David Johnson: Little School, Big Potential Impact for the Arizona Cardinals

A look at how David Johnson may be able to improve a struggling offense in Arizona.

Quick! Where is the University of Northern Iowa?

Cedar Falls is the answer, but David Johnson may have put the FCS program on the map after being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft. Johnson, drafted 86th overall, is the earliest a UNI alum has been drafted in 15 years.

Evaluating players from FCS programs can be a difficult guessing game. Even if dominant on game tape, the level of competition they faced on Saturdays was significantly less than what players from the Big Ten or SEC went up against on a weekly basis.

Recent stars to come out of FCS programs include Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston, and Joe Flacco. Finding capable running backs from smaller schools is even more difficult, but 2014 looks like the best class of FCS running backs we've ever seen with Isaiah Crowell, Jerick McKinnon, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Terrance West all coming from non-FBS schools and showing promise in their first year in the NFL.

David Johnson is not your prototypical small, shifty back that is often associated with a small program. He's 6'1" and 224 pounds and ran a 4.50 40-yard dash at the combine, which ranked fourth out of more than 30 running backs who completed the drill. He also came in second in the vertical jump (41 1/2") and third in the bench press (25 reps). His rare combination of power, strength, and speed makes you quickly forget that he didn't play in one of the Power Five conferences, but will he be able to produce in the Arizona desert?

David Johnson in Arizona

According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which quantifies a team’s production and compares it to expectation-level production, Arizona ranked 26th in the NFL last year with an Adjusted Rushing NEP per play of -0.05.

Current starting running back Andre Ellington showed explosiveness in the passing game but struggled as the featured back and also battled injuries last season. Ellington's Rushing NEP of -28.34 ranked last in the entire NFL in 2014. His Rushing NEP per carry (0.06) ranked eighth.

Adding Johnson brings both power and speed to the Arizona offense and allows Ellington to be used sparingly, which should suit him better over the course of a full year. After all, in 2013, when Ellington ran the ball just 117 times, his Rushing NEP of 7.01 ranked 10th among the 47 backs with at least 100 rushes.

In the past 27 years, the Arizona Cardinals have had had a single running back rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season only six times. Even with a backfield of both Ellington and Johnson, expect the UNI power back to carry most of the load.

He may fall short in his rookie season, but David Johnson could very well be the next running back to crack the 1,000-yard barrier for the Cardinals, and by getting the majority of redzone carries, he could have an instant impact on fantasy teams as well. Even with having to spend a third-round draft pick on the running back, Johnson could be the steal of the draft for the Cardinals.