The Cleveland Browns have been operating a running back, or two, heavy for the entirety of the 2022 season — a somewhat curious decision that looks now like it may pay off.
Rookie rusher Jerome Ford, who has served primarily as the team’s kickoff returner during his first NFL campaign, sustained an ankle injury during the first quarter of Sunday’s road loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Ford was unable to return to the game. The Browns on Tuesday, October 4, announced the running back is headed to the injured reserve (IR) list.
Ford will be sidelined for at least the next four games, giving fan favorite D’Ernest Johnson an opportunity to be kick returner and third-string running back.
Ford’s Emergence For Browns Resulted in Demotion For Johnson
Johnson assumed the majority of Ford’s kickoff duties against the Falcons, and will presumably fill that role for the foreseeable future.
The former third-string running back, who started two games for the Browns last year, has suited up for only two of the team’s four contests to date in 2022. After carrying the ball 100 times for 534 yards and three touchdowns last season, as well as making 19 catches for 137 yards, Johnson has yet to receive an offensive touch — playing the entirety of his snaps on special teams.
Ford’s emergence resulted in Johnson’s demotion, despite the Browns inking him to a new one-year deal for $1.2 million over the offseason. Johnson’s role ballooned in 2021 after injuries hampered both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, as the top two running backs missed three games and nine games, respectively.
Johnson One Injury Away From Major Role in Browns’ Offense
Both Chubb and Hunt have remained healthy thus far in 2022 and have been used frequently, with Chubb garnering 87 combined touches and Hunt amassing 57 combined touches. However, should one suffer an injury of any meaningful sort, Johnson may yet again find himself in a position to contribute significantly.
The Browns have been a run-centric offense under the leadership of quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who is functioning as more of a game manager and less of a gunslinger in place of the suspended Deshaun Watson.
Chubb is second in the league in rushing with 459 yards and second in rushing touchdowns with five, per NFL.com. He has also caught six passes for 37 yards. Hunt, meanwhile, has 200 rushing yards and one score to go along with 11 catches for 73 yards and a receiving touchdown, per Pro Football Reference.
Cleveland’s decision to select Ford in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft, and his subsequent supplanting of Johnson’s spot on the active roster, indicated that the Browns may have been open to dealing Johnson for the right price.
Multiple contenders — including the San Francisco 49ers, the Los Angeles Rams and Miami Dolphins — made sense as trade partners for the skilled running back without too much tread on his tires. However, it now looks like Johnson will be a part of the Browns’ immediate plans, at least for the next four games, while Ford recovers from his ankle injury on the IR.