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David Johnson’s Claim to the #2 Overall PPR Pick
- Updated: April 8, 2016
Antonio Brown is, by far, the best fantasy football investment you can make in 2016. This is true regardless of format, but especially undeniable in PPR. He offers week-winning ceilings, topping 185 yards an absurd 4 times last year, while still remaining the safest bet in all of fantasy with a double digit weekly floor. He is in a tier of his own and should remain unchallenged here.
When we reach #2 overall, however, several candidates present legitimate arguments. Talented target-monsters like Odell, DeAndre, and Julio offer ridiculous ceilings and fairly high floors. Rob Gronkowski remains in a class of his own among tight ends. When healthy, few offer the versatility of Le’veon, while Gurley looks ready to steal the top-rusher crown from AP sooner instead of later.
Rarely, if ever, will you see David Johnson’s name listed among those worthy contenders. Yet, with a look at Johnson’s “Player Stock Profile,” his argument for being the second player off draft boards in PPR formats appears stronger than any other. I thought this before listening to Cardinals GM Steve Keim recent radio interview, which was loaded with the type of nuggets that make a fantasy owner’s pants get stiffer. Now I’m more convinced than ever. Let’s take a look at his profile and some of those comments, shall we?
David Johnson’s size and athleticism have never been in question. This was especially true following a combine where he measured 6’1” and 224 yet still managed an explosive 4.5 second 40 yard dash and 6.82 second 3-cone drill, matching the smooth, long speed he put on tape at Northern Iowa. His toughness, willingness to go up the gut, and tackle-breaking ability, however, were under the microscope. Johnson laid rest to those skeptics as soon as afforded the chance, gaining chunk yardage through the middle and on stretches to the outside. Moreover, he finished his runs with authority, especially at the goal line, proving to be a tough 1st and 2nd down grinder.
GM Keim did concede “running behind his pads consistently, breaking tackles” was his one area of concern when drafting Johnson, but followed up by saying “he did a fantastic job this year” improving. This run against the Eagles may have been the NFL’s best rushing highlight of the season, and erased these doubts immediately.
What truly separates Johnson from nearly all other runners, though, is his receiving ability and consequent profile as a true every-down back. He displayed excellent feet and a diverse route tree in the pass game, and matched this with soft hands. Johnson was praised all summer in this department, being compared to Matt Forte as a receiving threat by his RB coach and receiving rave reviews from Palmer.
When the pads came on, Johnson didn’t disappoint, running a full route tree and providing a consistently reliable threat out of the backfield. In this committee-plagued era, a true every-down Clydesdale has become near extinct; David Johnson passed the eyeball test in all facets of the game with flying colors. Perhaps only Le’veon Bell can match Johnson’s sheer versatility, with David having a little extra juice but perhaps not quite the vision and patience of Bell yet.
If you don’t trust my opinion, then let the guy running the organization sway you, as Keim said: “Looking at some of the things David did on tape just recently, from a skill set standpoint it’s scary. A 6 foot 1, 226 pound guy who can bend and make lateral cuts like he does, and then have the ball skills and matchup possibilities out of the backfield, he’s truly a three down back. He’s got the size and strength to punish in the run game, the skill and athleticism in the passing game which is scary, to me for a guy only scratching the surface it’s scary to think what he could do.”
Movement downstairs achieved.
Talent Score = 10
Opportunity / Usage
Johnson exploded onto the scene in Week 13 following injuries to CJ2K and Ellington. Up until then he was being groomed for a criminal length of time, but from then on he was used as a true workhorse. He amassed a massive 22, 19, and 29 carries in his first 3 starts, before game flow and situation (aka blowouts) afforded him only 9 carries against Green Bay and 11 against Seattle. Johnson also had back-to-back 15 carry performances in the playoffs for a total of 120 totes in only 7 games, an average of 17 per contest for a 272 carry pace over a full season. Given the aforementioned blow-out situations, these numbers may actually be conservative, and strongly suggest Arians isn’t scared to ride his talented rusher. Unlike most early-down backs, Johnson also remained active in the passing game, totalling 32 catches in his 7 games as a feature back, which places him at 73 catches on a full slate.
You simply can’t find this type of rushing and receiving workload in other backfields in this age of committees. Cardinals insider Mike Jurecki has already dubbed him “the bell cow,” while Keim also chimed in, “the way he catches the ball out of the backfield, the weapon he is as a receiver, I think he could be one of the better all around backs in the NFL in terms of being a complete player. A guy who’s not subbed for in 3rd down situations, a guy who can play in every snap and a guy who can be such a weapon in every phase of the game.”
You’re welcome for the pants tent.
Opportunity / Usage Score = 10
Offensive mastermind Bruce Arians has long been a supporter of an every-down workhorse. The overrode an undersized Andre Ellington and squeezed out as much unpredictable value from the corpse of CJ2K as humanly possible. As already mentioned, David Johnson was on a 345 touch pace in his 7 games.
