As a young lad growing up in South Dakota, I was never given a real nickname. Sure, my Legion baseball coach would sometimes call me Miller Time, and after seeing Pulp Fiction a friend took to referring to me as Gimp. But that was as close as I ever got. I think the best nickname anybody had that I knew was our friend Josh, who we called Head. Why? Well, he had a huge head. (You thought a gimp joke was coming there, didn’t you?) But as cool as that was, it certainly can’t compare to CJ2K. You have to earn that title, and that’s exactly what Chris Johnson did during his magical 2009 season. 2010 wasn’t quite as spectacular, but he still had a strong fantasy year, totaling 1400 yards and 12 touchdowns. The issue has been the 38 games since.
Now only referred to as CJ2k with a sarcastic sneer, Johnson has fallen out of fantasy favor. But with a fantastic upcoming schedule, is there still value in playing the oddly brash, especially considering how terrible he's been, running back? Let’s hold hands (I’m lonely) and find out.
Johnson has always been a home run hitter type; he needs the long runs to have decent fantasy days and sustain reasonable yards per carry figures. With a season-long dash of 23 yards, that has yet to happen in 2013. What scares me is that if you strip away all his long runs (defined here as 50-plus yards) for his career, this year is still a disaster compared to season’s past.
Please note that in the following chart, the first line for a given year contains Johnson's actual stats for that season. The second line is what remains when we remove all 50-plus yard runs.
|Year||Carries||Yards||Yards Per Carry|
Aside from the easily predicted drop in yards per carry (YPC), the biggest takeaway is that his non-big run YPC has dropped in each of the last four seasons. That, my friends, is a huge red flag. Things look even worse when you compare him to a couple of guys who have similar long speed and play styles. If you remove 50-plus yard scampers from Jamaal Charles and C.J. Spiller, they still harbor excellent career YPC marks of 5.03 and 4.83 respectively. Those figures would rank them in the top-seven among NFL running backs in YPC in 2013. Johnson would be 25th.
Yards per carry is a flawed statistic because it can be adjusted so significantly by one touch out of the hundreds a player sees in a season. numberFire’s net expected points (NEP) figures are much less influenced by a single event. Unfortunately for Johnson, he actually fares poorly here as well.
Johnson's NEP Per Touch Rank Among Running Backs With at Least 100 Carries
For 2013, data reflects running backs with at least 50 carries.
NEP is a measure of real world points contributed to a team's bottom line. When you look at a player's NEP metrics in comparison to others at his position, you get an accurate idea of how efficient they are with their touches. The more yards, first downs, touchdowns, etc. you get per touch, the higher your relative rank. Take a quick scan of the table above and you will plainly see that Johnson has been in the bottom third (or worse) for each of the last four seasons. Essentially, he is a very inefficient player who is reliant on volume to be effective in fantasy. Speaking of...
What we have with Johnson is a slowing (he looks stiff, tentative, and almost uninterested on film), inefficient back who relies on volume to have value. With Jackie Battle having battleship-like agility and Shonn Greene hurt, Johnson has racked up 117 touches (19.5 per game) and 48.3 fantasy points (.413 per touch) in 2013. numberFire has him projected for another 211 touches and 107.54 points from here on out. This represents a similar volume but a slight uptick in efficiency as we think he will average .511 points per touch for the rest of the season. Considering his schedule (Rams, Jags, Colts, Raiders, and the Colts again in weeks 9-13), that is not an unreasonable expectation. I believe the more difficult thing to attain will be 19-plus touches per game.
Greene is very close to returning and despite the perceived talent disparity between the two, is likely to eat into Johnson’s work load. I say perceived because Greene actually has been a vastly more efficient running back than Johnson since 2010.
Greene's NEP Per Touch Rank Among Running Backs With at Least 100 Carries
On the field, his running style is a better fit for this offense. Greene gets what’s blocked, rarely loses yardage, and will help the Titan’s struggling O sustain drives instead of killing them in an effort to be on SportsCenter. It is impossible to say what role he will have in the offense and I won’t make something up for the sake of it, but you would be a fool to discount the possibility that Johnson’s already declining touches (25, 26, 20, 17, 14, 15) are not in jeopardy. It also bears remembering that the Titans brass claimed numerous times in the preseason that Greene would have a significant role in the offense. Many speculated they were headed for a 60/40 split.
There is a long way to go and myriad possibilities for the Titans season. They are creating holes somewhat effectively, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th best run blocking line. The surprisingly effective Jake Locker sounds like he could be back as early as Week 8. The return of Greene could help Johnson’s efficiency and by proxy his NEP figures. And like I said, the schedule is excellent. Given these facts and his high level of involvement in the offense, numberFire has Johnson as the 17th ranked running back for the rest of the season. That said, I believe his decline in quality of play, complete lack of efficiency, Greene's return, and the total abject failure to pass the eye test make that projection a high water mark.
To me, there is far more risk than reward here. To that end, I’d recommend showing his schedule to a trade partner in an effort to get a nice WR2 in return. Be sure to call him CJ2K during talks as odds are good somebody in your league still believes.