Can David Johnson Bounce Back? - Footballguys

A detailed look at David Johnson's fantasy prospects for 2018.

REASONS DAVID JOHNSON IS LIKELY TO REBOUND

  1. The talent is still there and demands usage.
  2. The quarterback position gets an upgrade in Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen.
  3. Game script is unlikely to impact Johnson because of his prowess both on the ground and through the air.

SUMMARY

While 2016’s lofty totals are unlikely for David Johnson, it’s probable he’ll still finish among the top five at the position. Have faith in offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to find a way to make this offense run through Johnson. No matter if it’s Sam Bradford or Josh Rosen throwing him the ball, the quarterback situation can be trusted to be functional. Johnson’s abilities as a runner and receiver make him matchup-proof in a way few other featured backs can boast. He is worthy of a top-five pick in your fantasy draft.


RAISING ARIZONA

To say 2017 was a disaster for David Johnson and the Arizona Cardinals would be putting it mildly. Johnson hurt his wrist in the first game of the season and was unable to return for the rest of the season. Quarterback Carson Palmer only played seven games before he too was injured and done for the season. He ultimately decided to retire. It was leaked in the middle of the season that head coach Bruce Arians would be retiring at the conclusion of 2017. Though the Cardinals finished strong and eliminated the rival Seahawks from playoff contention, it was clear that big changes loomed in the offseason. Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks was tapped to replace Arians, and Wilks chose veteran Mike McCoy to be his offensive coordinator. The team signed Sam Bradford in free agency and drafted Josh Rosen early in the first round. Former Panthers linebackers coach Al Holcomb became Arizona’s defensive coordinator and began to transition the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 system. With all these changes to staff, personnel, and schemes, can David Johnson return to elite status?

THE TALENT DEMANDS USAGE

Though Mike McCoy has had many stops in his career, he has proven to be a competent and even exciting coordinator at times. He has run a variety of systems and is not really known for embracing one philosophy. Instead, his hallmark is taking the players he has available and molding the offense to fit their strengths. That bodes well for Johnson, who is perhaps the most versatile running back playing the game today. How soon we forget that a year ago, Johnson was the most targeted back in the passing game across the NFL, garnering 107 targets and catching 80 of them. He lined up from every receiver spot and ran routes. He wasn’t bad on the ground, either, running for 1,239 yards and scoring 16 touchdowns. All told, Johnson ended the year with 2,118 all-purpose yards and 20 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns. For context, no one had achieved that kind of season (2,000+ yards and 20+ touchdowns) since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. Mike McCoy isn’t stupid, Johnson is the most talented player on the roster and he'll be the focal point of whatever system the coaches implement. 

UPGRADES AT QUARTERBACK

Some are worried that Carson Palmer’s retirement destabilized the quarterback position to the point that the pass catchers in this offense may suffer. It is more likely that his retirement and the acquisitions of Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen are upgrades. Bradford is a smart, accurate quarterback who can keep an offense viable, but his health has held him back from being great. It appears Bradford was brought in with the understanding he is grooming his eventual replacement in Rosen; the veteran has been accommodating toward Rosen since his arrival. Bradford's demeanor is in stark contrast to the situation he faced in Philadelphia, where he didn't expect Carson Wentz' arrival and it led to his being traded. It also helps that Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen have different playing styles. Even if Bradford’s creaky knees do not hold up again, Rosen can come in and keep this offense functional. Rosen was the most pro-ready quarterback of this draft class, and he expects to be the starter at some point in 2018. An offseason program under the tutelage of Bradford should help Rosen become even more ready to take this job when the time comes. The key takeaway is the combination of Bradford and Rosen should be equipped to keep the offense humming, and allow Johnson to flourish. 

MATCHUP PROOF

The Cardinals intend to run the football. In his introductory press conference, Coach Wilks said:

"Someone mentioned a pass-happy league, which I agree it is. But, I still believe this: You have to have a foundation of running the football. As a defensive coordinator, there’s nothing more demoralizing to a team than being able to run the ball. I mean, you’re talking about taking the air out of an individual. So, that’s going to be our premise. When you look at some of the premier running backs in the National Football League, we have one right here in (David) Johnson." 

Yet, what if like many teams, the Cardinals want to run the ball, but get behind in games and need to pass to catch up? That won’t matter for Johnson’s output, because he is arguably the best receiving running back in the league.

