Fantasy Football Prep: Chris Johnson

Chances are if you had Chris Johnson on your fantasy team in 2009 you ended up playing in your leagues championship.  Johnson’s 2009 season earned him the title CJ2K after he rushed for 2,006 yards while adding another 503 yards receiving.  His 2010 season was obviously not as good as 2009, but still saw him finish in the top five for fantasy running backs.  And then there was 2011.

Last year Chris Johnson left many owners kicking and screaming week after week as he ended the year with only 1,047 rushing yards, an average of 65 yards per game.  On top of his poor yardage output, Johnson rushed for only four touchdowns in 2011, a career low by five touchdowns.  Many analysts blame this disappointing season on Johnson’s decision to sit out the entire preseason dddue to contract negotiations.  Without even taking the numbers into account, Johnson seemed to be noticeably slower and completely lacking the breakaway burst that he often torched defenses with the previous two years.

Deciding where to draft Chris Johnson this year certainly deserves a deeper look into the numbers.  In reality, Johnson still averaged a respectable 4.0 yards per carry which is generally accepted as the breaking point for judging the effectiveness of a runner in the NFL.  To put this in perspective, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Arian Foster (four of the league’s top rushers in 2011) had yards per carry averages of 4.7, 4.8, 4.7, and 4.4 respectively.  Although Johnson’s yards per carry average is a career low, 4.0 yards per carry doesn’t worry me.  What concerns me is the lack of carries Chris Johnson had in 2011.  Johnson finished the year with 262 carries.  While the 358 carries Johnson amassed in his record breaking year in 2009 is unrealistic to sustain, it is surprising that Johnson finished nearly 60 carries shy of his 2010 total of 316.  I would be shocked if the Titans don’t feed Johnson the ball more than 300 times this year.

There is no denying that the running back position takes a special rhythm to be successful.  Work horse backs need the repetitions to get into the flow of the game and begin making correct reads.  Interestingly enough, in the five games that Johnson did get 16 or more carries last year, he rushed for over 100 yards in four of them.  Not once in the other 11 games where he had less than 16 touches did he rush for even more than 65 yards.

In 2009, Johnson had seven of his 14 rushing touchdowns come from a rush of 25 yards or more.  In 2010, that number dropped to three of 11, and in 2011 it dropped again to one of four.  It’s hard to say that Johnsons elite burst has disappeared completely, but it seems crazy to expect more than 25% of his touchdowns to come from that distance.  That’s not to say that Johnson is no longer capable of breaking off a long run, he certainly is.  With Chris Johnson having such game breaking speed and quickness it’s obvious that it only takes one run for a mediocre 60 yard rushing day to turn into a great 90-100 yard rushing day.  Because of this it is even more important that Johnson gets his touches.  The more times he touches the ball, the greater the chance he has of making that 30-40 yard run that turns his fantasy performance into one that makes all owners happy.  There is arguably no other rusher in the game with his ability to break long plays, and it needs to be understood by fantasy owners that a lot of his value certainly derives from this.

On the positive side, Johnson had a career high in 2011 recording 57 receptions and 418 receiving yards, a 7.3 yards per reception average.  Again, this supports Johnson getting the touches he needs to break a big play.   It has also been reported by Coach Mike Munchak that he expects Johnson to show up to camp this season in much better shape, this year after being criticized in 2011 for simply being out of shape.  Not only will Johnson be personally striving to perform better, for the first time in his four year NFL career, Johnson is required to attend the Titan’s offseason conditioning program.

The running back position in general is scary for 2012.  After the top tier of Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, and Maurice Jones-Drew, there are question marks all over the board.  Not only are more and more teams turning to the fantasy nightmare of a running back by committee, but there are many questions at the running back position from team to team.  Can you rely on Marhsawn Lynch to continue his late season heroics?  Will Adrian Peterson, Jamal Charles, and Matt Forte return to form after serious injuries?  Can Trent Richardson live up to the hype?  Personally, I’d take my chances with Chris Johnson this year.  Knowing that he will be in camp and that he has a lot to prove, a bounce back year yeary is certainly possible and there aren’t many other players that can bounce back to the type of numbers that Johnson can reach.  It is getting harder and harder to get your hands on a 16-20 carry a game back, and with Johnson still possessing that opportunity, combined with his skill, I have no problem taking him in the first round in 2012.