David Johnson got here quickly
Johnson is a consensus top pick in fantasy drafts this year. His average draft position on My Fantasy League is 11th in all formats and 12th in ppr redraft. Johnson is popular amongst Footballguys staffers also. He ranks 10th on average in Footballguys rankings. Only Matt Waldman could be classified as low on the 24-year old running back. Waldman ranks Johnson 32nd when every other staffer at the time of writing ranks him in the top 24. Maurile Tremblay, Justin Howe and Jason Wood consider him to be a top-five player. Top five is pretty good for a player who went 86th in his own draft a little more than 12 months ago.
Of the 85 players who were selected before Johnson, 12 were wide receivers and six were running backs. One of those backs was Todd Gurley, a top-10 pick in the 2015 draft and one of only two backs ranked ahead of Johnson by Footballguys staffers. On average, Le'Veon Bell is the top-ranked running back for Footballguys staffers at fourth overall. He is quickly followed by Gurley at sixth overall. Johnson is closer to the second tier of running backs, Ezekiel Elliott, Adrian Peterson and Devonta Freeman, than he is the top backs, but the three backs behind Johnson aren't ranked in the top five by multiple staffers the way Johnson is. This is reflective of the overall sentiment on Johnson. Those who like him, love him to the point that they will consider him as the first player off the board. So even if his overall ranking puts him closer to the second tier of backs, chances are you will be drafting with someone who is considering Johnson alongside Gurley and Bell.
Bell is on his own tier. The only reason he's not higher than fourth overall is his health. He is coming off a major knee injury that robbed him of most of his 2015 season. Anyone who is passing on Bell is more than likely passing on him because of his health rather than his potential scoring output. That means the real debate in the first round of drafts is between Johnson and Gurley.
The second-year backs both had very impressive rookie seasons
Gurley entered the season on the sideline as he was closing out his rehabilitation from the torn ACL he suffered during his final season in college. He didn't have to wait too long. The 21-year old had 19 carries in Week 4 as Jeff Fisher wasted little time in making him the focal point of his offense. Gurley finished his rookie season with 229 carries, totaling 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards per carry. His production on the whole was less consistent week-to-week than fantasy owners would have wanted but that was mostly a reflection of his situation. Johnson's production was just as inconsistent but in a different way.
One of the main insights we gleaned from the All or Nothing Amazon documentary that follows the Cardinals during their 2015 season was how Arians managed Johnson's workload. When Andre Ellington was injured in Week 1, Chris Johnson was put into the starting lineup ahead of David. This was because Arians purposely wanted to ease him along instead of rushing him due to circumstance. It wasn't a reflection of Johnson or anything he had done, it was a reflection of how Arians wants to manage the expectations and responsibilities of his younger players. Over the first half of the season, Johnson wasn't very valuable. His value came during the final seven games of the season. Including the playoffs, Johnson accounted for 537 rushing yards and 327 receiving yards over the final seven games of the season. He threw in six touchdowns for good measure. It's that stretch of production that propelled Johnson into the spotlight. An unlikely ascension considering the other nugget we learned from All or Nothing was that the Cardinals actually wanted to draft Ameer Abdullah ahead of Johnson before the Detroit Lions took him.
As runners, there is little comparison between Gurley and Johnson. Gurley is simply the better player.
Gurley averaged 4.8 yards per carry on 229 rushes during his rookie season. Johnson averaged 4.4 yards per carry on 155 rushes for his full season. Gurley ran for just one more touchdown but had 26 runs of 10+ yards to Johnson's 18 and 11 20+ yard runs to Johnson's three. Despite Johnson's athleticism, he only had one 40+ yard run during the whole season whereas Gurley had five. Gurley is the type of back who will transcend his situation. He played behind a depleted and talent-deficient offensive line last year with the worst passing game in the league. He still forced his way to a 1,000 yard season off of an ACL tear because that's just how good he is. Johnson isn't the type of back to transcend his situation. He's the type of back who can thrive in the right situation. He relies on his blockers and play designs more than Gurley because of his technical limitations and unreliable vision.
First, let's look at what makes Gurley special
Rodger Saffold and Jamon Brown combined to start 14 games last year. Who are Rodgers Saffold and Jamon Brown? They are the Rams starting guards. Saffold only played five games and was a particularly painful loss because he is an outstanding run blocker with the versatility to diversify the running game while upgrading its overall effectiveness. Despite losing both of his starting guards, Gurley still averaged 4.76 yards per attempt on inside runs. For comparison, Johnson averaged just 3.00 yards per attempt on inside runs against 5.88 on outside runs. Gurley averaged 4.95 on outside runs. Gurley remained effective despite playing behind an extremely ineffective offensive line by relying on his ability to react and adapt. That can be seen in the above gif.
