David Johnson's Fantasy Value Gets a Much-Needed Jolt in Trade to the Texans

We can say a lot of things about Bill O'Brien's tenure as the de facto GM of the Houston Texans. But you can't call him boring.

Well. All righty, then.

We could spill a tanker full of digital ink on this trade if we were so inclined, and there are tons of angles to discuss. But with everybody (rightfully) skewering the Texans, we should make sure we don't overlook a key point.

David Johnson's fantasy football value just went Undertaker dot gif on us.

Earlier Monday -- before the brown stuff hit the fan -- the Arizona Cardinals had placed the transition tag on Kenyan Drake, keeping him in town for at least 2020. If Johnson had gone back to Arizona, there's no guarantee he'd have had a role.

Instead, he goes to Houston, and with Carlos Hyde and Lamar Miller now free agents, it's just him and Duke Johnson on the depth chart. That situation looks a whole lot rosier.

This trade is an abomination for the Texans, but it's far from that for David Johnson's fantasy value. Let's dig into that now and see how we should view Johnson for this upcoming season.

Opportunity Tops Talent

There is no disputing that Johnson had a rough 2019 season, and there's a reason the Cardinals ultimately chose to move forward with Drake over him.

Here's a look at Arizona's top three backs through the lens of numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is the efficiency metric we use to track the expected points added (or, in Johnson's case, subtracted) on each play throughout the year. "Rushing NEP per Carry" is the average expected points added per carry this year, and "Rushing Success Rate" is the percentage of carries that increased the team's expected points for the drive.

Cardinals RBs in 2019 Rushes Rushing NEP per Carry Rushing Success Rate
Kenyan Drake 123 0.20 44.72%
David Johnson 94 -0.06 38.30%
Chase Edmonds 60 0.16 40.00%

Johnson's Rushing Success Rate was last on the team, and he failed to generate the big plays necessary to create a boatload of expected points. It was as close to a disaster as you can possibly get.

It's important to remember, though, that Johnson was banged up for a large chunk of the year. Even before his ankle injury that ultimately led to the trade for Drake, Johnson was dealing with a back injury initially suffered in Week 5.

It does seem as if the injuries impacted Johnson's efficiency marks.

Johnson in 2019 Rushes Rushing NEP per Carry Rushing Success Rate
Weeks 1 to 5 64 0.03 42.19%
Week 6 On 30 -0.25 30.00%

Through the first five games, Johnson's Rushing Success Rate was actually above the league average and ahead of what Edmonds had for the full season. He still didn't provide the big burst plays, but he also wasn't the shell we saw post-injury.

This is not a justification for the Texans making this move. That's still malpractice. But it does mean we shouldn't write Johnson entirely off from a talent perspective.

Johnson will also now move to a team that had an impressive rushing offense in 2019. The Texans built up their offensive line last summer, and it paid off as they ranked sixth in schedule-adjusted rushing efficiency. Johnson might not need to be an elite rusher to be productive there, given what Hyde did in 2019, ranking 15th in Rushing Success Rate out of 45 running backs with at least 100 carries.

We should expect Johnson to see more carries than he would have gotten in Arizona had he stayed, which is a major boon for his fantasy production. He also may be more efficient with an offseason to get healthy. Those are both plusses for Johnson heading into 2020.

The big lingering question is around the team's efficiency, the other major component in a running back's fantasy value.

Normally, going to an offense led by Deshaun Watson would be fantastic for someone in Johnson's position. Watson was 10th in Passing NEP per drop back among 29 quarterbacks with at least 300 drop backs, and that doesn't count the value he adds with his legs. He tends to lead efficient offenses, exactly what we need for our fantasy backs.

The problem is we don't know what that efficiency will look like with Hopkins now shipped out of town. The team could add pass-catching talent via free agency or the draft, but it's hard to duplicate the value provided by one of the league's most skilled receivers.

This is the biggest negative around the move for Johnson. It shouldn't allow us to overlook the other positives, though.

Watson is a talented quarterback, and we should expect him to still be able to keep a viable offense afloat even without Hopkins. That's not meant to downplay the value Hopkins provides; Watson is just a good player, and we should account for that.

Additionally, losing Hopkins likely means we'll see more targets go the way of the two Johnsons out of the backfield. Only three teams had fewer running back receptions than the Texans last year; we should expect that number to go up with Hopkins no longer in the fold.

All in all, it's hard to see how things possibly could have gone better for Johnson's fantasy value. Not only does he go to a team that clearly covets whatever skills he has remaining, but he also gets to keep playing alongside a good, young quarterback. Given where his stock was just 24 hours ago, it's hard not to be optimistic.

What This Means

There are still reasons to keep expectations in check here. The Texans could very easily make another wacky move at some point and make this offense a total trainwreck, in which case a lot of Johnson's value will dry up. He also could just legitimately be washed, which would eventually result in the loss of volume. The overall shift here is positive, though.

In six dynasty startup drafts on across the month of March, Johnson has gone as the RB40 on average, right behind James White and Sony Michel. This trade should clearly vault him forward from there.

If you currently have Johnson, it's worthwhile to see what the market looks like for him. If people are so down on the Texans as an organization that they're unwilling to give up much to get him, he's a very much usable piece, and it's not a terrible idea to ride it out and see what happens. The Texans seem unlikely to add to their running-back room with a high-end pick, so Johnson's value doesn't figure to decline in the near future.

If you're not some with Johnson already on a roster, now's the time to reach out and see what the going rate looks like. The person who has him is likely frustrated after seeing Johnson's value tank in-season and may be looking for an excuse to jump ship. Six draft-eligible running backs and eight wide receivers were going ahead of Johnson in the DLF start-up drafts, so you're not giving up a high-end pick to snag him. Especially for a win-now roster, Johnson's a decent buy.

After his performance this past season, we'll never be able to view Johnson as a bellcow again until proven different. He's entering his age-29 season and hasn't been an elite fantasy asset since 2016. But this trade did provide a major lift from where he was at, and we'd be wise to take advantage before the market fully reacts to the move.