CLEVELAND — Duke Johnson Jr.’s time with the Cleveland Browns came to an abrupt end hours before the start of the preseason opener against Washington when the front office dealt the versatile running back to the Houston Texans.
Johnson Jr. was sent to the Texans in exchange for a conditional pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, which could be a third-rounder if the veteran ball carrier is active for at least 10 games during the 2019 regular season.
“Duke was a good football player,” Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said. “He is a good football player. It is hard to let good football players go, but we did what was best for the organization and the Cleveland Browns.
“What John (Dorsey) did felt like what we needed to do. It truly did. Duke was drafted in the third round, so it was a good opportunity to help us out down the road in the future. We wish Duke nothing but the best. Well wishes.”
Johnson Jr.’s final act as a member of the Browns was sitting out practice while tending to a hamstring injury.
Normally durable after having played every game in his first four NFL seasons, the Browns defended against the notion that Johnson Jr. exaggerated the injury as a way to “hold out” from training camp while working with his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, on getting a trade done.
“Do not question Duke’s professionalism,” Kitchens told reporters after the preseason win. “Duke had a pulled hamstring. As an organization, you do not want him to come back on a pulled hamstring and if he pulls it again, he is out for a month. We were trying to get him ready for the season. We were not trying to get him ready to play tonight. I would not question Duke’s professionalism if I were you.”
Johnson Jr.’s future with the Browns had been the topic of much debate and discussion since the organization signed controversial running back Kareem Hunt in early February, and the questions grew louder when he elected not to show up for the voluntary portion of the offseason program.
After restating during mandatory minicamp his desire to be traded, Johnson Jr. parted ways with his former agent and hired a well-known representative in Rosenhaus, who successfully negotiated a release from the Browns for Breshad Perriman after hours after signing him to a contract once they acquired Odell Beckham Jr. in a trade with the New York Giants.
After leading the Browns with 74 catches during the 2017 season, Johnson Jr. caught just 47 passes and got 40 carries. Despite the lightened workload, Johnson Jr. averaged a career-high 5.0 yards per carry and matched a single-season personal best with three touchdown receptions.
Selected in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft after a record-setting career with the University of Miami, Johnson Jr. has rushed for 1,286 yards and five touchdowns with 71 first downs and five 20-yard bursts on 299 carries over 64 games in his four years with the Browns.
Johnson Jr. has turned 235 catches into 2,170 yards, eight touchdowns, 29 20-yard plays, two 40-yard efforts and 103 first downs.
“They wanted people who wanted to be there, and Duke was there,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “Unfortunately, he got hurt, and then, the decision was made to trade him away.
“We have to have the ‘next man up’ mentality, so tonight, you saw a lot of Dontrell Hilliard. We are going to be counting on guys that continue to step up and see who can fill the void because Duke was obviously a huge part of our offense last year.”