Since the end of last season, Cleveland has dangled Johnson as trade bait. The Browns‘ acquisition of running back Kareem Hunt and wide receiver Odell Beckham made it seem like Johnson’s days in the Dawg Pound were numbered.
With his role potentially diminished in 2019, the pass-catching back did not report to Cleveland’s offseason workouts earlier this month and has reportedly asked for a trade.
But the Browns have not traded Johnson, did not trade him on draft weekend as was rumored as a possibility and now insist they do not intend to do so.
“Duke is under contract. I have said this for like a month now, I don’t know where all this trade talk started happening,” Browns coach Freddie Kitchens told reporters on Saturday. “People just assumed that we are going to trade him because we signed another good football player. Me, personally, I like good football players and I like as many of them as we can get.
“Duke Johnson is on this football team, Duke Johnson will have a vital role in this football team and Duke Johnson will help us win football games. Am I surprised that he’s still here? No, not one bit. I haven’t wavered and never said anything different other than that.”
Johnson has three years left on a three-year, $15.6 million extension signed less than 10 months ago.
After starring as Cleveland’s most talented back in his early career, Johnson’s production took a hit in 2018 after the introduction of Carlos Hyde and then rookie runner Nick Chubb, who established himself as the Browns‘ starter going forward. Johnson finished 2018 with a career-low 87 touches and 630 total yards, though his yards per carry zoomed up to 5.0.
It’s understandable for Johnson to want out. Chubb looks to be the bell cow and Hunt, the 2017 PFWA Offensive Rookie of the Year, should spell him as a pass-catching threat. But Hunt is suspended for the first eight games of the 2019 season, making Johnson a useful backfield option for at least half of Cleveland’s campaign.
“At this present time, it is best for Duke Johnson to be a member of the Cleveland Browns and everybody feels that way. Him asking for a trade and stuff like that, it doesn’t matter to me,” Kitchens offered Saturday. “He is a Cleveland Brown. If he shows up, Duke is the type of guy that is going to show up and he is going to do his job. He is going to do his job well. That is all I can ask for as a coach. His opinions and his demands and stuff like that, I’m not impacted by that one bit.”
Johnson’s next obligation comes in late May when the Browns‘ offseason team activities start up. Cleveland’s mandatory minicamp runs from June 4 to 6. We’ll see if Johnson changes his mind by then.