What Type of Role Will Chris Johnson Have in 2014?
In the wildly underrated 1991 comedy What About Bob, Bill Murray’s character laments the loss of his marriage by saying, “There are two types of people in this world: Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t. My ex-wife loves him.”
While it’s unlikely that any marriages have been ruined by Jets running back Chris Johnson, there too exists a gap between those who appreciate his talents, and those who only see a soon-to-be 29-year-old running back who relies on straight-line speed.
His supporters will point to his 2009 season with the Tennessee Titans where he posted eye-popping stats, including 2,006 rushing yards, making him the sixth NFL running back to ever eclipse the 2,000 yard-mark up to that point. They will gush about his 4.24 40-time, which still remains the fastest in NFL Combine history. These people may still affectionately refer to him as CJ2K, the nickname he earned following his magnificent season.
His detractors will claim that he has lost all backfield vision, he constantly runs away from his blocking, and is always looking for the 80-yard gain when an easy 6-yard pickup is right in front of him. They may also mention his 1,742 career carries as a possible indicator of a quickly-approaching cliff. These people probably refer to him as CJ1K, CJ?K or some other moniker that has yet to be unveiled on Twitter.
numberFire's own JJ Zachariason went into great detail illustrating just how bad Johnson has been from an advanced metrics standpoint since his historic 2009 season. When grouped together with other high-volume running backs, Johnson doesn't just look bad, he looks downright awful.
The problem for Johnson heading into 2014 is that he isn't going to have a direct path to the volume he grew accustomed to during his time in Tennessee. With Johnson landing in an already crowded backfield, the Jets have four possible options who can contribute in the run game – assuming you still consider Daryl Richardson and Bilal Powell as viable options.
In 2013, the Jets had 493 total rushing attempts which ranked fifth in the league. The combination of rookie Geno Smith and no legitimate threat at wide receiver necessitated a run-heavy attack. And if we’ve learned anything during Rex Ryan’s tenure as Jets Head Coach, it’s that he only values two things more than the run-game: strong defense and ill-advised tattoos.
The list below shows the Jets’ 2013 rushing distribution among players with 10-plus carries.
|Player||Carries||Rush Yards||Rush TDs|
Josh Cribbs is gone, Tommy Bohanon is a fullback, and Alex Green poses no real threat of grabbing the starting gig. While Geno Smith has shown ability to use his legs, we'll focus on Ivory, Powell, and the two off-season additions – Johnson and Richardson – moving forward.
Here at numberFire, we use the Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which assigns a numerical value to each player’s performance in relation to how well above or below expectation he performed. Instead of focusing simply on plain statistical analysis, delving deeper can show just how good or bad a specific player really is. Using 2013 Rushing NEP numbers from the projected 2014 Jets backfield, we can see where each piece should be implemented in order to maximize efficiency – assuming of course, rational coaching.
|Player||Rushes||Rush NEP||Rush NEP/Rush||Success Rate|
We already know that Chris Johnson was bad in 2013 from a metrics perspective. But looking at how his new teammates performed last season makes you realize that all value judgments, including how good or bad a football is, are only relative.
Ivory was by far the best performer out of the group. Of the 35 running backs with at least 150 carries last season, Ivory’s -0.01 Rushing NEP per rush ranked 13th, showing that he was slightly above average in that subset. Johnson’s -0.06 Rushing NEP per attempt ranked 19th, while Powell’s -0.08 Rushing NEP per attempt came in at 26th. Daryl Richardson’s -0.16 average in 2013, while playing for the St. Louis Rams, ranked dead last out of 21 running backs with 50-100 carries, making his acquisition in the off-season a bit of a head-scratcher. Johnson finished ahead of Ivory in Success Rate, which is the percentage of carries that positively influenced a player's total Rushing NEP.
So how do these numbers help us sort through this mess of a backfield?
If the Jets decided Johnson was worth $4 million per season, I highly doubt they plan on him playing a small role on offense. Only under contract for two years, the Jets can run the wheels off Johnson, without assuming much long-term risk. Following that logic, the Jets would be wise to split the majority of Bilal Powell’s touches between Johnson and Ivory – both are better options than Powell.
Assuming the Jets keep four running backs on their roster, I don’t see Richardson being much more than a depth option at this point, unless Rex Ryan sees something in him that nearly everyone else does not.
While Ivory has been efficient when on the field, he's had trouble staying healthy during his NFL career. While simply labeling a player “injury prone” can be nothing more than lazy analysis, calling Ivory an “injury risk” may be fair considering he has missed 21 games in the last three seasons. Where Ivory has struggled to remain healthy, Johnson has done the exact opposite, only missing one game in his six NFL seasons. If Ivory finds a way to stay upright, he can certainly be a nice compliment to Johnson.
Initially, I believe the Jets will want to rotate Johnson and Ivory, with Johnson getting the majority of his touches between the 20s. Ideally, Ivory would then handle the short-yardage and goal line work. Assuming the Jets have a similar amount of rushing attempts this season as they did last, I would expect Johnson to get around 250 carries, with Ivory and Powell getting splitting the rest.
The key all season, as it is with every team, is who can stay healthy and suit up on Sundays. If Ivory goes down, which he has shown a propensity to do, Johnson’s workload could skyrocket toward the 300-carry range, which he has shown the ability to handle in the past.
If you've been following numberFire this offseason, you know that we've made a strong case for Chris Johnson being a below-average running back who has posted decent statistics as a result of high-volume situations. Heading into 2014, however, Johnson is at worst the second-best running back on a team who figures to be fairly run-heavy. He may not be very good at football, but that doesn't mean he'll be buried on the depth chart in New York.