Is David Johnson Fantasy Football's Top Running Back for 2016?

Johnson showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie season. Was it enough to justify a first-round pick next season?

Wow. What a horrible year for fantasy football running backs.

If you selected a running back early in your draft, you were almost certainly disappointed. According to ESPN's Average Draft Position Results, the first five picks were running backs, while eight of the top 12 selections were running backs. On average, those eight finished as the 30th ranked running back according to standard scoring -- not exactly first-round value.

The NFL has been transforming for years now, resulting in a trending new strategy among fantasy footballers called "Zero RB," in which owners pass on running backs early in season long drafts, instead focusing on loading up on stud wide receivers. Last season's disastrous season for fantasy running backs will certainly lead to more players implementing some form of Zero RB, which may result in some terrific values at the running back position -- specifically Arizona Cardinals second-year running back, David Johnson.

Despite phenomenal production from the talented rookie, Johnson is listed as the fifth ranked running back going into the 2016 fantasy season according to "Way Too Early Rankings" from, and Most early mock drafts have Johnson going somewhere near the end of the first or beginning of the second round.

I'm here to tell you that Johnson should not only be the first running back selected -- but also possibly the first player overall.

David Johnson: The Player

Johnson is an easy player to like, as he  rose from poverty and turned himself into one of the most effective running backs in the NFL, this after playing wide receiver until college.

NFL draft scout Mike Mayock referenced Johnson’s soft hands in his  draft analysis, stating that “Johnson has outstanding passing game traits. He catches the ball like Le'Veon Bell.” Johnson then showcased his receiving ability over the course of the season, with 36 catches for 457 yards and 4 touchdowns.

In college, Johnson was a very productive every-down back for Northern Iowa, averaging 128 combined yards and 1.28 touchdowns per game over  his four-year career, while averaging 5.4 yards per carry and 12.3 yards per catch.

Johnson owes a lot of his success to his freakish athleticism. He was top four at the combine among running backs in 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, 3-cone drill, and broad jump. His 4.50 40-yard dash is faster than that of stud receivers  A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins, Dez Bryant, and Allen Robinson, and Johnson appears even faster on the field. His 25 bench reps are more than Rob Gronkowski, Jadeveon Clowney, or Cardinals stud defensive lineman Calais Campbell could muster.

What’s even more impressive about Johnson’s raw athleticism is the fact that he is a 6’1”, 225-pound monster. People may not realize it because he looks like a blur out there, but Johnson is actually bigger than Adrian Peterson (6’1”, 217), Le'Veon Bell (6’1”, 220), and Marshawn Lynch (5’11”, 215). He know how to put his size to good use too, often displaying his physical, punishing running style.

David Johnson: The Fantasy Stud

Johnson's skill set gives him an edge over most running backs, but the NFL is full of freak athletes. What makes him an elite fantasy asset is the situation he finds himself in.

Even some of the most talented running backs in the league struggle with consistency due to playing in struggling offenses -- see Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley, and Lamar Miller. Other elite talents are limited due to having to share carries -- see Matt Forte, DeMarco Murray, and C.J. Anderson. Johnson, on the other hand, has job security as the unquestioned number-one running back on arguably the best offense in the NFL.

Johnson also benefits from running behind one of the best run-blocking lines in the NFL. In 2015, their offensive line was ranked fourth in run blocking according to  Pro Football Focus and third according to Football Outsiders.

The Cardinals' offense ranked first in yards per game and second in points per game last season, averaging an impressive 30.6 points. They project to be just as potent again in 2016, which is good news for Johnson's fantasy prospects.

Over the past four seasons, teams with top five offenses averaged 15.3 rushing touchdowns. Johnson scored 50% of Arizona's 16 rushing touchdowns in 2015, despite accounting for just 27.7% of their rushing attempts. Barring injury, Johnson is certain to improve on the second number, which gives him a very good shot at double-digit rushing touchdowns in 2016, a feat that only five running backs accomplished in 2015.

The Cardinals' offense provides their starting running back with excellent touchdown potential, as evidenced by the fact that they ran 158 plays in the red zone last season, the sixth most in the NFL. They ran the ball in the red zone the eighth most frequently in the NFL, as 40.5% of their red zone attempts were rushes. 

Once Johnson was made the full-time starter, he was a workhorse in the red zone, accounting for 88.9% of Arizona's running back looks and 45.7% of the team's total red zone looks over the final five weeks of the regular season. If you project his workload from that time over the course of a full season, he would have finished third among running backs in red zone looks, with 55.

Johnson was the second most effective goal-line back among running backs with at least 10 carries from inside the five yard line in 2015, converting six of his 10 attempts. Johnson was also third on the team in red zone targets, tying Michael Floyd with 13. His 13 red zone targets were the third most among running backs, trailing only Danny Woodhead and Devonta Freeman, each of whom had 14.

As alluded to earlier, what makes Johnson so special is his versatility. If you project Johnson's receiving numbers as a starter over the course of a 16-game season, he would have finished with 90 targets, 55 catches, 691 receiving yards, and 3 receiving touchdowns. Respectively, those totals would have ranked fourth, sixth, third, and fifth among running backs in 2015.

In addition to his receiving prowess, Johnson was one of the most effective rushers according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Check out more on NEP in our glossary. For an idea of just how effective Johnson was, I have included a table comparing his numbers to some of the running backs that will warrant first-round consideration in 2016.

