Running Into History
How good was David Johnson in 2015?
This is the second time he handled the football in his professional career (his first touch was a nifty 43-yard kickoff return). One week later—on his very next touch—he broke a Cardinals’ franchise record by doing this, becoming the first player in NFL history to score a rushing touchdown, receiving touchdown and kickoff-return touchdown in his first two games. Not a bad start to a rookie season.
Not a bad finish either. Johnson would go on to set a rookie franchise record for the most touchdowns in a single season. If that doesn’t impress you, only one other player in NFL history has scored at least four rushing touchdowns, four receiving touchdowns and a kickoff return touchdown in his rookie campaign: a man by the name of Gale Sayers.
Overall, Johnson finished the year as the seventh best running back in standard leagues, and ninth best in PPR (Weeks 1-16). Which is quite impressive considering he didn’t even get his first career start until Week 13. From Week 11 on, he was our highest scoring running back.
But it’s not just fantasy stats that have me thinking Johnson might very well be the best running back in the league (a bold statement, to be sure). It’s plays like this:
Beast Mode indeed. He clobbered the Eagles with 187 yards and three scores in that game, and added another 42 yards on four catches: the most PPR fantasy points scored in a single game by a running back in 2015, and the fourth most of all positions.
But to truly illustrate just how good Johnson’s rookie season was, at least from a fantasy football perspective, we need to dig into history. Using the Data Dominator, I pulled the 100 best performances by rookie running backs since 1960.
Johnson made the list. His 211.8 PPR points rank 61st all-time by a rookie (he ranked 64th in standard scoring). Not bad considering the Data Dominator returned 1,758 records. Also not bad when you consider he didn’t get fulltime work until Week 13, but that may have been the case for several of the backs that made this list. We can somewhat adjust for that by calculating the amount fantasy points per touch. Here are the 25 best:
Only Herschel Walker and the aforementioned Sayers beat out our guy. That’s some fine company to be in. In addition to scoring 1.3 fantasy points per touch, he was also 35th in yards per carry with a respectable 4.65 yards a tote, and seventh in yards per reception (12.69).
Historic fantasy seasons aside, I’m guessing the Cardinals are glad they settled for Johnson after Detroit stole Ameer Abdullah from them in the 2015 draft.
Johnson, Johnson and Ellington
Shifting our focus from the past to the future, there’s still some chatter out there that Johnson is no guarantee to be the coveted bell cow. The Cardinals have lot of talent, which also means lots of competition.
Last season, Andre Ellington opened as the starter but lasted only one game before predictably getting sidelined by injury. That opened the door for Chris Johnson, who stepped right in and proved to be a terrific free agent signing. He also proved to be a waiver wire warrior for many of us. From Week 2 to Week 8 he was the 11th best running back in PPR leagues, averaging 4.9 yards per carry over that timeframe, and occasionally stirring up echoes of CJ2k. But after a slow pair of games coming out of the bye, Johnson suffered a leg injury that ended his season, which ultimately opened the door for the better Johnson.
At this point, it’s unlikely that the better Johnson loses his job as the starter, especially after his rookie performance. But it’s fair to guess that CJ will get his touches, and Ellington will be sprinkled in here and there—mostly serving as the emergency backup. One thing is for certain, this might be the best trio of backs in the league, especially if CJ plays the way he did in first half of 2015.
The threat of the better Johnson losing carries is what makes his current ADP so risky. He is being drafted in the middle of the first round with CJ falling all the way to the 13th, and Ellington not even so much as finding a home on the bench in 12 team leagues. If head coach, and David Dodds doppelganger, Bruce Arians so chooses to deploy some sort of smash and dash dual of Johnson and Johnson, it might be devastating to owners who invested their first round pick on the better Johnson. Their saving grace, however, is touchdown potential.
Here’s how Johnson and Johnson stacked up in the red zone (data courtesy of profootballreference.com):
|Year||Player||Att||Yds||TDs||TD %||Rush %|
Granted, the sample size is small. Such is the case when dealing with a rookie. Regardless, DJ was a clearly better runner converting over 30 percent of his carries into touchdowns. CJ was given 30 carries inside the 20s, 15th most in the NFL, yet managed to score only twice—the 10th worst conversion rate of the 60 players with at least 10 attempts.
