That’s something that running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery made clear Sunday at the team’s training camp.
While Montgomery was dropping challenges to his group in the hope that one would seize the job, he also said Johnson, the third-round pick from Miami, can be the main guy.
“I think when you’re on this level, everybody can be a lead back,” Montgomery said. “It’s what you’re looking for. We don’t have a bell-cow guy. The game today is a situational game, and you don’t know what personnel you’re putting out there on the field. You can go three wides, four wides or two tight ends-one back. It all depends on what the coordinator calls and what personnel he wants out on the field, and Duke can fit into all the personnels.”
Montgomery said he wrote a scouting report on Johnson before he was drafted, and he compared him to a Thurman Thomas-type back. Thomas played for the Bills and now has a bust in Canton.
What does Johnson do so well?
“He gives you another dimension that we don’t have in the group that we had last year because Duke can be a slot receiver, he can line up wide, and you can move him all over the field,” Montgomery said. “It’s like he’s a total mismatch.”
That the Browns had big plans for Johnson was no secret. They liked him prior to the draft and loved what he did in OTAs and minicamp.
But Johnson has missed eight days -- and the team’s scrimmage -- with a hamstring injury that will definitely keep him out of the preseason opener on Thursday. The Browns are cautiously optimistic that he will return for the second game against Buffalo, but they will be careful with him.
Johnson, Terrance West (who returned Sunday after missing a week with a calf strain) and Isaiah Crowell are the main three competing to start. Shaun Draughn had done well with West and Johnson sidelined, but Draughn showed up with a left thumb injury from the scrimmage on Friday and had his left hand wrapped.
Make no mistake: Montgomery wants a defined starter and not the rotation system that was used last season, when West started six games, Crowell four and the departed Ben Tate six games.
“I want one guy to be able to say, ‘Hey, we know who the starter is, like the other 31 teams in the National Football League,’” Montgomery said. “You’ve got one guy that’s going to start for you, and you’ve got other guys who are going to play the substitution role, and right here, this is the time that you try to separate from the other guys.”
Can it be the rookie? He’s certainly in the mix for more than just the “change of pace” role. He will get his chances in preseason games. As Montgomery said, Crowell played in one preseason game and made the team.