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I’m worried about David Johnson and you should be too

David Johnson has not gotten off to the best start this season and things aren’t going to get better for him.

Getty Images/Peter Rogers Illustrations

If you would have asked me this offseason who do you take with the top pick in the draft, I likely would’ve said Todd Gurley or Le’Veon Bell, because hey, I’m unoriginal. But if you had pushed me, told me to be my true self, to let my colors fly, I would’ve told you David Johnson.

I spent much of the offseason—along with my fellow writer/podcaster Jordan—broadcasting that Johnson was all primed for an MVP season, one that you would be a fool to pass in fantasy. I was constantly reminding people that while Johnson was coming back from a season ending injury last year, it had nothing to do with his legs. It wasn’t as though he was returning from a torn ACL like Dalvin Cook or struggling with hamstring issues like Leonard Fournette. No. It was a wrist injury that benched him last year, one that he suffered in Week 1 and had a full year to recover from.

I had visions in my head of Johnson, fresh off a year of rest, stepping back into football at the perfect time, right as the pass catching back revolution was in full tilt. Last year saw five different running backs record 50 or more catches, the most since 1986. After watching the likes of Alvin Kamara, Gurley, Bell, Christian McCaffrey torch the league through the air, I was already to watch Johnson—the man who rushed for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns, caught 80 balls for 879 yards and four TDs and put together one of the best receiving seasons by a running back—operate in a similar type offense.

Clearly I underestimated the Bruce Arians effect.

Through his first two games under new head coach Steve Wilks and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, Johnson has been wildly underwhelming, to put it nicely. In the passing game, he’s being used not at all how a receiver of his caliber should be. Instead of running his routes from all over the offense, Johnson has spent the majority of his snaps bound to the formation, running only 11 percent of his routes as a wide receiver (from the slot, out wide, etc). That pales in comparison to his 2016 usage where he was running a whopping 35 percent of his snaps away from the formation.

Things don’t get better on the ground as the Cardinals’ rushing attack is also a nightmare. One of Johnson’s best traits is his elusiveness and ability to make people miss in the open field, yet McCoy doesn’t run stretch plays or runs to get Johnson on the outside; instead, we get treated to games like Week 2’s outing against the Rams:

Like I said in the tweet, I’m no NFL coach, but running behind a less than stellar offensive line—29th in the league in rushing yards before first contact (77, 2.57 per carry)—right into Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Michael Brockers 13 times doesn’t seem like the best gameplan to me. It would see to make much more sense to get Johnson out on the boundary where he’s able to exploit the Rams’ suspect linebacker core. But again, I’m no NFL coach.

(But if I were an NFL coach and on the Cardinals’ staff, I’d take exactly what the Chargers are doing with Melvin Gordon and run it to a T. These are the kinds of routes and carries Wilks and McCoy should be giving to DJ, not 15 carries right up the gut. Haven’t they ever played Madden? Gotta bounce those runs to the outside.)

There are other factors contributing to Johnson’s slow start, outside of just being misused on a very bad team. He’s not getting the workload that he was in 2016. As PFF’s Scott Barrett points out, the Cardinals’ rookie running back Chase Edmunds has cut into Johnson’s workload, lowering his snaps per game, carries per game and targets per game from 2016. The Cardinals offense is also moving at a snail’s pace, averaging 47 offensive plays per game which is of course dead last in the league. With Johnson’s decreased workload and the decrease in just plays run—the Cardinals were second in the NFL in 2016 running 67.9 plays per game—it’s no wonder Johnson has not been off to the hot start many expected.

Now that I’ve sufficiently depressed myself and all other Johnson owners, let me try and make it up to you with at least a glimmer of hope at the end of this dark tunnel of misery:

HALLELUJAH IT LEARNS!

Will this ultimately lead to Johnson returning to his former glory? The optimist in my says you damn right baby, this is the beginning of #DJ4MVP. The realist in me says this might led to an uptick in Johnson’s receiving production, but he faces too many barriers as things currently stand to make any shot at an MVP run, both in real and fantasy football. Unless the Cardinals suddenly start running 20 more plays a game, Johnson is going to be stuck in an anemic offense with no talent surrounding him—except for you Larry Fitzgerald—and a coaching staff that’s still figuring out how to best use him.

This is a perfect time to panic.