What to Expect from Chris Johnson in 2014

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

All advanced stats from Football Outsiders

In the past, fantasy owners might have believed that a 28-year-old running back who has compiled almost 8,000 rushing yards and 50 scores in six seasons could remain relevant after switching teams. On paper, one could probably make the argument that Chris Johnson, who has totaled 1,000+ rushing yards in each of his six seasons, deserves second- or third-round fantasy draft consideration. However, that argument carries neither corroborating statistical evidence nor common sense.

After the Titans drafted Johnson with the 24th overall pick in 2008, Johnson caught fire in his first two seasons, rushing for 3,234 yards with a 5.3 YPC and 23 rushing touchdowns. By 2010, he climbed atop draft boards and was often drafted ahead of Adrian Peterson. Despite having already reached his apex, he made repeat appearances in the first rounds of many draft rooms in 2011 and 2012 with wavering fantasy and real contributions.

Although he certainly made no friends in the process, Johnson held out of training camp in 2011 before the Titans handed him a pricy extension that ignored evidence that Johnson’s effectiveness was no longer at its peak and would only decline. Johnson also demanded a better offensive line, and the Titans front office made attempts to improve the situation. Prior to the 2013 season, the Titans brought in former Jets running back Shonn Greene, and found that he performed just as well, if not better than Johnson at a far reduced salary. The Titans eventually released Johnson on April 4, and he signed a two-year deal with the Jets on April 16.

We do not know what the Titans’ front office thought of Johnson when it signed him to the megadeal, but the evidence suggests the deal was ill advised. After his 2,000 yard season in 2009, his YPC in the next four seasons is a paltry 4.2, well below his 5.6 from 2009. For a back whose main skill is speed, it is unreasonable for us to expect his performance level to last over an extended period of timed, especially since he is breaking fewer and fewer long runs.

Since Johnson will transition from lead-back status to the head of a platoon, we need to examine his efficiency numbers rather than just raw data that are skewed by volume. DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, is a statistic that quantifies a player’s level of performance in relation to the replacement player in those situations. While Johnson was getting paid like a star back, his DVOA from 2011 to 2013 are -15.1%, -11.3%, and 1.5%. In 2011 and 2012, he performed significantly worse than a replacement running back, and in 2013 he ran barely better than a replacement.

Success rate for running backs is defined as the proportion of running plays in which the goal of the situation is met. Hence, a gain of 2 on 3rd-and-1 is valued greater than a gain of 2 on 1st-and-10. Johnson’s 46% success rate in 2013 ranked 31st among NFL running backs, suggesting that he gets stuffed at the line of scrimmage on a fair amount of attempts. Using DVOA and success rate together, it is plausible to conclude that Johnson fails to gain the yardage desired more often than not, and does not gain significant yardage when he does make a successful run.

Since Johnson has complained so much in recent years about his offensive line, again making no friends here, the group’s performance is worth examining here. Adjusted Line Yards transforms raw data by assigning the line’s responsibility for certain outcomes. Losses and small gains contribute the most to the statistic, medium gains are diluted but still count, and long runs are ignored completely. Using Adjusted Line Yards, the unit ranked 32nd in 2011, 31st in 2012, and 19th in 2013 in run blocking. If anything, Johnson has had almost no help from his line, and his barbs have been on point.

Unfortunately, as some may recall, the Jets have a horrendous line themselves. While above-average for the run in 2011 and 2012, the Jets’ Adjusted Line Yards in 2013 was ranked 21st, worse than that of the Titans. The Jets also made no attempts to improve the offensive line via free agency, only signing tackle Breno Giacomini to replace Austin Howard, a slight downgrade. We have no reason to expect the Jets’ run blocking will be significantly better than that of the Titans.

Although he was efficient by no means, Johnson accrued the 8th-most points among running backs in ESPN formats, compared to the Jets’ lowly pair of Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell, who finished 35th and 37th, respectively. Both incumbents fared worse than Johnson in DVOA and success rate, but they will still steal carries away in 2014. While the Titans never maintained an elite passing attack to limit the defense’s ability to shut down Johnson, the Jets passing game was among the league’s worst last year in Geno Smith’s rookie season. The best potential benefit from joining the Jets from Johnson’s perspective is that offensive coordinator Marty Morhinweg enjoyed success with Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy while with the Eagles.

While Johnson is no longer in the conversation for elite running backs, his starting running back job ensures that he will have some fantasy usage. I expect that he will receive no more than 200 carries, so he is unlikely to place among the top 15 backs unless his efficiency numbers greatly improve. I see DeAngelo Williams as a solid comparison, who rushed 201 times for 833 yards and caught 26 balls for 333 yards. Williams placed 22nd over the full season, so we can expect Johnson to achieve RB3 or FLEX numbers should he stay healthy. With barely any upside left at age 28, I would not pull the trigger before Round 6 or 7.

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