The reasoning is clear — Arians prefers minimal backfield rotations so he can relentlessly attack defenses with an aggressive pace. He keeps one foot constantly on the gas without the need to substitute, resulting in massive weekly workloads for his RB1s. While such a high volume proved too much for a fragile Ellington and a rotting CJ2K, Arians’ new workhorse possesses both the size and freshness to withstand a season-long buffet of carries and receptions. Plus, the constant big play threat of Arians’ vertical attack keeps defenses on their heels and boxes lighter, giving Johnson more room to roam. Arians’ scheme is a running back’s dream, and he hasn’t had a back with the skillset and ability of Johnson to fully exploit it yet. I’ll let Ricky Bobby take this one:
Offensive Scheme Score = 10
Even more encouragingly, despite such a guaranteed high usage rate, Johnson cannot be completely eliminated by game planners due to his team’s…
This offense is completely stacked at all the skill positions. The Cardinals have the ability to attack every depth of the field from every single angle with the dangerous trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown, plus a quarterback unafraid to take his shots downfield in Palmer. Whether Fitz is stretching the seam from the slot, or Brown and Floyd are winning one-on-ones deep down the sidelines, the defense has to stay on its heels.
This keeps boxes light and running lanes more open. Plus, this offensive line has gone from laughingstock to road grinders, ranking as 2016’s fourth best run blocking unit in the league according to Pro Football Focus (many thanks going to the absolutely massive and terrifying Mike Iupati). Combine the many red zone opportunities to be polished off due to this offense’s explosiveness with Johnson’s power and nose for the end zone, and this supporting cast is one that can help elevate Johnson to season-winning stardom. Please take a second and clean up after yourself.
Surrounding Talent Score = 10
I feel like Risk Level is that annoying judge who, after a clearly perfect performances and being preceded by four other 10s, goes last and holds up a 9 and ruins it for everyone. But that’s what he’s here to do, bring us all back to reality.
The good news is Johnson received some heavy workloads in college and held up well. The flip side of this, of course, is he’s a running back with some slight tread on his tires. As a result, he simply has to be marked down due to the nature of the position; with the massive workload comes a greater number of hits. Yet, given Arians’ preference for an every-down back, there’s slight comfort knowing Johnson’s handcuff would likely be a high-volume asset should he go down.
Additionally, he passes the consistency test with flying colors, scoring lower than 17 PPR points only once in his 7 game stretch as starter, including playoffs.
Finally, Johnson is only a sophomore. While nothing suggests he’ll have a short leash or will experience growing pains, we haven’t yet seen how he trains in the offseason or if defensive coordinators can find a better way to corral him. Until those question marks are answered, just a tiny bit of skepticism needs to be added to Johnson’s portfolio. Still, as the cards currently lay, injury seems to be the only obstacle that could prevent Johnson from a monster fantasy campaign.
Risk Level Score = 8.5
David Johnson’s Overall Stock Score = 48.5. Category = Elite
We find ourselves with a rare aligning of the stars: an explosive every-down skillset enters a perfectly-fitting, high-volume scheme that demands a 3-down workhorse. With oodles of surrounding talent, scoring chances should be plentiful, and Johnson will be guaranteed the highest weekly workload of the team.
Johnson would likely be guaranteed a top running back finish by just replicating his late season stretch over a full campaign. He led all RBs in PPR scoring during the season’s final five weeks when starting, scoring 112 PPR points, 26 points above DeAngelo the next closest back. This puts Johnson on pace for 358 points for the season, over 40 points above Devonta’s position-leading 317 in 2015 and only below Cam, Antonio, and Julio for total points.
Now think: this offense was slightly hampered due to Carson’s injury. GM Keim has repeatedly emphasized how Johnson is “just scratching the surface.” This all suggests what was already a high fantasy ceiling for Johnson isn’t even fully realized yet. In fact, when asked if Johnson had a 2,000 yard season in him, Keim conceded solely rushing may be a stretch, but given his runner’s skillset, 2k total yards was definitely attainable.
As has been hinted at throughout this article, the era of workhorses is long gone, and consistently valuable fantasy runners are near impossible to find. While he was writing from a standard league lens, Michael Fabiano of NFL.com highlighted many convincing statistics from 2015 as evidence to this — only AP and Devonta finished with more than 200 standard league points; only 7 backs had 1,000 yards rushing; a whopping 18 QBs outscored the top-scoring RB in 2015 whereas the previous record had been 6.
Sure, this data suggests landing a true RB1 is near-impossible… but it also emphasizes what a massive edge hitting on one can be. David Johnson would provide elite, near Antonio-level points from a position where consistent, game-winning points are far more difficult to find. Everything about David Johnson’s profile suggests he’ll be a monstrous source of scoring, similar to Le’Veon and DeMarco from 2014. While the rest of your league is zigging away from the dark cloud 2015 left over RBs and cowering to the safe-haven of elite WR1s in Round 1, zag towards Johnson and gain the edge only he and maybe a healthy Le’Veon can offer as true PPR RB workhorses. There’s simply no position that offers more value than the every-down back in today’s PPR landscape.