson may only find a new home as part of an existing commitee. This is still valuable since injuries will always be present and those injuries create opportunities. The film sample alone should be encouraging enough to dynasty owners to acquire him as a stash. We have seen what he can do when carrying the majority of the workload.