Every NFL offseason produces a handful of dramatic showdowns between players who want to get paid and teams reluctant to pony up the cash, a dynamic that can often lead to holdouts or skipped offseason activities. But in the case of the Cleveland Browns and one of their young breakout stars from 2021, it’s the opposite that is proving true — at least so far.
Cleveland tendered an offer to third-string running back D’Ernest Johnson of $2.4 million for the 2022 season after he stepped into the starting lineup and produced significantly on multiple occasions last year. Johnson has yet to sign that deal, presumably seeking an offer for more years and more money.
Despite the back and forth on the business side of the negotiations, Johnson has chosen not to play hardball on the football side of things. The running back reported to Cleveland’s opening round of OTAs last week, despite the fact that he is not technically under contract with the team and that the workouts carry a classification of “voluntary.”
While Johnson’s presence does not guarantee he won’t employ new tactics at some future juncture or that he will end up in a Browns uniform come opening kickoff in September, it is a sign of good faith that the young running back is inclined toward an amicable return to Cleveland this fall.
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Johnson Signed With Super Agent Earlier This Offseason
One development that could potentially complicate things between Johnson and the Browns is the decision he made earlier this offseason to switch representation, signing with notorious super agent Drew Rosenhaus.
Johnson earned just $2.29 million across his initial three years in the NFL, and the offer from Cleveland for next season exceeds his entire career earnings by more than $100,000. While the pay bump must be attractive to Johnson, it is entirely possible that he feels he’s deserving of more. And it is entirely possible that he would be justified in the holding of that belief.
Johnson carried the ball 100 times last season and while that falls short of an average year’s workload for a starter, it is a legitimate sample size from which to draw conclusions about a back’s talent. Johnson produced an impressive 5.3 yards per carry total, rushing for 534 yards and three touchdowns on the year. He also proved his value as a dual threat back, catching 19 passes for 137 yards, per Pro Football Reference.
Running backs tend to have shorter NFL career spans than most considering the high-impact nature of the position within a game that is already inherently violent across every spot on the field. The move to hire Rosenhaus signals that Johnson is looking for as many years and as much money as possible. Playing on a one-year deal in the backfield is a precarious place for any player to find himself, where just one hit, one injury, could end it all.
Browns’ Stacked Backfield Complicates Johnson’s Bargaining Position
The largest impediment to Johnson’s goals of earning a more sizable payday is how well situated the Browns are in their backfield already.
There are only two reasons that Johnson is the third-string running back in Cleveland, and their names are Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Both rushers — who hold the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on the depth chart, respectively — have been selected to the Pro Bowl in the past. Hunt led the league in rushing during his rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs and Chubb recently signed a three-year deal worth $12.2 million annually. No matter how good Johnson has been in his limited usage, he has fallen short of usurping either running back currently slotted in front of him.
That said, Hunt is on the final year of his contract and set to earn $6.25 million in 2022. It may not make sense for the Browns to carry three running backs at a total cost of more than $20 million total next year, especially when the team could probably get something of value back in a trade for one of those players.
Chubb isn’t going anywhere, but that Cleveland would at least entertain offers for Hunt’s services doesn’t feel out of the question. He is older and has more mileage on his body than does Johnson, not to mention a more significant injury history. Should the situation in Cleveland develop toward that end, Johnson could be in line for a better offer from the Browns.
It should also be noted that the Browns selected running back Jerome Ford out of the University of Cincinnati in the fifth round of this year’s NFL Draft. His presence makes both Hunt and Johnson more expendable, and could complicate negotiations further should Johnson and Rosenhaus decide to continue pushing for greater compensation.