BEREA, Ohio – As Johnny Manziel stood in the center of the locker room Wednesday defending his right to enjoy himself away the training facility, Andrew Hawkins spoke about the importance of professionalism.
The subject was the team's youngest player. The assessment was glowing.
"I think Duke (Johnson) is a great player and he's just scratching the surface," the veteran receiver said. "He works hard and he's a good pro, which is something I look for with rookies coming in. Do they understand the business of football? Do they come in and do their jobs to the best of their abilities? That's what I see Duke doing."
Browns fans have grown conditioned in recent seasons to expect the worst from their draft picks. They either Play Like a (Charlie) Brown on the field or act like a knucklehead away from it. The special ones, no names please, hit with power to both fields.
In a season where so much appears lost, it's worth remembering the organization sometimes gets it right. That's certainly the case with Johnson, who doesn't turn 23 until next September.
The University of Miami product is a rarity around these parts – a bona fide playmaker who arrived as advertised.
The third-round pick is not yet making a significant impact in the rushing attack (who is?) but the versatile back is a weapon in the pass game. It's that facet the Browns hyped on draft night and all through OTAs.
Imagine that, a youngster playing to expectation. Maybe it's not big news in some NFL precincts, but it's a welcome change in Berea, where rookies often depreciate in value the moment they leave their introductory news conference.
Among all league backs, Johnson ranks fourth in receiving yards (369) and receiving touchdowns (two) and sixth in catches (35).
"He has certainly shown in his rookie year that it is not too big for him and he can be very productive," coach Mike Pettine said. "There are a lot of graduate level details that he needs to get cleaned up, but ... we are very pleased with where Duke is."
Some contend using the 77th pick on a running back who's essentially a wide receiver is a bit high. Fair point. The counter argument is: Have you seen the Browns' receiving corps?
Johnson lines up all over the formation and is arguably the toughest matchup for opposing defensive coordinators. Since Week 4, he's caught passes for 34, 27, 21, 52 and 26 yards. Only tight end Gary Barnidge can better those big-play sums since the season's opening month.
"I was down there at his pro day and saw him run routes and catch the ball and do some of those things so I'm not surprised by some of the things he's been able to do," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said on a Wednesday conference call. "I think it was quite evident for those of us who were on hand at his pro day."
A concussion and hamstring injury forced him to miss virtually the entire training camp. Johnson didn't resemble the dynamic player the Browns described in the season's first two games. Then, he caught a short pass late in the 27-20 loss to the Raiders, made a couple defenders miss and gained 19 yards.
Johnson has been an elusive presence ever since – sometimes even to his quarterbacks and offensive coordinator. Both Josh McCown and Manziel have missed the wide-open running back on multiple occasions. His 26-yard catch against the Bengals could have netted a huge gain had Manziel spotted him earlier in the route.
But the 5-foot-9, 210 pounder seldom complains. Not even when the Browns have failed to get him the ball in the second half of losses to the Cardinals and Bengals.
"I was out there (against Cincinnati)," Johnson said. "I just wasn't making plays."
John DeFilippo vowed to make more use of running backs in the pass game and Johnson has enabled the first-year coordinator to deliver on the promise.
Despite a strong start, the rookie hardly acts as though he has the game figured out.
"(I need to) improve every aspect of my game," he said. "I'm catching the ball well, but I could do it better. I'm running routes OK, but I could do it better. I'm running the ball average and I know I could do it better. ... (Same) with passing blocking."
Johnson also didn't duck answering a pointed question as to why the Browns have managed a combined three points after intermission in the past three games.
"We're leaving the offense in the locker room," he said. "I don't think we come out to play in the second half. First half we come out the way we want and the second half we come out and tell ourselves we're going to come out even better, but yet we don't do it."
No rookie-speak there. No "that's a better question for the coaches." Here is a player who expects more of himself and his team.
Johnson and the Browns need to get more out of him in the running game. He's carried the ball just 59 times for 179 yards. Johnson refuses to lobby for more carries, though.
"To me, touches are touches," he said. "However I get the ball in my hands is fine."
We spend lots of time analyzing what the Browns have gotten wrong in recent drafts. General Manager Ray Farmer and his staff got this one right.
Duke Johnson is a good pro and he's getting better.