D’Ernest Johnson’s journey reconfirms the overabundance of talented running backs

NFL: OCT 21 Broncos at Browns
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Every year, every college program has one or more running backs with a high degree of skill. Many of them have the ability to thrive at the next level — if they have sufficient blocking and the ability to hold the football when it’s relentlessly attacked by NFL defenders and a basic knack for picking up blitzers in pass protection.

As a result, capable tailbacks can be found at every level of the draft. They also can be found beyond the draft. And every year there’s a fresh crop of them bubbling up to the NFL.

The latest example comes from Cleveland, where D'Ernest Johnson went from undrafted to the AAF (where he had to send direct messages to team Twitter accounts to get their attention) back to the NFL and, with injuries to those in front of him on the depth chart, a chance to gain 146 yards and to score a touchdown on 22 carries in a key game for the Browns.

It shows how many guys can do the job. It’s a tough, demanding position to be sure, one that results in plenty of injuries. Which becomes all the more reason to not invest first-round draft picks in a tailback without clear conviction that the running back will join the short list of all-time greats, and that he’ll have the durability to do so.

In 2018, the Giants foolishly used the second overall pick on running back Saquon Barkley. Yes, hindsight proves the folly of the selection. But the fact that he’s suffered through chronic injuries at the NFL level is no surprise. Running backs get hit, often and hard. They’re gigantic electromagnets rolling through an anvil warehouse. And the more a guy gets hit, the more likely he is to get injured.

Consider the kinds of car-crash collisions in which tailbacks are engaged. They’re running in one direction, and large, strong, fast men are running in a different direction. The physics point to an impact that inevitably will inflict injury.

This important caveat applies when drafting (or not drafting) running backs and when paying (or not paying) running backs. The position has become devalued because too many guys can do the job, and because every April results in a new class of capable tailbacks with much more tread on the tires, and much cheaper salaries.

The Giants could have had Josh Allen instead of Barkley. One year earlier, the Jaguars (who took Leonard Fournette at No. 4) and the Panthers (who took Christian McCaffrey at No. 8) could have had Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson. Even though McCaffrey has been great when healthy, lately he hasn’t been healthy nearly enough.

It’s not his fault. It’s the nature of the position. Running backs have no protections under the rules, and they constantly run directly into a mosh pit of arms, legs, helmets, shoulder pads, and torsos. It’s amazing they don’t get injured more often.

And, frankly, it’s amazing that anyone would roll the dice on a high-risk position like tailback with a first-round pick.

25 responses to “D’Ernest Johnson’s journey reconfirms the overabundance of talented running backs

  1. Think of what the Bears did giving Cohen a big extension…right before he hurt his knee. Cohen is a scatback, guys like him are in EVERY draft in the 4th/5th round. It was stupid to give him any kind of extension when you see, oh look, Khalil Herbert.

  2. Is it really an overabundance of talented running backs? Or is it that you can stick any number of good running backs behind one of the better offensive lines in football and they have incredible success?

  3. The Josh Allen, Mahommes, and Watson comparison doesn’t hold water. Those picks could also have easily been Trubisky or Josh Rosen or Davis Webb. Hindsight is always 20/20.
    Most RBs coming out just aren’t willing blockers in pass pro or can’t catch the tough ones. Thats the biggest difference between the starter and the bench guy.

  4. The O-line goes a long way towards how successful a RB can/will be. Browns have a great O-line, but D’Ernest earned a lot of his yards after the 1st level.

  5. its also why something should be done to get these guys paid more coming out of the draft. teams notoriously ride rbs until they have no tread on the tire and are too banged up to get that second contract that every other position player gets.

  6. I think it’s all about using the zone blocking scheme if you want to maximize RB talent.It automatically open holes and gives room to run.That’s how an UDFA stars in last night’s game and a 6th rounder like Terrell Davis ends up in the HOF.

  7. “They’re gigantic electromagnets rolling through an anvil warehouse.”


  8. Is it an overabundance of talented running backs, or just more and more defenses built to defend against the pass?

  9. To be fair, Cleveland has quietly built up a really good offensive line. Obviously Johnson is a powerful runner, but having a line allows teams to plug and play. Late 90’s early 2000’s Denver is a the perfect example of that.

  10. The point is valid. The best running backs during the final months of the season are often guys who started the season third on the depth chart. That being said, using Deshaun Watson as an example of a guy you could have drafted instead of a RB…not the best name to make the point

  11. The Chiefs won a Superbowl with a journeyman RB that should have won the MVP over Mahomes. Then they wasted a 1st round pick on CEH who has turned out to be an injury prone mediocre talent.

  12. The O-line matters and how the offense is called matters. The running game sets up play action which sets up the run.

