Despite drafting a running back in two of the past three drafts, the Baltimore Ravens head into the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine with a high possibility of selecting a ball carrier yet again.
Bernard Pierce (2012) and Lorenzo Taliaferro (2014) have been Baltimore’s two most recent draft additions at the positions, and in 2014 they were complemented by free agent Justin Forsett, who could return to Baltimore for the 2015 season. Re-signing Forsett, however, would not necessarily preclude the front office from drafting a runner, as the combination of needed depth and Baltimore’s “best player available” draft tactic will be executed.
If the Ravens opt to add another member of the backfield, early round (and potentially first round) options include Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley. However, if the team wants to come full circle from the September 2014 release of Ray Rice and add a Rice-like player to the team, Gordon or Gurley may not be the answer.
Turn to the Miami Hurricanes to find junior running back Duke Johnson, a 21-year-old dynamic player who is listed at 5’9, 207 pounds, a similar build to Rice. During his three-year career at Miami, Johnson was a do-it-all asset for the offense, boasting impressive numbers despite suffering a broken ankle late in the 2013 season.
The season-ending injury did nothing to slow him down in 2014, and he closed out his Hurricanes career in impressive fashion.
- 2012: 139 carries, 947 yards, 6.8 avg, 10 TD
- 2013: 145 carries, 920 yards, 6.3 avg, 6 TD
- 2014: 242 carries, 1,652 yards, 6.8 avg, 10 TD
- Career receiving totals: 69 receptions, 719 yards, 10.4 avg, 4 TD
- Career return totals: 41 kick returns, 31.4 avg, 2 TD
Johnson was the quintessential all-purpose college running back, and he should translate to the NFL as a someone who can be relied on as both a lead back and heavy contributor in the passing game.
His quick cuts, impressive vision, low center of balance and top-end speed make him a viable candidate to be a fit in any offense; however, his vision and change of direction should lead to success in a zone-blocking scheme, which could make him a fit with the Ravens.
As a receiving option out of the backfield, it is easy to notice Johnson’s potency and similarities to Rice.
Take this play for example:
Johnson displays his ability to work off the side of the offensive line out of the backfield and then make an in-traffic catch over the middle of the field. After the catch is where a Rice similarity is noticeable.
His ability to stay up after the tackle attempt and use his immense lower body balance and strength is something Rice often did in his prime. Not that Johnson is a Rice clone per se, but he may be the closest prospect to Rice in terms of playing style since Rice entered the NFL in 2008.
For an offense that needs either a feature back or complementary piece, the receiving ability of Johnson should help his cause. Particularly in Baltimore this is the case, as offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s 2014 starting running back Matt Forte had 102 receptions. In today’s “passing league,” multipurpose running backs play pivotal roles for offenses.
While Johnson provides value in that aspect, it is his rushing skills that put him in the top tier of 2015 running back prospects.
In terms of projecting him to Baltimore’s zone-blocking scheme, Johnson displayed the ability to make quick cuts against the grain to find open space.
In the play above, all Miami offensive linemen block to the right, where Johnson’s play develops. But then his quick cutback to the left, reminiscent of Forsett in 2014, allows him to find the open run lane and take advantage of open space ahead for a big gain.
Along with the quick cuts at the line of scrimmage comes Johnson’s open-field playmaking ability.
He has enough quickness and speed to hit the hole with authority, and then if he sneaks past the first line of the defense, his vision and effortless cuts in the open field allow him to pick up extra yards.
All favorable qualities for the small, compact but efficient and dynamic runner. His frame should hold up in the NFL if he is used as a feature back early in his career, but as seen with Rice and many other shorter running backs, the shelf life is short.
In the early goings of Johnson’s career, participating in a backfield with an established starter (Baltimore with Forsett?) should allow him to excel in a lesser role.
Just for safe measure, here is a look at how he can turn nothing into something:
Overall, Johnson presents plenty of positive qualities which should translate to the next level. He may not be the best running back in the 2015 draft class, but from a Ravens perspective, he is the best fit of the early-round options.