Chris Johnson’s Path to Fantasy Relevance

Chris Johnson Fantasy 2014

Chris JohnsonAfter a six year run with the Tennessee Titans, former All-Pro running back Chris Johnson has signed with the New York Jets. Johnson is well known for his world for world-class speed and a record-breaking 2,000-yard rushing season. At his peak, he was one of the top two running backs in the game along with Adrian Peterson. His play since then has been a disappointment.

After dubbing himself CJ2K and signing a massive contract, Johnson has declined each season. His average play, despite the Titans’ commitment to the ground game, helped perpetuate his release.

What Went Wrong in Tennessee

If you listen to Chris Johnson, it was just about everyone’s fault but his own. In the past, he blamed his offensive line for his lack of production. The Titans’ front office responded to his grievances by fortifying the interior and signing Andy Levitre and drafting Chance Warmack and Brian Schwenke. As a result, Johnson got worse and his 2013 yards per carry dropped to an inexcusable 3.9 average.

In his prime, Johnson was the fastest player in the NFL. His 4.24 40-yard dash is still the best time ever recorded at the scouting combine. That was seven years ago. When a player is reliant on their speed and agility, they have to learn to compensate when that begins to fade. Johnson has not done that.

It is still far too common to see Chris Johnson try to bounce runs outside. He often will pass up a simple three to five yard gain even when the path is clear. He’ll avoid a hole trying to get the edge and frequently gets tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Whether it’s a lack of vision or awareness as a runner, Johnson leaves too many yards on the field.

Johnson mixed speed with surprising power for his size during his dominant 2009 season. Since then, he’s shown an alarming aversion to any sort of contact. He rarely fights for extra yards and runs laterally instead of meeting a linebacker in the hole. Johnson has always been better at running away from defenders rather than making them miss. These days he is too often brought down on first contact.

Chris Johnson’s issues are no longer masked by an outstanding physical skill set. As he closes in on 30 years old, it’s hard to envision that getting any better.

Declining Fantasy Production

Chris Johnson was always going to struggle to live up to expectations after rushing for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2009. Some even viewed his 1,364 yards, 11-touchdown encore in 2010 as a disappointment.

The Titans never gave Johnson over 280 carries after that year. He never again recorded double-digit rushing touchdowns. His output became much more sporadic as the years wore on. Johnson retained value as an RB2 due to his big plays and solid output as a receiver—he’s averaged 45.3 receptions a season. Yet, he hasn’t approached sure-fire RB1 territory the last three years.

Owning Johnson was a frustrating proposition for fantasy owners last season. He came in as the eighth ranked player at his position in 2013, but only averaged 11.8 points a game in standard leagues. From a distance, his 1,077 yards and 10 total scores look pretty solid. A closer look at Johnson’s production reveals the inconsistencies.

Over half of Johnson’s 189 standard league fantasy points came in six games. The rest of the 10 contests he played in were average to poor. He did not record a touchdown on the ground until week 9. This left his owners without a rushing touchdown form their likely RB1 in 12 of 16 games.

Johnson is what he is at this point. He can be great one week, but invisible in most others. Trying to predict which week is which isn’t worth the time. Johnson’s inconsistent recent production should leave fantasy owners weary when considering him this season. There isn’t a great historical precedence for older running backs reinvigorating their careers with a second team.

Projecting Johnson’s Role in New York

While Chris Johnson didn’t hang around the free agent market for too long, luckily he found himself a favorable situation.

The Jets continue to search for playmakers to surround either Geno Smith or Michael Vick. Adding Eric Decker on a reasonable deal was a nice start, but the team was wise to supplement their backfield as well. The tandem of Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory was serviceable for New York in 2013, but hardly dynamic.

Ivory has shown promise numerous times throughout his career, including two strong outings against the Saints and Patriots last season. His issue has always been his health. Ivory has long been hampered by lower body injuries and last year was no exception. It’s hard to envision that changing anytime soon. Powell is a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none. His best fit going forward is as a solid third down back in a committee.

By giving Chris Johnson a $4 million a year contract, the Jets showed that they envision him as their starter. The team will give him every chance to win that job in camp and hold it throughout the season. The question is whether Johnson will keep their trust.

