Former Orlando Apollos running back D’Ernest Johnson is starting for the Cleveland Browns on Thursday Night Football. This comes after injuries to both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who arguably make up the best backfield duo in the NFL.
Johnson, who played college football at South Florida, went undrafted in 2018. He attended rookie minicamp with the New Orleans Saints, but was not offered a contract. Johnson then went to work on a fishing boat in Key West, one of his only options to make money while being away from the field. His next opportunity as a pro wouldn’t come until early 2019, when the Alliance of American Football (AAF) kicked off their inaugural season.
In eight games with the Orlando Apollos, Johnson carried the ball 64 times for 372 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also caught 20 passes for 220 yards and another touchdown on 30 targets. Johnson was one of the AAF’s top performers, and once the league ceased operations, he signed with the Browns in May 2019.
In his first year with Cleveland, Johnson had 4 carries for 21 yards and 6 catches for 71 yards. He saw an increased role in 2020, recording 36 total touches for 180 yards. Although he didn’t have any scoring plays, Johnson’s usage in the backfield given what Cleveland already had was promising.
Now, in 2021, he will get a true opportunity to prove himself as an NFL-level talent. Players like Johnson are rare, since most alt. league alumni struggle to make active rosters (let alone get snaps). For anyone who was a fan of the AAF, this should be recognized as a very notable moment.
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