The Buffalo Bills will likely look to add another running back this offseason through either free agency or the 2015 NFL Draft. Former first-round pick C.J. Spiller will be an unrestricted free agent and the dynamic, yet inconsistent back doesn’t seem to be the best fit in Greg Roman’s power offense. With next season possibly being Fred Jackson’s last, the Bills would be wise to address the position. The wide receiver position dominated the 2014 NFL Draft, with quality talent lasting as far as the fourth-round, an the 2015 running back class appears to have that same quality depth.
New offensive coordinator Greg Roman believes in establishing a powerful rushing attack that relies mostly on traps, counters and the inside zone. The Bills will need running backs that can win between the tackles with vision and physicality, but they’ll also have to possess the speed and patience to run the outside-zone or stretch concepts Roman can turn to.
Miami Hurricanes running back Duke Johnson, while smaller in stature than what you’d expect from a “power” back, could be an attractive target for the Buffalo Bills. Johnson had an incredible career in Coral Gables, surpassing all-time greats Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Frank Gore and Willis McGahee to become Miami’s all-time leading rusher. In three seasons Johnson gained 3,519 yards and 26 touchdowns on 526 carries (6.7 yards-per-carry), while adding 69 receptions for 719 yards and four touchdowns as a receiver.
Duke Johnson is a dynamic playmaker that is capable of fulfilling every role that’s asked from the running back position. He’s got incredible speed with the shiftiness to make defenders miss, and possesses the lower-body strength and aggressiveness to break through tackles.
With the ability to change directions on a dime, Johnson consistently makes the first man miss, whether in space or behind the line of scrimmage. He’s able to jump cut and explode downfield in one fluid motion, which allows him to pick up big chunks of yards at a time.
Johnson’s most impressive traits are put on display before he hits the line of scrimmage. Johnson will get the “speed back” label, but he doesn’t prematurely bounce too many rushes outside, which sets himself apart from the others. Johnson is a patient runner that understands how to set up his blocks and press the hole before exploding to the second level.
Standing just 5’9” and weighing 206 pounds, Johnson’s do-it-all style of play is something to watch. He’s explosive enough to score from anywhere on the field, but he has the physical mindset of fighting for the tough yards. He’s developed one of the nastiest and most effective stiff arms in college football that make him tough to bring down in space. The following clip highlights the positive traits in Johnson’s game. His lineman falls down, so he’s forced to react quickly and hurdle him. At the second level he shows off his acceleration before setting up a block to follow. He cut-steps to turn up-field, simultaneously tiff-arming Kendall Fuller to the ground and picking up another 10 yards.
In addition to being an explosive weapon in the run game, Johnson also shows good hands and the ability to get open and make plays in the passing game. The Hurricanes used Johnson on wheel and angle routes from the running back position, but also would split him out into the slot at times.
Here, Johnson’s ability to threaten a defense as a receiver is shown, as he gets a favorable matchup in space against a Virginia Tech edge defender. Johnson gets on top of him and separates, before adjusting his body to make a fantastic over-the-shoulder diving catch.
He makes a similar play over the middle of the field later in the game that resulted in a touchdown.
Due to his smaller stature, Duke Johnson probably won’t be one of the first two running backs selected in the 2015 NFL Draft, but when factoring in top prospect Todd Gurley’s ACL injury, it’s definitely plausible that he’s the best back in the class (He’s No. 2 on my rankings). Duke Johnson is capable of succeeding in any situation or scheme, as he has the patience, physicality and vision to win between the tackles, but has the speed, agility and explosiveness to make plays to the perimeter. He’s solid in pass protection and is excellent as a receiver. In a game that has seen an increase in quick passes that are used as as an extension of the run game, Duke Johnson projects as a successful every-down back in the NFL.
Projected Round: 2nd-3rd
Player Comparison- LeSean McCoy