by Ray Kuhn
Not long ago Chris Johnson was a perennial first round draft choice, but as he enters his seventh season in the NFL that is no longer the case. In fact, it has not been for at least the past two years. When Johnson was eclipsing the 2,000 yard mark, who would have thought that a few years later he would be cast off by the Tennessee Titans? Or that he would generate minimal interest from the other 29 teams? After finding there was not a trade market for Johnson, the Titans released the soon to be 29-year old running back (generally considered to be young, though not in running back years).
All Johnson was able to muster up on the free agent market was a two year $8 million contract from the New York Jets, with another $1 million in possible incentives. Johnson will now share the Jets backfield with the oft-injured Chris Ivory.
So what should fantasy owners expect out of this tandem?
The first, and most important, question is what does Johnson have left? Clearly the response from the rest of the NFL is not that much, but this does not render him irrelevant in fantasy circles for 2014. The difference here is that for the first time ever, Johnson is now a value choice with limited expectations. For starters, he is not someone I would consider as anything more than a borderline RB2/FLEX option dependent upon the format.
In his defense, Johnson did continue his streak of six straight seasons of over 1,000 yards last season rushing for 1,077 yards in 279 yards averaging 3.9 yards per carry. The problem is that Johnson was incredibly inconsistent and for the most part did not have the same explosiveness that we had come to expect from him.
As we start to determine Johnson’s 2014 value, the first thing we must do is lower the expectations. The rest of the league and the Jets clearly have, so fantasy owners must do the same. We will hear some rhetoric leading up to the season that Johnson was injured last season, which is true as he had knee surgery in the off-season, and he is motivated. Well that is correct, but it also doesn’t mean he is the same player he was a few years ago.
While Johnson still has home run threat potential, that is not where his true value lies. It is nice, but the Jets are looking at Johnson as just part of their backfield instead of the centerpiece of their offense. What is clear, is that Johnson will not come close to the 279 carries he had last season. I think the initial forecast calls for a split in carries between Johnson and Chris Ivory that will be pretty close to even. This will benefit both running backs, Ivory gained 833 yards on 182 carries last season, as it will help keep them healthy and put them in situations conducive to success.
So just from a straight running perspective, I would rate the two backs about even with a slight edge to Ivory as his carries will likely be more predictable on a game to game basis. What we also know is that the Jets like to run the ball, so there will be plenty of carries for both players.
However in PPR formats, Johnson does have a clear advantage. Ivory only caught two passes last season and in Marty Morningwhig’s West Coast offense, running backs have a role as pass catchers. That is something that does fit Johnson’s skill set as he caught 42 passes for 345 yards in 2013.
There is also another Jets running back, Bilal Powell, who should not be completely forgotten about. Powell didn’t have a great season in 2013 as he gained 697 rushing yards to go with 272 receiving yards while scoring just one total touchdown, but he was a serviceable player. While he should be on your radar, he is not someone that would be on my 2014 draft list in most leagues.
Even with Johnson’s recent struggles, he will still likely be drafted earlier than Ivory. In PPR formats I would take Johnson first, but he is not someone I would reach for as Ivory could provide better value.