Player Rushing NEP NEP/Rush Rushing Success Rate Reception NEP Total NEP Yards/Carry
David Johnson 18.41 0.15 50.40% 42.46 60.87 4.6
Adrian Peterson 3.82 0.01 40.67% 6.17 9.99 4.5
Todd Gurley 7.98 0.03 36.24% 10.67 18.65 4.8
Le'Veon Bell 3.20 0.03 41.59% 0.93 4.13 4.9
Devonta Freeman 7.46 0.03 41.67% 36.84 44.30 4.0

In terms of per-carry Rushing NEP, Johnson was unmatched by his potential first-round peers. Of the 44 running backs who saw at least 100 carries last year, Johnson ranked first. Thomas Rawls (0.08) was a distant second, and Gurley (0.03) ranked fifth but wasn't even in the same galaxy as Johnson.

Additionally, Johnson wasn't reliant solely on the big play, evidenced by his Rushing Success Rate, the percentage of carries that led to positive NEP gains. Of the 44 backs with 100-plus carries, only Johnson and Rashad Jennings (50.77 percent) owned marks greater than 46.33 percent.

Again, Johnson was miles ahead of his peers.

David Johnson: The Number-One Pick?

If you project Johnson’s numbers from the seven games he started (including the playoffs) over a 16-game span, he would have totaled 1,975 combined rushing and receiving yards with 13.72 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns.

In standard leagues, those numbers would have added up to 279 fantasy points. The highest scoring flex player in standard leagues this season was  Antonio Brown, who put up 243 points.

In PPR leagues, Johnson would have theoretically scored 348.38 points, which would have crushed Devonta Freeman’s first place running back finish of 316 points. 348 would also rank fourth overall, trailing only  Cam Newton, Antonio Brown, and Julio Jones.

Johnson's numbers were not a result of a small sample size or an easy schedule, either. In fact, if you compare the defensive rushing metrics of his opponents during the seven games he started, with the opponents he will face in 2016, the results are very similar.

This fact allows the numbers Johnson is projected for over a 16-game span to carry a bit more validity.

Below are the numbers comparing Johnson's 2015's opponents and his 2016 opponents, using yards per carry allowed and rushing yards per game allowed. Additionally, we see how they ranked in terms of fantasy points allowed to running backs, and how they ranked against the run according to our Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP metric.

To be clear, the ranks for fantasy points and NEP rank the toughest defenses as 32nd, so the higher the number, the tougher they were against the run.

Season Yards/Carry Allowed Rush YD/Game Allowed FP/Game Allowed Adj. D Rush NEP/P
2015 4.19 109.4 17.8 16.1
2016 4.23 107.2 15.1 19.3

Overall, the schedule doesn't appear glaringly more difficult, though offseason personnel changes could impact the 2016 outlook.

Early-Round Running Back?

From a raw points perspective, Johnson was clearly one of the best while he was starting. So, why is he not ranked accordingly?

One argument made for not drafting running backs high is positional scarcity. People who subscribe to this theory believe that the difference between an elite wide receiver or tight end and a league-average starter is larger than the difference between an elite running back and a league-average running back. Let's debunk this theory.

Below are four tables displaying the positional scarcity at each position, using 2015's PPR scoring totals. The number one running back, or RB1, represents Johnson's numbers projected over 16 games. Each table shows the 2015 point total of the premier player, a league average starter, and a low-end starter at each position. The tables also display the percent difference between each and the number one player to give a better idea of positional scarcity.

Quarterback Positional Scarcity        
Position QB1 QB5 QB10 QB15
Points 389 309 287 269
Difference 0.00% 20.56% 26.22% 30.85%
Running Back Positional Scarcity        
Position RB1 RB10 RB20 RB30
Points 348 205 170 146
Difference 0.00% 41.09% 51.15% 58.05%
Wide Receiver Positional Scarcity        
Position WR1 WR10 WR20 WR30
Points 388 269 219 191
Difference 0.00% 30.67% 43.56% 50.77%
Tight End Positional Scarcity        
Position TE1 TE5 TE10 TE15
Points 256 227 164 129
Difference 0.00% 11.33% 35.94% 49.61%

As you can see, the positional scarcity argument is far from valid. In fact, it actually strengthens Johnson's case for the number one pick.

Let's examine the next reason people will shy away from selecting a running back early. After a year plagued by injuries, drafters are hesitant to invest an early pick on a running back. While all players are susceptible to injuries, David Johnson has been  as durable as they come. Other than a hamstring issue that caused him to miss one preseason game, Johnson has a clean injury slate throughout his career, which includes 991 carries over four years of college and his rookie NFL campaign.

Other running backs receiving first-round consideration all have more significant injury concerns than Johnson.

Adrian Peterson has suffered a dislocated shoulder, two high ankle sprains, a fractured collarbone, a sprained LCL, a torn ACL, a right mid-foot sprain, and a sports hernia. He has also handled 3,129 carries between college and the NFL.

In college, Todd Gurley missed three games with a sprained left ankle in 2013, and tore his left ACL in 2014.

Le'Veon Bell has a concussion, lisfranc foot sprain, hyper-extended left knee, and torn MCL and PCL in his right knee on his injury report.

Devonta Freeman has the least expansive injury history of the bunch but still dealt with a pulled hamstring in training camp last year, as well as a concussion during the season that caused him to miss one game and part of another. He is also 5'9" and 209 pounds, making it less likely his body will be able to withstand the wear and tear that Johnson's 6'1" 225 frame can.

While you can make a case for taking an elite receiver over Johnson, the talented second-year running back stands head and shoulders above the crowd at running back heading into the 2016 season. His unique combination of elite talent, secure workload in a top five offense, and proven durability make Johnson worthy of a top-five pick in any format heading into next year's drafts.