2015-2016 Seasons

  • 11.5 yards per reception average (1st among running backs)
  • 1,336 receiving yards (1st)
  • 8 receiving touchdowns (2nd, behind James White's 9)
  • 116 receptions (3rd, behind Devonta Freeman and Theo Riddick)

One could argue that poor game scripts in which the Cardinals have to pass constantly make Johnson better, statistically speaking. He is one of the few players in fantasy football that we do not have to worry about when game scripts are unfavorable.

2018 PROJECTIONS

Projector
Games
Rushes
RuYards
Y/Ru
RuTDs
Recs
ReYards
Y/Re
RecTDs
FumLost
FanPts

David Dodds

15.3
264
1,096
4.2
8.9
75.0
728
9.70
3.7
3.6
333.0
Bob Henry
16
280
1,150
4.1
10.0
70.0
735
10.50
3.0
2.0
336.5
Jason Wood
16
240
950
4.0
7.0
77.0
690
8.96
3.0
2.0
301.0
Maurile Tremblay
16
272
1,156
4.3
8.2
68.9
660
9.58
1.7
3.7
309.9

FINAL THOUGHTS

Despite wholesale changes across the board for this team, David Johnson will remain the primary focus of the offense. His early first-round ADP is justified. In some leagues, you may even be able to draft him in the middle or later part of that round because other players are discounting him for his injury. If you are fortunate enough to be staring at him in that draft spot, don’t hesitate to take him.


THOUGHTS FROM THE FOOTBALLGUYS MESSAGE BOARD

Biabreakable predicts Johnson will remain heavily targeted, despite the changes in coaching staff:

“However there are two constants in this offense that I think will remain so. Larry Fitzgerald will lead the team in targets and receptions and David Johnson is likely going to be their 2nd most utilized player in the passing game.”

Mongidig has no reservations about taking David Johnson this year:

“He's going to have a very high floor. I would temper expectations for his ceiling. He will probably be the number two target for receptions on the team. He's going to have some fresh legs. Bottom line is he is super talented and is going to get tons of touches. Plus, he can take it to the house on any play. I agree, draft with confidence.”

TheDirtyWord isn’t as confident about David Johnson with the new regime:

“Johnson may be the first top-five pick in fantasy football who is coming off a season-long injury and practically didn’t play the previous year and has a new quarterback, head coach, and offensive coordinator. That’s a lot of transition and while we know how talented he is, that’s largely what you’re banking on when you draft him.  What we do know is that Arizona has him and not much else at running back. So the volume shouldn’t be a problem. But his 373 touches in 2016… Can we count on Arians-level focus on him now? Also, his YPR since 2016 is 11...high number for an RB. His YPC is 4.15… so his efficiency in terms of what track record he has is in the passing game. He is going to get his, but I feel like there is quite a bit of unknown here and I wonder if he’s closer to the talents in the back half of Round one versus Gurley, Bell, or Elliott.”

OTHER VIEWPOINTS

Cody Rivera of FanSides thinks Johnson could be a steal in your fantasy draft due to the addition of a fullback:

“Johnson has already had success with the Cardinals even while not having the advantage of a fullback. In his last full season in 2016, he rushed for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns on 293 carries. Adding a fullback to the offense will only help his numbers get even higher. So keep Johnson in mind as you prepare for your fantasy football draft. He could end up being a steal that will put up nasty numbers for your team.”

Gary Gramling of Sports Illustrated tells fantasy owners to take Johnson second only to Todd Gurley in drafts:

“If you pick second and Gurley is gone, David Johnson is your guy. He’s healthy, and the best part is his legs are fresh because, while he missed 15-plus games last year, it wasn’t the usual knee/ankle/foot stuff that sinks a running back’s stock. On top of that, the Cardinals quietly upgraded their offensive line this offseason, and they’re going to be fine under center, whether it’s Sam Bradford in the three quarters before he shatters his pelvis or whatever, or Josh Rosen after that.”

CBS Sports sees Johnson as a solid bet:

“In 2017, Johnson had 373 total touches for over 2,000 total yards and 20 touchdowns. It's doubtful he gets back to that level, but his expected workload and potential should be unquestioned. It would not be a surprise to see Johnson outperform Gurley, Bell, and Elliott because he did it in 2016, and hopefully the lack of talent in Arizona won't drag him down into a potential bust. Based on Johnson's talent, we doubt that will happen.”