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Back To The Future: Chris Johnson

Digging up comparables from the past to try to predict Chris Johnson's future.

Without the help of a flux capacitor or Dr. Emmett Brown, this series will attempt to take a look back in time to help us predict the future dynasty results of some of our current fantasy stars. This edition focuses on a running back that's driven us all crazy after rushing for more than 2000 yards in 2009. That season earned him the moniker CJ2K, although he's been known by far less endearing nicknames in recent times. In the three seasons since 2009, Johnson hasn't come within 600 yards of his 2009 totals, but he hasn't been as bad as you probably think he has.

Johnson finished finish amongst running backs in standard scoring leagues over the last three years are 5th, 16th, and 12th. Over that three-year period he averaged more than 1200 yards per season and missed zero games. Those aren't exactly terrible numbers...unless you've set the bar as high as Johnson did in his second season. Of course, the question isn't whether Johnson can maintain his status as a borderline RB1, the question is whether he has a chance at becoming a top five back again. For the answer, we'll take a look at the past and the career arcs of three of Johnson's best comps; Adrian Peterson, Eric Dickerson, and Barry Sanders.

As you can see above, all three of the backs compared to Johnson came in to year six of their careers on a fairly serious downward arc and all three posted numbers that were at least 33% below their career high in their fifth season. Of course, the chart also illustrates that all three saw a dynamic increase in year six. As I talked about in my Career Arcs: Running Backs article, this type of explosion in year six is not uncommon. In that study of 107 running backs, year six proved to be the peak of a running back's career and 12.7% of the running backs involved topped 280 fantasy points in their sixth season (the second highest percentage of any year). With that in mind, which of these arcs is Johnson most likely to model moving forward?

Adrian Peterson's 2013 was one of the more remarkable in recent memory. To recover from that injury, that quickly, and have a career year fully emphasized what an incredible athlete Peterson is. Johnson has a completely different approach to running the football, and doesn't have an injury to recover from, but there are similarities, and one is a rebuilt offensive line. Much like the Vikings did in 2012, the Titans spent both in the draft and free agency to upgrade an offensive line was has been borderline terrible over the past two seasons. A huge part of Johnson's struggles the past two years have revolved around that line, and their improvement could certainly lead to a rebound in 2013.

Another running back that dealt with terrible line play for a good portion of his career is Barry Sanders. Sanders had incredible vision, and a lateral quickness that few players, if any, have ever possessed, but even he struggled in year four and missed five games due to a knee injury in year five. Like Peterson, he bounced back in his sixth season with an incredible performance, rushing for 1,883 yards. Sanders offers the most promising comp for Johnson, as he had five solid years as a RB1, including a career-year in year nine.

The final, and least exciting, comp for Johnson is Eric Dickerson. Like the first two backs, Dickerson bounced back after a fifth season cut short (in his case due to a player's strike) for a dominant sixth year of his career. Unfortunately, Dickerson would only have one more productive season in the NFL before injuries and ineffectiveness limited him to a lesser role. If you're looking for a reason for Dickerson's early decline, take a look at the carry totals of the four backs through their first five seasons:

Johnson 1463
Peterson 1406
Sanders 1432
Dickerson 1748

One obvious flaw in these comps is that Peterson, Sanders, and Dickerson all missed time in the fifth year of their career, which was largely responsible for the drop in their fantasy points while Johnson played all 16 games last season. While that's the case, you can see above that it didn't result in Johnson tallying considerably more carries than any of these backs, and another statistic that is not game-dependent tells a story much like the one told by the career arc. Look at each back's average yards per attempt (Y/A) over the first six seasons of their career:

Year Johnson Sanders Peterson Dickerson
1 4.9 5.3 5.6 4.6
2 5.6 5.1 4.8 5.6
3 4.3 4.5 4.4 4.2
4 4.0 4.3 4.6 4.5
5 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.6
6 ?? 5.7 6.0 4.3

Only Dickerson failed to see a large jump in his Y/A in year six but he did see 388 carries, which were enough to both propel him to a fantastic year and essentially end his career as an elite running back. It's unlikely that Johnson sees that many carries, but with a much improved offensive line, it's certainly possible that he continues the upward trend we saw in 2012 in Y/A. How far could that carry him?

OBSERVATIONS AND PROJECTIONS

First and foremost, Chris Johnson hasn't been near as terrible as his critics have led you to believe. With a below average offensive line and a confused offensive game plan, Johnson has been at worst a very good RB2. He's entering what I believe is the most dynamic year of a running backs career and he'll do so behind an offensive line that received a major face lift in the offseason. While some may be concerned by the presence of Shonn Greene, just remember that exactly one of Johnson's touchdowns in 2012 came from inside 16 yards. If anything, the addition of Greene tells me that the Titans are intent on running the ball in 2013, and that's a good thing for Johnson.

The sky is the limit for Chris Johnson in 2013, but I like his odds of finishing as a top five back. He doesn't have the huge carry totals that should scare you off long term either. While he's no Barry Sanders, he could absolutely still have 3-4 years of RB1 production ahead of him. In dynasty leagues I would be trying to acquire Johnson from the owner that's scared by his dip over the past two seasons. In redraft leagues, he's being drafted in the middle of the second round, which is a great value.


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