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Injury analysis: Buffalo Bills RB Duke Johnson

Can Johnson overcome a history of hamstring issues?

NFL: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Despite unexpectedly losing RB J.D. McKissic to the Washington Commanders following a verbal agreement, the Buffalo Bills regrouped and signed RB Duke Johnson to a one-year, $1.27 million contract on Tuesday.

The versatile pass-catching back has had extended stints with the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Miami Dolphins. Johnson has suffered his fair share of injuries as most running backs acquire them, but he has been fortunate to miss minimal time. Below is Duke Johnson’s publicly known injury history.

Injury History

2015 Cleveland Browns

Missed zero games. Johnson suffered a hamstring strain, side not specified, during the first day of training camp that dates back to issues since high school. It’s worth noting that he dealt with a hamstring strain during the NFL Combine that year, preventing him from participating in several drills. He missed several weeks of training camp including three preseason games, as he was conservative in his approach to returning.

Once he did return, he suffered a concussion in the fourth preseason game against the Detroit Lions. The hit knocked him out of the game but he was able to recover and play in Week 1.

In Week 6, Johnson went in for another concussion check playing against the Denver Broncos, was cleared of a concussion, but diagnosed with a stinger. He did not miss any time due to the injury.

Finally, Johnson suffered yet another hamstring strain, this time in Week 16 against the Kansas City Chiefs. There were concerns heading into the game initially but he suited up to finish the season. It’s not clear whether this was the same hamstring injury in training camp.

2016 Browns

Missed zero games. Johnson was able to stay relatively clean during his sophomore season, only suffering an ankle injury, side not specified, against the San Diego Chargers in Week 16, but playing to complete the 1-15 season.

2017 Browns

Missed zero games. In the midst of an 0-16 season, Johnson only sustained a shoulder injury, side not specified, against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3. Details of the injury are not available.

2018 Browns

Missed zero games. Johnson was able to stay off the injury report from what was publicly available.

2019 Browns/Houston Texans

Missed zero games. Once again, Johnson suffered a hamstring strain, side not specified, early in training camp that prevented him from effectively contributing early on. He was then traded to the Houston Texans several weeks in for a conditional fourth-round draft pick.

Johnson healed up in time to make the roster out of camp, only later suffering a head injury in Week 8 against the Minnesota Vikings. He went through the concussion check, passing all objective testing prior to returning in Week 9.

2020 Houston

Missed five games. The veteran back suffered a left ankle injury in the Week 1 matchup against the Chiefs. This unfortunately forced him to miss the following two games of the season. He was reportedly week-to-week, which suggested a high ankle sprain. But all reports only specified ankle sprain, which makes my thoughts purely speculative.

He later suffered a neck injury prior to Week 15 that forced him to miss the following three games. Reports indicate that it was a neck injury without any additional information, making it hard to determine if this was a sprain or something greater.

2021 Jaguars/Miami Dolphins

Appeared in 5 games. After getting released by Houston in the offseason, Johnson signed with the Jacksonville’s practice squad following roster cutdowns but was shortly released afterward. He latched on with Miami later in the season, appearing in five total games without injury.

Buffalo Bills Impact

Duke Johnson brings a unique skill set out of the backfield with his ability in the passing game. He has put up at least 400 yards receiving in five out of his seven seasons in the league.

He is a player the Bills have been looking to add as a missing piece in both the passing and running games. While he does have a checkered injury history, I would expect some injuries considering his position and time in the league.

The only injuries I am concerned about are the hamstring and neck injuries. He has played two seasons since his neck injury, which leads me to believe this is a past issue and not a chronic concern—but something worth noting.

As for his soft tissue worries, I’m sure Johnson knows how to manage his hamstring issues and prepare for training camp, but they still seem to give him the most problems in camp. It’s not clear whether this is one hamstring giving him trouble or both sides. From the ESPN article above in 2015, it appears that this is an issue that affects both sides.

He has always split the backfield with another player wherever he has been, which makes overuse less of a concern. If he starts off training camp with some sort of muscle strain, it would almost be expected at this point.

Hamstrings are a common injury to deal with in training camp, but on a one-year deal, he better prove he brings something to the table early on. If he misses extended time due to another strain, he could be on the outside looking in during roster cut-down days.

If he makes the team, the training staff doesn’t necessarily prevent the injuries, but they do a much better job with recovery and getting players back out there. What’s important is that those same players don’t continue to suffer further injury to the area as the season progresses.

I like the competition and skill set that Duke Johnson brings to the team. Overall, this is a solid signing, and outside of the hamstring issues and missing five games in 2020, he has been available and productive. Those are traits any player should have and any team should want. This is another example of bargain bin shopping for the Buffalo Bills’ front office that could pay out handsomely during the season.