The New York Jets have agreed to a two year contract with veteran running back Chris Johnson today, making a move that many predicted in the wake of the former Pro Bowler’s release from the Tennessee Titans. Johnson will bring a speed element to the Jets’ backfield that they have lacked in recent seasons, but the Jets cannot afford to make the mistakes that the Titans did.
The key to this signing is how the Jets use Johnson. He is no longer a star or an every down back, and the Jets would be very foolish to start him over Chris Ivory. Johnson averaged a career low 3.9 YPC last season, and he failed to break a run longer than 30 yards for the first time in his career. Many people will be quick to blame the Titans’ offensive line, but their unit actually graded higher in run blocking than the Jets’ last season, according to Pro Football Outsiders (19th and 21st respectively).
What Johnson does bring to the table is speed and receiving skills, and he adds a new element to the Jets’ power run offense. Johnson could be very effective in a third down back type of role that is focused on getting him the ball in space and allowing him to use his speed and elusiveness. Marty Mornhinweg has experience working with this style of running back from his time with LeSean McCoy in Philadelphia (though McCoy is obviously much, much better), and he has the creativity to create packages to maximize Johnson.
The best way for the Jets to get the most out of Johnson is to limit his touches to keep him fresh and explosive when he does get the ball. Johnson has never had less than 250 carries in a season in his career, but it would not be surprising to see him have less than 150 this season. However, if those 150 carries are paired with 50 receptions and Johnson is able to deliver some big plays that open up the defense, it will be a worthwhile investment.
Personally, I believe the Jets would have been much better off passing on Johnson and targeting a player like De’Anthony Thomas or Dri Archer in the draft. However, the decision to sign Johnson makes some sense, as long as the Jets are clear on what his role is going to be. Johnson has been publicly complained in the past when he doesn’t get enough touches, and the Jets need to make sure he doesn’t have any expectations of being a No. 1 back. Ivory deserves to be the starter for the Jets, and it would be a mistake to give Johnson too big a workload. However, if his role is limited and Mornhinweg can find ways to get him the ball in space, this could turn out to be a very effective signing for the Jets.