Fantasy Football 2014: Can Chris Johnson Bounce Back?

Chris Johnson

Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

 

I used to get frustrated at the Madden video games.

My opponents would often use very difficult running backs to contain. Guys like Adrian Peterson (who refused to go down) and Chris Johnson (who refused to be caught) would make my life miserable. All people had to do was bounce it outside and he was gone, possessing unmatched speed. But then I remembered something.

It’s a video game.

Johnson hasn’t been that dominant on a football field in quite some time, puzzling many people. He obviously has the skill, athleticism and speed to play at a high level in the NFL, but he hasn’t. At least, not as of late. The former fantasy MVP has become a bit of an afterthought, not only to fantasy owners, but to his own team, too.

The Tennessee Titans flew Johnson out to their facility, only to inform him that he had been released, making him a free agent. Teams are interested in acquiring the veteran back, and they should. He can still bring a lot to the table and help a team in need of a running back win. But, if you are looking to draft him in fantasy, depending on his new home, why not try to find out what has been his deal lately first?

Recognition

In the past, Johnson would call out his offensive line for the job they had been doing. It was probably just out of frustration, but little did he know, Johnson was pointing his finger in the wrong direction. In 2013, Tennessee signed free agent lineman Andy Levitre and drafted mammoth guard, Chance Warmack, in attempts to give Johnson all of the help he needed to succeed. The two acquisitions turned out to be huge, as the Titans finished the season as the number five offensive line in football, according to the guys over at PFF. In fact, the Titans have had a strong line for his entire career. As PFF points out, since 2009. Johnson has gone untouched in the backfield at least 70 percent of the time in every season. And his elusive rating has declined every season since his monster 2,000-yard campaign. If Johnson, still only age 29, possess speed and breakaway ability, why has he continued to struggle.

He isn’t seeing the field very well. That’s why.

Too many times have I seen Johnson bounce it outside, rather than follow his lanes, resulting in a modest gain. Sometimes he tries to do too much, and it hurts him in the long run. No better example here, as Pete Damilatis of PFF does an outstanding job highlighting that very concept below:

via Pete Damilatis of PFF

via Pete Damilatis of PFF

 

Perhaps the game is too fast for him, or, he is too fast for the game. His legs move much faster than his brain. Some of the best runners in football are the most patient ones. The ones who wait at the line of scrimmage for a split second, see the hole open up and attack it. And if Johnson could just do the first part, he obviously has the speed and explosiveness to burst through a lane with relative ease. The speed isn’t something you can teach, but recognition, patience and awareness all are, and it’s something Johnson hasn’t fully seemed to grasp just yet.

If you are expecting him to land somewhere and immediately be the workhorse, you may be disappointed. The running back market isn’t close to what it used to be, especially for a guy who continues to tail off. PFF states that he has seen a decrease in breakaway runs in each of the last three seasons, and is approaching that magical running back age of 30. The next move for him will more than likely be a better real life move than a fantasy one. At this point in his career, he may be better off being paired with a power back and forming a one-two punch, similar to his days in Tennessee with LenDale White.

Possible Suitors

New York JetsThe Jets seem to be one of the favorites to land CJ. They have brought in a few pieces on offense in Eric Decker and Michael Vick, and Johnson could very well be a nice piece to add to the equation. He’d also fit well with Chris Ivory, who is more of a power back, but that doesn’t mean Johnson wouldn’t see plenty of work. After all, the Jets are a run-first offense, ranking inside the top-seven in rushing attempts per game each of the last two seasons. And Johnson, for as weak as he’s been lately, has always been durable, missing just one regular season game in his entire career. Also, Larry Hartstein of CBS Sports had an interesting take on Johnson’s prospects when playing on turf versus grass. During his career on turf, Johnson is averaging 4.67 yards per carry, compared to 4.54 on grass. Not a mind-boggling difference, but he has been better on turf each of the last three seasons, while posting the highest split of his career in 2013 (4.8 ypc on turf, 3.7 ypc on grass). The Jets play on synthetic turf.

Atlanta FalconsThe Falcons have reportedly shown interest in acquiring the veteran running back, even after signing Steven Jackson last season. There have been some rumors floating around that they cut Jackson and bring in Johnson, but I don’t see it. If he does join Atlanta, he may be able to see less men in the box, as defenses have to respect the top notch passing game Atlanta possesses (when healthy, of course). It could be a sneaky good fit for Johnson’s fantasy value, especially in PPR formats. I mean, we’ve seen the plodding likes of Michael Turner finish on average as the 11th-best running back in fantasy since 2010. Johnson, though not at his best, is still far more talented than Turner.

Verdict

At age 29, Johnson still has plenty left in the tank. He’s durable and while he’s had his fair share of touches over the course of his career, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a ton of wear and tear. Fantasy owners can still take him as an RB2 or high-end RB3, if possible, and feel okay about it. Especially if he ends up in the right place. However, Johnson isn’t going to be that 2,000-yard rusher again. That was a magical season, but he’s not that guy anymore. He needs to go back to the fundamentals and trust his blocking. The running lanes have been there.

Luckily for fantasy owners, his current ADP doesn’t make the former first-rounder anywhere near as risky.

Adam Pfeifer is a featured fantasy sports columnist for Rant Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @aPfeiferRS.


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