David Johnson Is One of the Most Undervalued Players in Fantasy Football

We're coming up on three months since the Houston Texans traded one of the league's premier receivers for running back David Johnson -- a move so bad that even Madden wouldn't accept it.

Contrary to most people's expectations, the Arizona Cardinals didn't simply find a partner to dump Johnson's hefty salary on. No, they also got DeAndre Hopkins in the process.

While this move was probably the product of a brain fart, there is an angle here that many seem to be overlooking, which is: Head coach Bill O'Brien must really value Johnson's services.

That conclusion is based on the two most logical explanations for the deal. Those are:

A) Those running the team are so devoid of intelligence that they traded (quite possibly) the best receiver in football for a 29-year-old running back with the fourth-most guaranteed money at the position just to get a second-round pick.


B) Those running the team see Johnson as an impact contributor. Still dumb, but a bit more reasonable.

If the second option is indeed true, we could be looking at a player who's vastly undervalued in fantasy circles.

Current ADP

According to BestBall10s, Johnson has an average draft position (ADP) that's pretty close to 50 (46.65) since the end of the draft. That makes him the 23rd back off the board. (The ADP has been updated to reflect recent results)

That's a far cry for a guy who was a top-eight pick in half-PPR (points per reception) leagues in each of the previous four seasons.


It would be pretty easy to talk about Johnson's 2016 season where he totaled the second-most PPR points at the position since 2006, but that wouldn't be of much use here.

Instead, let's focus on what DJ has done throughout his last two campaigns, since it's more much relevant to the task at hand.

In 2018, Johnson appeared in all 16 games for the third time in his career. He finished that season with 1,386 total yards, 50 receptions, and 10 scores. That was good enough for RB10 in half-PPR leagues and would have landed him as the RB9 last season. Not too shabby for a guy who is currently the 25th running back taken in drafts.

His 2019 season got off to an even better start. Through the first six games, Johnson was on pace to total 1,635 yards, 80 receptions, and 13 touchdowns. That would have put him as the RB6 in points-per game in half-PPR and 8.8 points (total) behind the RB2 spot had he maintained that pace.

Not an RB2, the RB2.

Unfortunately, Johnson suffered an ankle injury and missed a number of games after getting just one carry in Arizona's Week 7 win over the New York Giants. The Cardinals then traded for Kenyan Drake, and as they say, the rest is history.


Johnson has never been the most efficient of players, especially as a runner, though it's worth noting that he did average 5.8 yards per touch prior to his injury last year. For context, Christian McCaffrey averaged 5.9 last season.

If they've been watching football, Bill O'Brien and the Texans must be well aware of Johnson's inefficiencies as a runner. And since volume trumps efficiency, it wouldn't do us much good to compare his rushing metrics to the rest of the league.

Instead, let's see how DJ's compared to Carlos Hyde's in each player's two seasons prior to joining the Texans.

After all, Hyde did carry the rock for Houston 245 times in 2019.

Year Name Rushes Rushing NEP
per carry
Success Rate
2017 Carlos Hyde 240 -0.07 86 35.83%
2018 David Johnson 258 -0.11 89 34.50%
2018 Carlos Hyde 172 -0.12 57 33.14%
2019 David Johnson 94 -0.05 36 38.30%

Both players had Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry that was below league average for each season. The same can be said for their Rushing Success Rates (i.e., the percentage of carries that lead to positive NEP for a team’s offense).

However, Hyde was less efficient than DJ in 2018, the year before he joined Houston. And, as I mentioned, they still gave him 245 totes.

Comparing how the two fared as receivers would be like comparing Russell Wilson to Nathan Peterman.


If he's healthy, there should be no reason why Johnson can't step in and fill the role Hyde had. It's not like the team that had the 10th-lowest pass-to-run ratio last year is suddenly going to start throwing a ton after losing their top wideout.

In his six seasons as head coach, Bill O'Brien's offenses have ranked (on average) 25th in number of passes for every run. The Texans are also one of only four teams to run at least 1,015 plays in every season during that stretch. In conjunction, those factors foreshadow a healthy number of carries for the 28-year-old.

In fact, it's easy to see a path towards an even larger role for DJ.

Given his limitations as a receiver, it makes sense that six of Hyde's eight games with his lowest snap rates came in Houston's six losses. It's difficult for teams to keep one-dimensional backs on the field when they're trailing.

Johnson, however, doesn't have those limitations.

Here are Johnson's league ranks among backs with at least 40 targets in his four (mostly) healthy seasons.

Year Reception NEP
per Reception
Target NEP
per Target
Reception NEP
per Target
Success Rate
Success Rate
2015 1 2 1 1 14
2016 3 7 3 2 14
2018 14 31 30 25 31
2019 6 15 7 9 11

Outside of 2018, he was pretty elite across the board in each metric. That means that few backs can match the expected points he adds as a receiver.

Oh, and not many backs can do stuff like this.

Plays like those make it easy to forget that he's actually a running back.

One of the backs who might be able to match DJ's skills as a receiver is another DJ and his teammate, Duke Johnson. Duke has a well-earned reputation of being of the league's better receiving backs, but I should note that David's 2019 receiving metrics hold their own against Duke's.

There should be enough pie for both players, though, with 166 targets from 2019 vacated in 2020.


numberFire's models project Johnson to post 1280.2 total yards, 31.4 receptions, and 9.3 scores -- amounting to an RB16 finish. That line would have made him the RB15 in half-PPR leagues in 2019.

I'd take DJ as one of the top 18 running backs off the board without hesitating twice. His current ADP is far, far too low.