I have never been a scout or a NFL General Manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football. By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better. It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can.
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Duke Johnson, RB, Miami (Fla) - 5'9, 207 - Junior
As we continue to roll through the high number of impressive running back prospects that make the 2015 unique in that regard, we arrive at the first of three (also, Ameer Abdullah and Mike Davis) who are under 5'10 and therefore are looked with the awkward eye that questions durability and the ability to be more than a change-up back. All 3 are built well, with weight over 205, but when looking at the size and build of each of these players, durability and disposition are going to go heavily into how we see them fit in today's NFL molds. Never mind that Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith were both under 5'10 and above 200, the league now asks these questions as most of the fulltime backs are at or around 6'0. To examine the accomplished Miami Hurricane RB who is the all-time leading rusher of that famous school, we looked at his games against Nebraska, Virginia Tech, and Florida State.
What I liked: For me, having watched Johnson quite a bit this year, the first thing I like is his competitiveness and his reckless abandon when he hits the hole up inside. He seems pretty fearless and not bothered at all about being the smallest guy in most scenarios, because he seems to do a lot of his best work between the hash marks and most of his runs between the tackles. He is a really solid runner in the zone stretches where he must plant his foot and head upfield with decisiveness and explosion. He has both. He is a smaller player who runs even smaller in terms of staying low and making yourself a tough target to hit. He also is delivering the hits and stiff-arms and fighting to not go to the ground. As a receiver, he just might be the best in the group as not only is a good screen/safety valve RB, but he is actually dangerous with arrow and wheel routes as a primary receiver. They throw a lot at him and he catches very well and then hits the nitro. On the 2nd level, there is so much to like as he gets in space and is hard to track down.
What I did not like: He is not much of a pass protector, but even in that scenario, he doesn't get rushed much because his defender is backed off and concerned about losing Johnson in the flat. He isn't the best in two important categories for a RB - short yardage and the 4-minute drill situations where the defense is sitting on the run, it seems like he might not quite be to the level of the other backs we have examined. I would call him average in both of those. Also, when you get him to turn his shoulders and go wide, he does lose some of his steam and punishment. I need him with his shoulders square going north and south where he is at his best. He has a few nagging injuries that have some wondering about long-term durability as well as a concussion/migraine headache issue or two on his sheet that will get a thorough examination from a prospective employer.
Summary: There is a lot to like here with Duke Johnson, but it is understandable that he might be on that tier below the top with regards to some of the items listed above. That said, as a zone runner with fantastic receiving skills and an attitude that you just have to love, he might be the type of guy who people wonder in 4 years why we were picking him apart when we should have been merely focusing on what makes him special. If you were to focus on his strengths, you could really fall in love with what he brings to the table in so many regards. But, if you want him to be your #1 RB, you might want to make sure your stable behind him is ready to pick up some of the workload just in case.