David Johnson Is Having the Best Receiving Season by a Running Back This Century

Johnson is one of the most dynamic players in football, and his receiving prowess is nearly unmatched.

If you've watched the NFL this season at all, you probably don't need me to tell you that Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson is good at football.

He has recorded at least 100 total yards in every game and leads the league in scrimmage yards with 1,709 to pair with 15 combined touchdowns.

In the process, he's likely piecing together the best receiving season by a running back since 2000 according to the advanced metrics.

Johnson's Metrics

Per our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which indicates how many points a player actually adds (or subtracts) to his team's expected total, Johnson has a very comfortable lead over the rest of this year's running backs in terms of receiving production.

He has added 62.21 points via the catch on 64 catches and 96 targets. In second place is Le'Veon Bell with a Reception NEP of 34.38. Now, we can look to the suspension for Bell to see why his mark is lower (as this is a cumulative stat that builds throughout the year), but he has 63 catches of his own, just one fewer than Johnson.

The only other back with a mark north of 30.00 is Melvin Gordon at 31.40 on 41 catches. You'd have to combine them to surpass Johnson's total.

Only six backs total have a Reception NEP above 25.00.

Again, Johnson is at 62.21.

Of course, only Johnson, Bell, and Theo Riddick have more than 50 catches, and Reception NEP naturally grows with volume because receiving is pretty efficient (around 63% of running back catches improve a team's NEP, but only around 40% of carries do that).

On a per-target basis, though, Johnson is adding 0.65 Reception NEP. The league average this year is 0.34.

Among the 11 running backs with at least 50 targets -- (remember, Johnson has 96), only Gordon (0.56) has a Reception NEP greater than 0.45.

So, he's dominating this year's running backs, but he probably has a case for the best receiving season by a back in the NEP era.

Stacking Up

Comparing receiving efficiency throughout recent years can be tough, but with running backs, it's a little easier.

Since 2000 and through Week 13 of the 2016 season, the league-average running back Reception NEP per target has ranged from 0.27 to 0.36. That's a pretty narrow gap, all things considered.

On a cumulative basis, Johnson's 62.21 Reception NEP ranks fifth since 2000.

Year Player Team Rec Rec NEP
Rec NEP/RTar Rec NEP/T
2002 Charlie Garner OAK 91 74.83 0.82 111 0.67
2000 Marshall Faulk STL 81 70.27 0.87 113 0.62
2014 Le'Veon Bell PIT 83 64.26 0.77 105 0.61
2001 Marshall Faulk STL 83 62.64 0.75 104 0.60
2016 David Johnson ARI 64 62.61 0.98 96 0.65

Per catch, Johnson is adding nearly a full point to the Cardinals' offense. Among 140 backs with at least 50 catches since 2000, Johnson's 0.98 Reception NEP per catch would rank first. Only Marshall Faulk (0.87 in 2000), Tiki Barber (0.85 in 2005), and Charlie Garner (0.82 in 2002) maintained marks greater than 0.80 on that many catches.

Only Garner can best him on Reception NEP per target among backs with at least 75 targets. Johnson has a score of 0.65, and Garner owned a score of 0.67.


Johnson still has four games to generate roughly 12 more Reception NEP and surpass Garner for the most by a running back in a year.

At his current per-target rate (0.65) and targets per game (8.0), he'd notch 20.8 more in that stretch. Per-catch (0.98), he'd do about the same on 5.3 catches per game.

Not bad for a second-year player from Northern Iowa.