    I will remind everyone, though, that both of Cleveland’s starting tackles were out last night, which makes the O-line’s and Johnson’s performances even more impressive.

    I would like to add that the Browns, for once, successfully ran out the clock at the end of the game. They didn’t even worry about garbage time points. Johnson could’ve scored again with about a minute left but he didn’t. That was a really smart play.

  13. I appreciate the angle of the story, there’s much truth to it, but this Johnson guy is special (or at least he was last night). He took the Browns upon his shoulders and carried them to that win (while also dragging would-be Broncos tacklers along with him, or shoving them out of the way).

  14. You win by playing solid defense and establishing the run. You have to regularly draft RB and run-stuffing DT in the first couple of rounds until you hit on one.

  15. overabundance of talented running backs

    SERIOUSLY? Then why is it so hard for a lot of teams to find a single one then?

  16. While I’d pretty much never approve of a team taking a RB in the top ten or maybe even in round 1, we must stop the lazy analysis that Rb’s are still a dime a dozen. If that were the case, Buffalo, NY Jets, Arizona, Baltimore, and so on would have figured out their situations already but they’re still in flux. Then you see guys like Barkley and Fournette on crappy teams with below average lines and wonder why they aren’t making the impact that other guys are.

  17. Good, that way when they get injured early on in their career, they can be discarded and easily replaced. That’s the reason why most younger players with talent want nothing to do with playing RB.

  18. Did you see Jedrick Willis completely stonewall the entire left side of the line just by standing tall and squeezing his legs together? I’ve never seen that kind of maneuver before, it was amazing. With his ankle injury, he blocks better with 1 leg than most can do on 2 legs.

  19. prophessor4 says:
    its also why something should be done to get these guys paid more coming out of the draft. teams notoriously ride rbs until they have no tread on the tire and are too banged up to get that second contract that every other position player gets.

    It doesn’t work that way.
    Players don’t get paid based on how much wear and tear their bodies absorb, nor should they. If that were the case, under modern NFL rules today’s highly-protected quarterbacks would be the second lowest-paid position after placekickers and punters
    The NFL is a business. Employees get paid based on the uniqueness of their skill-set and their overall value and contribution to the team. In the 1960s and ’70s the NFL was all about running. Defenses almost always had eight men in the box. Top-of-the-line running backs were workhorses and among the top-paid and most highly drafted positions.
    As this article points out, in today’s pass-happy game there are scores of running backs to be found in the middle and lower rounds that are capable of getting the job done against defenders stretched all over the field and focused on stopping the pass. It’s a simple case of economic supply and demand. The more of them there are, and the easier they are to find, the less they’re worth to their teams.
    Nobody has a God-given, Constitutional or other inalienable right to have a long NFL career and get paid a lot of money. If longevity as it translates to cash is why you play the game then my advice to parents is: Momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be running backs.

  20. The Browns just happen to have 3 potential legit 1K yard rushing RBs. If the Giants had to do it all over again, without question would have taken Nick Chubb over Saquon Barkely and even the Pats would have taken Chubb over Sony Michael who was the starter at Georgia in front of Nick Chubb. More of the credit goes to the Browns’ GM for finding these guys.

  21. To those questioning the abundance of good running backs and asking why some teams can’t find running backs, perhaps the problem isn’t their runners but the offensive lines they run behind?
    Some lines are just not very good, and some are built for pass blocking but aren’t as accomplished at run blocking. In the case of a team like Arizona, they aren’t great run-blockers, and Kyler Murray’s legs and escapability only make them appear to be effective pass blockers.

  22. I disagree with the idea of. It drafting RBs in the 1st. Many of the star RBs we see today who were not drafted in the 1st should have been. Kamara, Henry, Mixon.

  23. charlsong1 says:
    Many of the star RBs we see today who were not drafted in the 1st should have been. Kamara, Henry, Mixon.


    I get and mostly agree with what you’re saying, and other teams probably did miss out by not drafting them in the first round. But the teams that drafted them didn’t.
    Those three backs have proven to be first-round talent, but their teams had an opportunity to draft another first-round talent in the first round — players at higher-valued positions that likely wouldn’t have been available later — and still got a really good running back in the second round or lower. I didn’t do the research, but if those teams missed on their other first-round guy that’s on them.
    Factor in most running backs’ short careers, and the fact that aside from Henry the other two might not have excelled to this degree in another team’s scheme, and it appears from a value standpoint the Saints, Titans and Bengals all played it just right.

  24. Leonard Fournette’s mentioned once in this article.
    Remember Fournette was a bust? Cut at JAX despite being a 1,000 yard rusher and 70 catch receiver?
    Now he’s a Super Bowl champ, plays a prominent role on Tampa’s team and JAX is 1-20 in the last 2 seasons.
    It’s how you use a player, not the player’s position.

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