Duke Johnson never lost hope.
And he didn’t want out.
Not during the 1-15 2016 season. Not after the winless 2017 season. Not when the Browns added Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb to the backfield in the offseason.
Johnson’s performance, faith and loyalty were rewarded Thursday when the running back signed a three-year, $15.6 million contract extension with the Browns. The deal includes $7.7 million guaranteed and a $5 million signing bonus and keeps him under contract through 2021.
“I’m excited. It’s fun to see how this team is shaping out and I want to be a part of it,” Johnson said in the new release announcing the move.
He mentioned quarterback Tyrod Taylor, receiver Jarvis Landry and offensive coordinator Todd Haley as key additions.
“(General manager) John Dorsey has been bringing in guys that can play, that can ball, and that gives us a chance,” Johnson said. “Now it’s about going out and doing it now.”
Last month during organized team activities, Johnson expressed his optimism an extension would be reached, and in the future of an organization that hasn’t had a winning record since 2007.
“I’ve always seen that it could be special,” said Johnson, who has won four games in three seasons. “I always had that from the moment I was drafted that it could always be something special. It’s just up to the players and staff to get us to that point.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited.”
Johnson, a running back/slot receiver/playmaker, was voted the team’s Player of the Year by beat writers last season after totaling 1,041 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns. He was a third-round pick out of Miami in 2015 and has emerged has a durable, reliable offensive threat that is much more than a third-down back.
The move is a significant one for the organization and Dorsey, who was hired in December.
Dorsey had made numerous trades and free agent signings and inked Landry to an extension after trading for him, but Johnson is the first player he inherited he’s chosen to keep for the long term.
“Duke Johnson is a good football player. His hard work and commitment to the Browns organization is appreciated and we are excited to extend his contract and keep him in a Browns uniform for years to come,” Dorsey said. “Duke is an excellent representative of our organization. He leads by example and we look forward to him playing an important role with the Cleveland Browns moving forward.”
Johnson (5-foot-9, 210 pounds) led the team with 74 catches and 693 receiving yards last season — records for a Browns running back. He joined Herschel Walker (1986-88) as the only running backs in NFL history with 500 receiving yards in each of their first three seasons.
Since 2015, he’s first among NFL backs with 6.3 yards per touch from scrimmage, 1,741 receiving yards and 188 catches.
“No matter how you get him the ball, if you pass it to him, you hand it to him, I’m sure if he played defense he’d be a good football player, too,” left guard Joel Bitonio said last season. “He’s just one of those guys you want on your team. And I love playing with Duke.”
The extension averages $5.2 million a season, which would rank in the top 10 for NFL running back if the deal included 2018. He’ll make $1.9 million this year in the final season of his rookie deal, according to spotrac.com.
Former Browns starting running back Isaiah Crowell signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Jets in March as a free agent.
Johnson has started eight games in his career but none last year. He has never missed a game, easing persistent concerns about durability at his size.
Dorsey saw the same thing as the coaching staff — a versatile playmaker with quickness, agility and good hands who gives great effort.
“Duke is pound for pound one of the best players I have been around,” coach Hue Jackson said last season. “He is tough. I get disappointed because he does not get as much notoriety as some of the other guys that play the position because of our record, but he is playing extremely well for us.”
The new, big money erases any concern that Johnson would be squeezed out after the offseason additions of free agent Hyde and rookie Chubb, the No. 35 pick in the draft.
“They made a whole (new) team for the most part,” Johnson said May 23 during OTAs. “A lot of guys, a lot of new faces. At the end of the day, I’m a player, but I also help teach and kind of mentor the younger guys, kind of teach them dos and don’ts and get caught up and just be that person for them to lean on. Regardless of who is in the room, I’m the same person every day.
“At the end of the day, regardless of what’s going on, I know I have a job to do and my main goal is to go out and do my job, regardless of record, regardless of weather, regardless of what’s going on, I just try to go out and do my job.”