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Talking Duke Johnson with Dawgs by Nature

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There is arguably no player more beloved by in recent 'Canes history than Duke Johnson.

So you can bet more than a few of us will be watching his progress closely this coming NFL Season in Cleveland.

To get the scoop on what to expect in Duke's rookie year and much more, we caught up with Joe Ginley of SB Nation's Cleveland  Browns site, Dawgs By Nature.

Full Q&A Below:


SOTU: What is the general perception/reaction of Cleveland fans/pundits to the selection of Duke Johnson in the 3rd Round?

DBN: Cleveland fans and media love Duke Johnson. We've heard great things about him and could certainly use a player of his caliber. The Browns have drafted several former Miami players in the past, particularly fan favorite Bernie Kosar, so Browns fans like the 'Canes.

With two young players at the position, running back wasn't necessarily a big need for the Browns coming into the offseason. However, the Browns needed playmakers and Johnson fits the bill. This Browns team is built on establishing the run and then using playaction passes to fast wideouts, and Johnson can certainly thrive in this system.

SOTU: Does Johnson have a chance to be an every down back as a rookie?  How do you see his role overall and who are his main competitors for carries and snaps?

DBN: Yes, without a doubt. The Browns have two second-year backs in Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West, who will likely see the majority of the carries and snaps, at least at first. But Johnson could be the feature back by the end of the year.

Neither Crowell nor West experienced overwhelming success in 2014, but both showed flashes of brilliance. Crowell and West each recorded 600 yards on the year. But a combined five fumbles and a string of lackluster performances late in the season convinced the Browns to draft a back. Despite the duo's late struggles, the two are expected to carry the load at the start of the season.

Johnson's immediate value to the Browns will be twofold: his pass catching ability and speed. The Browns desperately need a receiving option out of the backfield and a competent return man. Under the direction of former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Browns' backs caught just 32 passes for 226 yards, both last in the NFL. Johnson will be a big weapon for the Browns out of the backfield on third downs as a receiver. I also expect Johnson to handle kickoff and/or punt return duties, as he will be one of the quickest players on the team. Kickoff and punt returns have been a disaster for the Browns since Josh Cribbs left. Johnson could be the solution. Just two days into rookie camp, special teams coordinator Chris Tabor announced that he's already working with Johnson on both kickoff and punt returns. Expect Johnson to get plenty of time on special teams, and an increasing number of snaps on offense as the year progresses.

SOTU: Do you think Johnson has a legitimate shot to be NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year?  Why or why not?

DBN: I don't think so, and for one reason: He'll be playing with the Browns. Fun fact: No Browns player has ever won AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. The reason? The Browns aren't known for having explosive offenses, and this year's version won't stray from the norm. To win the award, a rookie typically must have dynamic playmakers around him. For example, Odell Beckham Jr. had two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning throwing to him. Eddie Lacy had Aaron Rodgers, Robert Griffin III had Alfred Morris, etc.

That's not to say that Johnson is a bad player or will have a poor season. Johnson simply has less playmakers around him than, say, Jameis Winston. While Winston will be throwing to Mike Evans, Johnson will be taking handoffs from Josh McCown or Johnny Manziel.

SOTU: What kind of offensive line will Duke be running behind in Cleveland?

DBN: Johnson will be running behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas anchors the line, second-year pro Joel Bittonio has a lot of promise at left guard, two-time Pro Bowler Alex Mack will be back at center, John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz are solid starters on the right side, and first round pick Cameron Erving is a beast.

With that said, staying healthy is critical. Mack went down halfway through last season, and the Browns quickly tanked. Erving improves the depth significantly, but keeping the line healthy is still of great importance. The Browns employ the zone blocking scheme (ZBS) that emphasizes unity on the line, a tactic that can backfire if too many injuries occur. However, if the team's line can stay healthy, Johnson will have the benefit of running behind a fearsome offensive line.

SOTU: Aside from the obvious (Jim Brown), who are the greatest backs to play for the Browns over the history of the franchise?  What does Duke Johnson need to do to be mentioned among that group?

DBN: This is an awesome question. A superstar has not resided in the Browns' backfield since 1999 (Peyton Hillis and Jamal Lewis aside), but many great running backs have played in Cleveland.

Leroy Kelly is perhaps the greatest Browns back besides Jim Brown. Kelly directly followed in Brown's footsteps and found a place in the Hall of Fame, too. Marion Motley (a star from the team's AAFC days) is enshrined as a fullback, while Bobby Mitchell is in the HOF as a wideout/halfback. Greg Pruitt and Mike Pruitt (not brothers) combined for seven 1,000 yard seasons in the mid-1970's and early 1980's. Also worth mentioning are Earnest Byner (beloved in Cleveland despite notoriety from "The Fumble") and Kevin Mack, who each recorded 1,000 yards in 1985 as part of solid careers in Cleveland.

To be mentioned among that group, Johnson must have sustained success over a lengthy career in Cleveland. For example, Peyton Hillis stormed the league in 2010, earning adulation and a Madden cover. But Hillis caused trouble the next season and was gone by 2012. While his season was unbelievable, Hillis will forever be an afterthought to Clevelanders. Most of the great Browns running backs listed above reached the 1,000-yard mark three times and stayed in Cleveland for seven seasons. Johnson will likely have to hit these two milestones to be remembered among that group. Or help this team win a championship. If Johnson accomplishes that, he'll get a statue.

SOTU: Who wins the QB battle in Cleveland, and how much will said signal caller rely on Duke's superb pass protection skills in 2015?

DBN: Josh McCown wins the quarterback competition in training camp, but Johnny Manziel will get a second chance by Week 5 at the latest. That's my prediction, at least. It's anyone's guess who the team's quarterback will be in December.

Regardless of the quarterback, the Browns will rely on Johnson's pass protection in a significant way. The team's offensive line is supposed to be stout in pass protection, but somehow opass rushers always manage to find their way through the right side of the line. With the addition of Erving, the Browns' line should be less porous in pass protection in 2015, but Johnson's skills will still be valuable.

Thanks again to Joe for working with us.

We are sure the fans in Cleveland are going to love Duke Johnson as much as we did in Miami.

For all things Cleveland Browns, be sure to check out Dawgs By Nature.