After going undrafted out of South Florida, where he backed up current Colts running back Marlon Mack, D’Ernest Johnson spent 2018 out of football, making a living fishing for Mahi-mahi off the coast of Key West. Thursday, he had the game of his life, leading the shorthanded Browns to a win over a potent Denver defense anchored by former Super Bowl MVP Von Miller.
Even if you’re a fairly knowledgeable fan well-versed in the Browns’ comings and goings, there’s a decent enough chance this is the first you’re hearing of Johnson, a career backup elevated to feature status, the result of injuries to Pro Bowl teammates Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The industry's preeminent draft expert, Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, had this to say about Johnson coming out of USF: “Johnson simply doesn't have the size, athleticism, speed or production that stands out … His special teams experience could boost his chances once he gets into camp, but making a roster will be a challenge.”
Boy did Johnson prove his critics wrong Thursday night, making the most of his opportunity with 146 yards on the ground, which is nearly as many as he had all of last season (166). Johnson went ballistic against the Broncos, outgaining his expected yards on 15 of 22 runs (68.2 percent). According to Next Gen Stats powered by Amazon, that’s the second-highest rate since 2018 (minimum 20 carries).
Not only did Johnson give fantasy owners a lift (24.8 PPR points), but he also impressed evaluators at ProFootballFocus, who rewarded his efforts by giving him the highest rushing grade (90.6) of the 2021 season. That bettered the previous mark held by Hunt, who garnered an 89.3 rating for his performance against the Bears in Week 3 (81 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries).
Just when it looked like Johnson’s night couldn’t get any better, the king himself, NBA megastar and longtime Browns supporter LeBron James, gave his seal of approval with a well-deserved shout-out on Twitter.
Who knows if Johnson will keep this up, or if he’ll even have the chance with Chubb potentially returning in Week 8, but for one magical night, the 25-year-old was the NFL’s best and brightest.