The staff members at Footballguys are full of opinions. In a Faceoff, we allow two members to voice their opinions on a specific player. One picked the high side, and the other took the low side.
High Side by Phil Alexander
I'm expecting the argument against David Johnson as a top-3 fantasy running back to center around some combination of small sample size, lack of patience as a runner, and the notion a healthy Chris Johnson will cut into his opportunity. Each of these rationalizations can be easily trashed.
Sure, I'd feel safer if Johnson had started more than seven games last season (playoffs included), but it was clear from the moment he got on the field we were witnessing rare talent. Johnson became the only player in NFL history to score a rushing, receiving, and kickoff return touchdown in his first two games, an accomplishment that's already landed his jersey and cleats in Canton. And after Johnson took over as the Cardinals starter in Week 13, he wasn't just really good -- he led the league in PPR fantasy scoring over the next closest running back (DeAngelo Williams) by a 15% margin.
There's no one in the world I trust more than Matt Waldman when he says Johnson needs to improve his patience as a runner. But where I disagree with my esteemed colleague is that matters at all for fantasy football. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians (a notoriously straight shooter) has stated Johnson earned the right to be Arizona's bell cow. And why wouldn't he?
David outscored teammate Chris Johnson by 0.77 fantasy points per touch in 2015 - a staggering 82% increase in efficiency. As Waldman notes in his June article, David's averages were boosted by his big-play upside, which is kind of my point. David (can I just call him Better Johnson?) broke a run of 10+ yards on 13% of his carries, compared to 8% for Chris. He had four 25+ yard receptions compared to Chris Johnson's one. Why should Arians prefer the elder Johnson for anything more than mop-up work?
I'm not sold the answer is consistency in certain down and distance situations. Football Outsiders measures a running back's consistency by success rate, which divides their number of successful running plays (with the definition of success being different based on down and distance) by their total number of running plays. David Johnson's success rate of 56% ranked behind only Thomas Rawls' 62% (minimum 100 attempts) last year. He also ran for 4.56 yards per carry on first down plays compared to Chris' 4.10, which suggests David was the superior runner when base defenses knew he was coming. Lastly, David converted five out of eight goal line carries compared to just one out of 10 for Chris. His 62.5% goal line touchdown rate was 25% higher than the league average over the last two seasons.
Cardinals beat writer Mike Jurecki projects David to handle 60% of Arizona's backfield touches, which seems a bit light until you consider only 10 running backs in the league eclipsed a 60% share last season. If Johnson had handled 60% of Arizona's backfield touches in 2015, he would have finished with 283 (or sixth-most in the league). Keep in mind we're only one year removed from DeAngelo Williams finishing as the cumulative RB4 on 240 total touches.
I'm begging you not to overthink this. David Johnson is a physical freak (feel free to ogle his leg day), who's poised for lead back duties in an offense that averaged nearly 30 points per game last year. The only matter worth debating is whether he should be the first running back off the board in your fantasy draft.
Low Side by Matt Waldman
David Johnson aces the "eye test" for most football fans and analysts. He's big, strong, fast, and makes eye-popping highlight-reel plays. It's my job to risk overthinking these matters and at the risk of doing so, people might be jumping the gun on David Johnson's emergence. I had these thoughts last December after watching him.
I've been optimistic that David Johnson can be a good NFL starter since studying him at Northern Iowa. His emergence isn't a surprise to me at all. In a scouting report, written prior to the draft, I mentioned that David Johnson has great upside if he lands with a gap-heavy blocking scheme that the Cardinals run.
I also noted that Johnson makes questionable choices and he has to become a more decisive runner who is patient with developing blocks and not always looking for the cutback when there’s opportunity to use his power and burst in a more focused, committed manner. He’ll second-guess his speed and attempt a cutback when keeping the pads down and driving downhill would have been a more successful choice.
The rookie's strengths and weaknesses that I profiled were on full display last year. Although the box scores and TV highlights made David a scintillating rookie, the actual play-by-play analysis reveals that Chris Johnson was a more patient runner. Chris did a better job than David when it came to earning consistent gains that allowed the offense to continue using the widest possible range of its playbook and keep the defense guessing. David showed the skill to erase difficult down and distance situations, but he was also more likely to put his team in those binds where the odds to convert aren't as strong and the range of play-calling options diminish.
Chris Johnson was the No.14 fantasy back after 11 weeks; David Johnson was No. 35. If not for Chris' injury, David would not have been a top-10 fantasy running back and likely Chris would have earned top-10 production. Of course, winning games is more important than winning arguments. It's why I'm 90 percent certain that David Johnson will climb my board significantly within the next two months and I'll have few qualms about drafting him as a top-10 back if Arizona doesn't split him with Chris. But today, I'm not ready to make it a foregone conclusion that he's the starter. If my points at least heighten awareness that Chris Johnson still deserves serious attention, I've done my job.