2014 Fantasy Football: Offseason Movers — Chris Johnson
Every NFL offseason players change teams and it’s necessary to assess the change in fantasy value of those players, namely at the offensive skill positions. With that in mind, and preseason games and fantasy drafts just a few short months away, I’m kicking off a series looking at players that will be wearing a new uniform in 2014. The first player I’m highlighting has been a mainstay on fantasy rosters since being drafted in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft.
Chris Johnson spent his first six seasons with the team that drafted him, the Titans. He eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in each of those seasons, and even joined the exclusive club of 2,000 yard rushers in 2009. One quick glance at his player page makes it quite clear that his magical 2009 season is an outlier. His second highest single season rushing yardage total is 1,364, and even his receiving statistics have paled in comparison to that year. To further put things in perspective, Johnson totaled 2,509 yards from scrimmage in 2009 and his second highest total in a season is 1,609 yards in 2010.
All of this said, it shouldn’t be shocking that a historically great season is not the norm for a player. Besting 1,000 yards rushing in a single season these days is nothing to sneeze at. In a pass happy NFL that is featuring increasingly fewer feature backs and more specialized running back by committee situations, Johnson is something of a dying breed. Everyone wants a back that can be counted on for a heavy workload, but I’m not so sure Johnson is worth the mark up that comes with the reliability of him getting the football a ton.
Much has been made of Johnson joining the Jets based on the perception that he’s joining a perfect environment with a defensive minded head coach that is happy grinding out low scoring games and attempting to pound the rock down opponent’s throats. It is true, Rex Ryan does love to run the football. Since taking the head coaching gig with the Jets in 2009, the team has ranked in the top five in rushing attempts three times, once ranked sixth, and once ranked 16th. Last year the Jets ranked fifth in rushing attempts, and even with the expectation that Geno Smith will be better as a passer or Mike Vick will step in and improve the passing game, there is little reason to think that the Jets won’t continue to run the ball a ton relative to the rest of the league. Obviously that’s good news for Johnson since he’ll be atop the depth chart. But others such as recent waiver claim Daryl Richardson, as well as holdovers Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory, will warrant touches as well.
It’s also highly likely that battering ram Ivory will own goal-line duties. Johnson is no stranger to ceding goal-line carries, he did so in 2013 with former Jet Shonn Greene working as the goal-line back for the Titans. Serving as a so called between the 20’s back has limited the speedy East Carolina product to a paltry 16 rushing touchdowns over the last three years combined. Johnson has, in part, made up for his lack of rushing touchdowns by getting a steady diet of work in the passing game. He caught 42 passes last year for 345 yards receiving, and he has totaled 40 or more receptions in five of his six seasons in the NFL. Last year Powell was the second on the Jets in receptions with 36, and that can be framed in two ways.
It could be viewed as a positive if it means that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is making a concerted effort to use running backs in the passing game, but the less optimistic view is that Powell is a capable pass catcher that could cut into Johnson’s receiving production. Prior to coaching with the Jets last year, Mornhinweg served as an assistant head coach/offensive coordinator with the Eagles where LeSean McCoy, and Brian Westrbrook before him, received heavy usage in the passing game, so I would say it was no accident Powell ranked second on the Jets in catches in 2013. Gamers in PPR leagues should file that nugget away.
The thing fake football enthusiasts should care most about, though, is what Johnson will do on the ground, and I’m here to preach caution. Johnson averaged just 3.9 yards-per-carry last year and had a long rush of 30 yards. The long run is less concerning to me than the ugly yards-per-carry since he still has elite speed. The NFL media has done a thorough job of trashing the 2013 Titans’ offensive line in regards to Johnson’s struggles, but the line was only a tick below average according to Football Outsiders numbers.
Football Outsiders ranked the Titans 19th in adjusted line yards (3.82), and Johnson basically ran for what his line blocked for him (3.83 running back yards). The Jets actually ranked below the Titans in adjusted line yards (3.79) in 2013, ranking 21st. Johnson’s new club added former Steelers guard Willie Colon to the line, and the only other addition they made was Furman tackle Dakota Dozier in the fourth round of the draft. Seems like a lateral move for Johnson in terms of the men blocking for him.
Another offensive line stat used by Football Outsiders is stuffed rank, which Football Outsiders defines as the percentage of runs where the running back is tackled behind the line of scrimmage. The Titans ranked 19th in stuffed rank. Since Johnson is known for looking to bounce runs, it’s fair to question how much of the blame for the poor stuff rank lies at his feet. This is one area where Johnson gets a big upgrade moving to a Jets squad that ranked eighth.
All-in-all I expect Johnson to improve on his rushing totals a tiny bit this year, but I think his greatest boost will come as a receiver due to the track record for Mornhinweg using running backs in the passing game. He’s not a top-10 running back in standard scoring formats, but he’s a high end-RB2, and he’s a low end-RB1 in PPR formats. Gamers that draft him would be wise to grab some running back insurance later since his sub-4.0 yards-per-carry total from 2013 shouldn’t be ignored. At the end of the day I think that Johnson will finish the 2014 season with between 1,100-1,200 yards rushing and 5-to-7 rushing touchdowns, but he’ll supplement that with more than 50 receptions and over 400 yards receiving.