The above gif comes from Gurley's full debut against the Arizona Cardinals. It's late in the fourth quarter on Second-and-14 when the Rams are trying to run out the clock. Arizona knows that Gurley is getting the ball and reacts accordingly. They are aggressive in alignment, freeing their defensive tackles to be aggressive in taking on their blockers. The Rams are trying to use that aggressiveness against them by running a counter from left to right. Defensive tackle Rodney Gunter is able to penetrate into the backfield to the point that he disrupts the design of the play. He is in Gurley's lap as the running back takes the ball from his quarterback. Gurley doesn't panic, he adjusts by using his patent-worthy jump cut to glide past the defender and advance towards the line of scrimmage.
45 of Gurley's 229 carries (19.7%) last year went for no gain or less. He was able to keep that number much lower than it should have been considering that Benny Cunningham and Tre Mason combined for 34 plays of that kind on just 112 carries (30.4%). He was regularly faced by a defender in the backfield while retrieving the ball from his quarterback. This is the worst possible scenario for most running backs but for Gurley it was often just a minor obstacle to overcome. Gurley has quick twitch fibers aplenty with the vision and composure to take advantage of them. As we can see in the above gif, he can also break tackles from unfavorable situations because of his raw athleticism. Gurley doesn't need to have built up momentum or space to evade defenders, that is an under-appreciated but valuable aspect of the position.
A running back's work before the line of scrimmage is more important than his work after the line of scrimmage. In the above play, Gurley turned a three-yard loss into a three-yard gain, a six-yard swing, because of his ability to break that tackle from an unfavorable position. What can be seen more often is the running back's footwork and his ability to swerve away from penetration to make plays work as designed regardless of the failures of his blocking. From that same game against the Cincinnati Bengals we got a perfect example of Gurley's footwork helping him swerve away from penetration.
Gurley has space. He's not confronted by a defender as soon as he gets the ball. The Rams double team the nose tackle with their center and right guard Cody Wichtmann. Wichtman is late to disengage so he can't pick up linebacker A.J. Hawk the way he wants to. He has to essentially push Hawk away while Gurley chops his feet to prevent the defender from reaching out to grab him. The one hand Hawk gets on Gurley can't slow him down, allowing the running back to continue forward for an eight-yard gain.
A back of Gurley's size shouldn't be able to move the way he does in tight spaces. His processing speed, foot frequency and power allows him to find and exploit tiny cracks in the defense that bigger backs are typically incapable of finding and smaller backs are typically incapable of breaking through. The above plays are two of his most startling in that regard.
From there, you can look at Gurley's ability to create running lanes by setting up his blockers with his movement.... (Shown below)
...and his ability to make defenders miss in tight holes. (Shown below)
In short, Gurley is special and he should be the best back this side of Adrian Peterson's prime over the course of his career.
Johnson on the other hand is more like a taller, heavier Andre Ellington. The main issue with Johnson is that he is always in a rush to get to the line of scrimmage. He has shown off the ability to make adjustments to what is happening in front of him, but for the most part he is a point-and-go runner who picks a spot and tries to run through it. He showed off more awareness and some cutback ability at times, but he never came close to matching the subtlety and precision of his Los Angeles Rams counterpart.
In the above play against the San Francisco 49ers, Johnson shows off his lumbering feet. When he is confronted by a defender in the running lane directly in front of him, Johnson's reaction is to float both feet off the ground for a moment before trying to cut to the wide open running lane to his left. Johnson recognizes where to go a split second later than he needed to because of how long it takes him to turn.The running back ultimately runs into his own blocker, slowing the play down to allow the second-level defenders to close on him at the line of scrimmage. Compare how Johnson moves in this play to how Gurley moves in some of the examples above. There is a clear moment of thought where Johnson has to stop his body to figure out what to do. That and how slowly he shifts his weight makes it more difficult for him to make the required movement.
Being a running back is a tougher job mentally than is generally acknowledged. You need to find a balance between being patient and being aggressive without leaving yards on the field.
From the same game against the 49ers, Johnson highlighted his inability to set up blockers when running between the tackles. Bobby Massie, number 70, is making the key block on this play. Massie initially concedes ground at the point of contact so he is directly in Johnson's line of vision as he takes the ball. Johnson can see the space past Massie's outside shoulder as well as the engaged blockers downfield. He attempts to sprint to that space, never realizing that Massie's defender is in position to react to his actions. If Johnson holds for a short moment or presses inside for a moment, he will force the defender to commit to either side of Massie, giving him a clean running lane onto the second level.
Johnson doesn't read what is happening in front of him so he is more reliant on the effectiveness of his blockers than Gurley is. The below play is an example of the type of run between the tackles that he can make consistently.
Left guard Mike Iupati was a huge signing for the Cardinals in the offseason. Iupati, number 76, and left tackle Jared Veldheer, number 68, are excellent run blockers who consistently created space for Johnson when he ran between the tackles. On this play, it's extremely difficult for Johnson to miss the wide open running lane in front of him. He doesn't need to show patience or set up a block, he doesn't need to chop his feet or make a sharp turn. Johnson only needs to show off his acceleration to skip past the second-level defender who is being blocked from a receiver on his blindside.
