It was a night of superlatives for the Cleveland Browns‘ D’Ernest Johnson.
In his first NFL start, Johnson ran for 146 yards and tacked on 22 passing yards for good measure.
And he didn’t need a ton of touches to hit those totals, averaging 6.6 yards-per-carry on 22 rushes.
He constantly bounced off or spurted past would-be tacklers like a seasoned pro.
According to the NFL’s NextGen Stats, Johnson gained 53 more yards than expected.
NextGen also reports Johnson ran for extra yards on 15 of his 22 carries, a NextGen record for that percentage.
He received his first game ball and his first Lebron James shout-out on the same night.
And in case there was any doubt, Pro Football Focus gave him the highest score of the season for any running back.
D’Ernest Johnson: 90.0 PFF rushing grade vs the Broncos
That’s the highest single-game rushing grade this season 😤😤 pic.twitter.com/zsggdLKuiv
— PFF (@PFF) October 22, 2021
Johnson Is More Than a Good Runner
PFF tabulates their player scores on more than just statistics.
While Johnson’s 168 total yards is impressive, the popular analyst site looks at other aspects.
And that is how Johnson made it onto the Browns’ roster anyway.
Cleveland invited him to camp In 2019 after an impressive showing with the doomed Alliance of American Football organization.
D’ Ernest Johnson on 1 tonight!! Love to see it! #Browns
— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 22, 2021
Johnson ran well and he caught passes well enough.
But it might have been the way he adeptly covered and returned kicks and punts that earned him a roster spot.
His 90.0 PFF score this week considered his blocking, pass route running, and other aspects.
And Johson’s well-rounded game helped him earn a rare “elite” performance grade from the group.
Obstacles Everywhere for D’Ernest Johnson
Johnson played his college ball at South Florida, earning some honors and putting up good numbers.
But he played the bulk of his college games behind Marlon Mack, which limited Johnson’s opportunities.
When he went undrafted, the New Orleans Saints invited him to their rookie camp but did not sign him.
Johnson went to work on a fishing boat, but his football dream did not die.
D'Ernest Johnson was impressive in his first career start, gaining a career-high +53 rushing yards over expected.
Johnson outgained his expectation on 15 of his 22 carries (68.2%), the 2nd-highest rate in a game since 2018 (min. 20 carries).#StatThat | Powered by @awscloud pic.twitter.com/4Fv08qcGl9
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 22, 2021
When the AAF announced their new league, he sent a letter to each team asking for a tryout.
The Orlando Apollos brought him in and the AAF lasted just long enough for Johnson to catch the eye of NFL scouts.
When the Cleveland Browns included him on their 53 man roster, he was buried behind some bigger names again.
But he made the most of his chances, averaging 5 yards-per-carry including a 13-carry, 95-yard effort last season.
What’s Next For D’Ernest Johnson?
Johnson has been on the active roster all season, playing mostly on special teams.
But now that the world and PFF know he is an elite runner, what happens next?
Nick Chubb is expected back next week for the Pittsburgh game, but Kareem Hunt‘s role is still open.
Johnson will undoubtedly play second fiddle to Chubb, but Hunt’s role isn’t a bad gig.
Most rushing yards in a first career start over the last 30 Seasons
2017: Kareem Hunt (148)
2005: Cadillac Williams (148)
2021: D’Ernest Johnson (146)@ESPNStatsInfo #browns https://t.co/VFN0FpnWJM
— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) October 22, 2021
Hunt averaged about 12 touches per game, and Johnson’s pass-catching ability makes him a good fit.
But Hunt is expected back in a few weeks, at which point Kevin Stefanski has some decisions to make.
Cleveland will have 3 rushers with 100-yard games this season to share the load.
It’s a pleasant dilemma for Stefanski and the Browns, and one Johnson will deal with when it happens.
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