There is no question that when he is playing at his best, Chris Johnson is one of the most dynamic rushers the league has ever seen. Yes, ever.
His 2009 campaign was easily one of the best seasons in NFL history: 358 rushes, 2,006 yards rushing, 50 receptions, 503 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. If it seemed like he was breaking 40+ yard runs with regularity it's because he was. The diminutive runner (5'11" and 195 pounds) not only was electric in the open field, but was the go-to guy in just about every situation. Johnson tallied an astounding 408 touches from scrimmage that season (which causes one to wonder how much of a toll that took on him in subsequent years).
He followed up his legendary 2009 season with an excellent 2010. Tennessee reduced his workload a great deal, feeding him the ball nearly fifty fewer times. However, he still responded with over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns. One concern was that his yards-per-carry average dipped from an absurd 5.6 in 2009 to just 4.3 in 2010. Some of that can be attributed to typical regression (nobody can keep up a 5.6 YPC average over the long haul), some had to do with defenses keying on him and game-planning a bit more, and some may have been nothing more than simply a little worse luck than the prior season.
The consensus from most fantasy owners was that 2009 was the high end for Johnson and 2010 was the floor. There was no way a runner this dynamic would post another YPC as low as 4.3, and as a result most drafts saw Johnson taken in the first half of the first round. While there weren't likely many owners who expected another 2,000-yard, 16 touchdown performance, it was safe to say that expectations were for him to be closer to those numbers than his 2010 stats. So what happened? Well, we all know the answer to that one. Johnson held out during training camp in an attempt to get a new lucrative contract. He had likely earned it based on his first three seasons, and Tennessee finally gave him the new deal he wanted. Everybody seemed happy. But on the field, the marriage became a disaster.
For most of the season, Johnson couldn't get out of his own way. He stumbled his way to a career-worst 4.0 yards per carry and just four total touchdowns. The open field burst and elusiveness were missing. Johnson didn't seem to fight for extra yardage, instead appearing content to take what the defense gave him and nothing more. Fans and fantasy owners alike were calling for unheralded backup Javon Ringer to become the primary ball-carrier for the team. And just when it looked like Johnson might be getting back to his old ways and showing glimpses of his electric ability, he suffered a nagging ankle injury that slowed him during the fantasy playoffs.
Heading into 2012, Johnson is one of the more interesting potential draftees out there. We've all seen what a motivated and healthy Johnson is capable of. But that disastrous 2011 is still very fresh in some people's minds. How do we weigh those two against one another?
Johnson is still extremely active in the passing game, as evidenced by his career-best 57 receptions in 2011 (also posted the second-best YPR of his career at 7.3). So it's a rare game that Johnson will put up a complete goose egg
The offensive line is greatly improved. For all the talk about Javon Ringer being effective as a runner, Ringer averaged nearly a full yard LESS per carry than Johnson did. If the ineffective running game was all Johnson's fault, then it would stand to reason that the other runners would have run well in his stead
Johnson's conditioning may not have been 100% after his lengthy holdout, and it could have just taken him time to round into shape. He showed glimpses of his old form at times late last year, most notably with 343 rushing yards over a two game span just after midseason (and if you prorate his second half stats over a full season, he'd have 1,786 total yards, six touchdowns, and a 4.8 YPC)
Johnson's stats have greatly decreased in each of the last two seasons, culminating in last year's bottoming-out. Not only that, but his opportunities have dwindled from 408 touches in 2009 to just 318 in 2011
Despite how terrible he was last year, he is still right now going off the board as the seventh player on average (RB5), so there's not much of a discount. He pretty much has to play at his top level in order to provide any value
One of his positives is that he may not have been in optimal football shape at the beginning of the 2011 season. Not much of a positive! While it may explain his poor season, it doesn't do anything to quiet the whispers that he didn't run as hungry after the big payday
Johnson is poised to have a nice comeback this season. The biggest issue with drafting him is that you'll have to pay a premium for his 2008-2010 seasons. Based on early ADP and the high regard most fantasy owners have for "explosive guy who can single-handedly win them their league," it looks like most owners are giving very little weight to his 2011 campaign. Johnson is very likely going to be a top-10 draft pick in many leagues. While it's entirely possible that he finishes that highly, nobody can feel too great about spending their first round pick on a guy who looked completely lost for so much of the previous season.
If drafting today in that mid-first round spot, taking a safer approach or looking for running back value later on might be preferred. If the reports this summer demonstrate that Johnson is hungry, in great shape, and looking like his old explosive self, and he follows up those reports by passing the eyeball test in preseason action, then he'll make a much safer selection. And the projections below would be adjusted accordingly. It's just that right now, the lost 2011 season is way too fresh to put that much faith in him.
Michael Brown's Projections for Chris Johnson
280 attempts 1,176 rushing yards 7 rushing touchdowns 50 receptions 350 receiving yards 1 receiving touchdown