Rex Ryan has always preferred a ball control offense, with a consistent and sustaining rushing attack. The trouble is that’s exactly the type of system Johnson struggled in last season. The unreliable nature of his running style could find him falling out of favor with this staff quicker than many realize.

Johnson might give you the occasional 20-yard scamper, but it will be surrounded by several one-yard or fewer carries. However, Chris Ivory is the type of tough runner who will consistently grind out three to four yard carries. It’s more than fair to wonder whether Ryan will prefer the style of the latter.

Johnson’s issues will be especially compounded if Geno Smith is the starter. Marty Mornhinweg has already indicated they’d like to make Geno’s life as easy as possible. Johnson won’t endear himself to the coaching staff if he is constantly leaving the offense on third and long situations—as he was prone to do in Tennessee. If the Jets are committed to developing Smith, they might prefer what Ivory has to offer.

Chris Johnson would be much more appealing should Michael Vick get the nod as starter. An offense featuring Vick at the helm might be more maddening, but it will also be more wide open. That suits Johnson much better than a ground and pound situation. The artist formerly known as CJ2K had his best years when he worked in tandem with Vince Young. Defenses were so concerned with Young’s running ability, they left wide-open lanes for Johnson to exploit. If Vick somehow still has a shred of his famous athleticism, Johnson will see easier lanes off option runs.

Another impediment to Johnson’s success in New York is the state of their offensive line. The Jets’ run blocking unit isn’t the force it once was. D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold are still solid, but in decline. The rest of the starters are middling at best. Johnson has already shown he can’t thrive with poor blocking. Frustration is bound to set in early for the newest member of the Jets’ offense.

The Jets’ were the best-case scenario for Johnson. Even still, he ends up in a tandem with Chris Ivory. Johnson’s high career reception total would allude to the notion that he’ll be the primary third down running back. However, he doesn’t have great hands, nor is he a reliable route runner or pass blocker. Bilal Powell might even steal some of those reps from the former Pro Bowler.

The best advantage Johnson has over Ivory is durability. He has never missed a game in his six-year career, while his competitor has proven to be fragile. Johnson will end up getting the most touches out of the Jets’ running backs, but he will still be hard pressed to match the 321 combined carries and receptions he saw last season.

Chris Johnson signed with the team giving him the clearest path to a starting job, but even that route is littered with plenty of obstacles and stumbling blocks.

Fantasy Football Bottom Line

Chris Johnson JetsChris Johnson’s numbers are bound to fall now that he’s on his second team. A stat line of over 1,000 total yards and 10 touchdowns feels a bit too optimistic. The safer bet is he lands somewhere closer to 800 yards and seven scores. There is just too much standing in the way of success for Johnson.

The good news is that you may not have to spend a premium pick on Chris Johnson. His 2014 ADP will likely be much lower than his 2013 24th selection average. The bad news is that name value always tends to find several players overrated on fantasy draft day. Johnson feels like a prime candidate for the questionable pick made by the out of touch owner in your league.

He’s not in the RB1 conversation anymore, but Johnson may not even be a reliable RB2. He’s even on the low-end of that spectrum and is more of a high-end RB3 than anything. Johnson’s value should be in the low 20’s among his running back peers. While you might consider him as an upside bet, his ceiling is probably around the 25th overall player. His floor is somewhere in the mid 30’s.

As mentioned, Johnson should see a slight uptick in his value if Michael Vick is the starter. Make sure to follow the Jets’ quarterback situation in training camp when considering Chris Johnson. He has a far better chance to cash in lining up next to Vick, even if it’s only for a few games.

There’s always a chance Chris Johnson returns to near peak form with the Jets. Perhaps a fresh start and playing for Rex Ryan will invigorate him. Unless he shows more vision, maturity and physicality as a runner, motivation will only take him so far.

A muddled offensive situation and his own declining skills make it tough to recommend Chris Johnson be a key part of your draft. There is more upside to be had at your RB3 spot rather than he presents. Let someone else in your league deal with the headache that Johnson always brings. Never overpay for past production and misleading statistics.

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