And things didn’t get any better for him around the goal line. From inside the five-yard line, CJ was given eight carries and converted only one of them into a touchdown, a 12.5 percent conversion rate—dead last among the 19 players that had at least eight attempts. Meanwhile, the better Johnson converted 62.5 percent of his eight attempts into scores—tied for first among running backs:
Even if the Cardinals backfield turns into more of a committee approach than we’d like, chances are Johnson is going to get the majority of goal line looks to go along with the (however thin) majority of touches. And let’s not forget that he’s a great receiver. He saw 13.4 percent of team targets in the red zone which tied him with Michael Floyd for third most. He also had the third most targets by a running back in the red zone. So if there’s one thing that justifies his ADP, other than being awesome at football, it’s his weekly touchdown upside.
Another DominaNt Season is in the Cards
The Cardinals finished 2015 second in total points, first in total yards, tied for first in yards per play, and second in point differential. Football Outsiders ranked them third best in run blocking, which is where we currently rank their offensive line. Basically, they were a powerhouse in nearly every offensive statistical category. And it’s likely they’ll come close to repeating 2015’s efforts this year.
The roster is largely the same. Carson Palmer is running out of time but playing his best football. It helps to have a veteran like Larry Fitzgerald, who blossomed after being moved into the slot last year. If they can get consistent play out of Floyd and John Brown, this unit ranks as one of the best on paper before even talking about their ground attack. Add the talent at running back to the conversation and it’s easy to plant your flag on this being the best team in the league.
And it’s not all offense. The Cardinals fielded fantasy’s No. 1 scoring defense to go along with two top-24 receivers (one in the top seven), the ninth best running back and the fifth best quarterback. In short, they were a fantasy-point machine last year.
The question is whether they can play up to expectations. The smart folks in Vegas have set the Cardinals over/under win total at a healthy 9.5 and currently favor the over. Only five teams have a higher win total. I’ll gladly side with the over. A roster with this amount of depth on both sides of the football is good for at least 10 wins and probably closer to 11 or 12.
What this means for Johnson is fairly obvious. We always want running backs who not only possess elite talent including receiving abilities, but also get the benefit of playing in an elite offense. He’s in line for a ton of scoring chances in the coming season and has a real shot at double-digit touchdowns for the second year in a row, while also catching 50-plus receptions.
- He’s one of the most promising young players in the league on one of the most promising offenses
- His touchdown potential may be the highest of all running backs
- He’s the total package with both excellent rushing ability and receiving skills
- There’s always the possibility of the Cardinals backfield turning into a full blown committee approach
- His sample size is small so his 2015 season may be an outlier
- The Cardinals are gushing with talent at skill positions which could result in spreading the fantasy wealth
The reality is, Johnson is a complete player on one of the best offenses in the league. It would be shocking to see coaches split carries, considering he can play all three downs regardless of down-and-distance. There’s a real argument to be made for taking him first overall, or at least as the first running back off the board.
Other View Points
Brad Evans over at Yahoo agrees that Johnson should be the first running back we draft his year:
“Excitement about Johnson in the analytics community prior to last spring's NFL Draft was over the moon. At the Combine, he graded out as a 'top performer' at his position in five of six categories, including the 40-yard dash (4.50). His considerable athleticism, strength, size (6-foot-1, 224 pounds) and versatilty had salivary glands working overtime. Only his aggressiveness on interior runs was questioned, a concern that was soon quelled.”
Jacob Gibbs may have been one of the first ones on the train with this piece on NumberFire, suggesting Johnson makes sense as the first overall pick. He had this to add about Johnson’s red zone usage:
“Once Johnson was made the full-time starter, he was a workhorse in the red zone, accounting for 88.9% of Arizona's running back looks and 45.7% of the team's total red zone looks over the final five weeks of the regular season. If you project his workload from that time over the course of a full season, he would have finished third among running backs in red zone looks, with 55.”
Our own Matt Waldman disagrees and doesn’t care for Johnson’s current ADP. This, from the scouting profile written by Waldman discussing Johnson’s potential issues at the pro level:
“Johnson is an instinctive receiver, but he overthinks his job as a runner. He flashes enough good work between the tackles that I believe he’ll develop, but he’s not there yet. If he’s placed in a gap scheme and works out the kinks, he could be a Pro Bowl back. Just remember that vision-eyes-feet issues are difficult to fix.”