The Cardinals offensive line as a whole is an under-appreciated unit. The offensive tackles are particularly important for Johnson because of how often Bruce Arians runs him outside and off-tackle. Massie was an important piece who is expected to be replaced by D.J. Humphries. Humphries, a former first-round pick, has all the physical tools to be an upgrade over Massie but is a player who Arians hasn't warmed to over the early stages of his career. Getting Johnson outside allowed him to show off the one technical skill that he does thrive doing: Cutting back.
Johnson had his biggest game of the season against the Philadelphia Eagles. Not coincidentally, that is the game when he began to show off his cutting ability outside. He ran for 187 yards on 29 carries in that game. That accounted for a massive 27.7 percent of his rushing yards for the season. Those yards came very easily which is significant because the Eagles defense was atrocious for a long stretch last season. For the whole year, they had the 28th-ranked rush defense by DVOA. That game came in Week 15, a point in the season when the Eagles DVOA was at its worst. What's concerning for Johnson is that he struggled to run the ball when working against the better defenses in the league. He finished the season with three games where he accumulated a total 120 yards on 41 carries, a 2.93 yard per carry average. He faced the third, sixth and 19th-ranked rush defenses by DVOA in those three games.
Because he didn't play much over the first half of the year, Johnson's sample size as a whole is tiny so we shouldn't read too much into his statistical output on the whole. It's better to observe the traits he exhibited in those games.
Both of the above plays are well blocked (Again: note the contributions of Iupati pulling as a lead blocker), but Johnson also had to make his cuts at the perfect time to escape downfield. Once he crosses the line of scrimmage and finds space, he's as dangerous as most backs in the league. Johnson's athleticism is built to work in these situations. He is more of a linear, rigid athlete than Gurley so sprinting in space comes more naturally than adjusting behind the line of scrimmage. He has the ideal physical profile to be a one-cut runner behind in an outside-zone heavy scheme. Arians doesn't rely on outside zone, but he does get his backs into space with creative play designs.
The problem with backs who live on outside runs is that they too often force plays to the outside because that's where they want to be. This makes it difficult to develop as a between-the-tackles runner.
Both of the above plays highlight the concern with Johnson's development. He is going to leave more yards on the field than Gurley because the Rams running back is so far ahead of him in understanding the nuances of the position. In the first play against the Minnesota Vikings, Johnson overreacts to the free defender coming wide off the right side. He has more time than he realizes and the play is designed for him to go up the middle. Instead, he destroys the blocking scheme with his first step. As soon as he turns away from the space in front of him and is facing the sideline, his blockers lose all of their leverage. Johnson realizes his mistake but its too late. He can't run outside because his blockers are pushing defenders outside and the timing of the play has been ruined so he can't run inside.
In the second play, Johnson overreacts to the penetration in front of him. The earlier examples of Gurley swerving past penetrating defenders to help his linemen should be compared to this play. Johnson reacts to the penetration with a jump cut that overshoots the running lane his defense is carving out for him. He likely won't score a touchdown even if he makes the right move on this play because the tight end, number 85, is being controlled by his assignment. However, he would have given himself a chance in a one-on-one with the attempted tackle coming from the side instead of running sideways into a pile of defenders.
There is no contest between Gurley and Johnson as individuals. Johnson's situation elevates him to Gurley's level in fantasy but only if the Rams offensive line and offense as a whole doesn't improve. With Jared Goff as the starting quarterback and a young line developing together, it's not irrational to think that Gurley's situation will move closer to Johnson's in 2016. It's unlikely to be close, but it won't need to be to make Gurley the more productive player.
The obvious retort to this argument is that a huge amount of Johnson's value comes in the receiving game. Johnson is a weapon in the passing game because he doesn't have to find or create space, the Cardinals put him in space and he is able to break off huge plays with his athleticism from there. Gurley's production clearly wasn't close to Johnson's as a receiver last season. That doesn't guarantee the gap won't close moving forward. The Rams passing game should improve around him, giving Gurley more opportunities, while Gurley himself should be more of a focal point because he will be fully healthy entering training camp.
Gurley is just as talented a receiver as Johnson, it's a matter of opportunities. Opportunities is an important word for Johnson too, but for another reason. In Los Angeles, it's Gurley's offense. In Arizona, the Cardinals coaching staff want Johnson to be the feature back, but they have other notable options. Chris Johnson played very well last year and Andre Ellington was David Johnson before David Johnson was David Johnson.
It's simple. Do you want a great talent in a good situation or a good talent in a great situation? That's the debate between Gurley and Johnson. Picking either side won't be a huge error in judgment, it's not like picking Ameer Abdullah for example. Gurley is the smarter option though. His rookie season was more likely to be his floor than his ceiling, whereas Johnson's was more likely to be his ceiling than his floor.