David Johnson Bounces Back in 2019 (Fantasy Football)
I’ve continually stated that the offense a fantasy player is on will dictate 90 percent of his success. Are there outliers who’ll overcome bad situations and ascend to the elite fantasy options? Well, that’s debatable, as there’s been zero top-five running backs on bottom-16 scoring teams over the last seven years. It’s also why David Johnson struggled to perform in 2018, though he did ultimately finish as a top-12 option despite his team’s horrendous 14.1 points per game that ranked dead-last in the league.
Fast-forward a year and some are hesitant to pull the trigger on the former No. 1 fantasy running back, though a lot has changed in one offseason. He has a new head coach, a new quarterback, and a new group of pass-catchers. Should you be forgetting about the 2018 season and drafting the versatile running back in the first-round?
WHAT WENT WRONG
How could someone so dominant in 2016 who had a goal of 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving fall so far in 2018? Well, for one, he returned to somewhat of a different team after missing the entire 2017 season. But more importantly, he was playing for a new head coach. That particular head coach was defensive-minded and really had no clue how to run an offense. On top of that, he didn’t hire the correct offensive coordinator and ultimately fired him, moving on to a staff member to fill the void.
The end result was an NFL-worst 14.1 points per game, the lowest since the 2016 Rams, you know, the team that had Todd Gurley finish as the No. 15 running back in fantasy? Not only was scoring a problem, but so was running plays, as they ran a miniscule 56.4 plays per game. It’s tough to produce when you play in an offense that doesn’t score points, doesn’t run many plays, and doesn’t have a good offensive line. Johnson made the best of a bad situation, finishing as the No. 11 running back on a points-per-game basis. He was just the second running back in the last seven years to finish top-12 while on a bottom-10 scoring team.
WHY BELIEVE NOW?
While the Cardinals ignored the offensive line in the draft, they did add Marcus Gilbert from the Steelers in free agency, a guy who’s been one of the better right tackles over the last six years. While the line is still a slight concern, the other issues have been addressed.
Instead of standing alongside the immobile Josh Rosen, he’ll now play alongside Kyler Murray, who walks into the league as one of the most mobile quarterbacks. This will require defenses to assign a spy to Murray at all times, or deal with the consequences. In turn, that will lighten the defensive fronts that Johnson will see, something that was a problem for him last year, as he saw eight-plus defenders in the box 24 percent of the time.
Even more importantly, he now has a head coach who is offensive-minded. Kliff Kingsbury has one of the most up-tempo offenses in the league and Johnson even joked during offseason training that he’s getting ready for this team to run 90 plays per game. While that won’t happen, it’s fair to expect them to be in the 65-70 plays per game range.
Kingsbury’s offense will also run four-wide receiver sets quite often, something that makes it practically impossible to load the box against, as they need to account for all the receivers on the field. That will introduce the issue of wondering just how many targets he can get with that many receivers on the field. Well, two of those four receivers will likely be rookies who’ll be adjusting to the NFL. Not just that, but there’ll be plenty of targets to go around, as Kingsbury’s offense threw the ball on 65 percent of plays at Texas Tech. By comparison, there were just two teams in the NFL who were pass-heavier than that last year. And yes, targets are worth much more to fantasy players than carries. In 2018, carries were worth 0.63 points, while targets were worth 1.19 points (in half-PPR).
I’m not going to say that Kingsbury’s offense is a can’t-miss situation for Johnson, but I’m much more inclined to believe in the sheer volume of the offense and lack of competition behind Johnson for touches. The talent gap between him and Chase Edmonds is great, meaning if Johnson stays healthy, he’s likely in line for 300-plus touches, something only a handful of running backs can say. So, even if Kingsbury’s offense doesn’t finish as a top-10 scoring unit in 2019, Johnson’s floor remains intact due to his touch count.
Best case scenario is that the offense does catch the NFL by surprise, finishes top-10, and Johnson eclipses 300 touches en route to another top-three running back finish. Playing alongside a mobile quarterback will certainly help his efficiency on a per-touch basis, though it may hurt him a tad on the goal-line, as Murray is going to run a few of those short ones in himself, something neither Carson Palmer or Josh Rosen did. The biggest concern remains the offensive line, though Johnson played behind a relatively weak one back in 2016, too. When elite talent and volume meet, you want to be there to intersect them. When there’s a chance that talent and volume make it into a top-10 scoring offense, you hit fantasy gold. That’s a potential outcome for Johnson in 2019, who makes for a solid mid-to-late first-round pick.