David Johnson Can Finish as an RB1 (Fantasy Football)

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It feels like David Johnson’s fantasy career can be summed up in two words: “Remember when?”  Remember when Johnson had his 2016 All-Pro season? Remember when he was the coveted number one fantasy pick?  Remember when we were so excited to see Kliff Kingsbury finally use Johnson’s explosive legs and super glue hands?

Remember when we were all sorely disappointed year after year?

I certainly do.  My first article for The Fantasy Footballers was a look into how David Johnson would sweep us off our feet in the 2019 season under Kliff Kingsbury.  The recipe was right there. All of the pieces were in place, the stars were aligning, the cherubs started singing… until the Cardinals traded for Kenyan Drake, Johnson got hurt, and it all fell back to, “Remember when?

Putting aside the craziness of the trade between the Houston Texans and the Arizona Cardinals, what does it mean for David Johnson as a Texan and his role in our fantasy football lives?

Dual Identity – Dual Threat

One of Johnson’s fascinating traits is his ability to play wide receiver as a running back.  In 2016, Johnson was the leading RB receiver in the entire league with 120 targets and 80 receptions for 879 receiving yards and four touchdowns.  Le’Veon Bell came in second place that year with 94 targets, 75 receptions, 616 yards, and two receiving touchdowns. Let’s not forget that Johnson rushed a career-high 239 times for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns as well.

During that breakout 2016 season, he lined up all over the field including 76 times in the slot and 121 times out wide.  His production in both the run game and the passing game made him a nearly unstoppable force. Fast forward past a vacant 2017 season to 2018 and these numbers don’t look as shiny.  His receiving statistics dropped to 76 targets, 50 receptions, only 446 yards, and 3 receiving touchdowns. He lined up in the slot 25 times and only 22 times out wide. That’s over one hundred fewer times to be available out wide to make a play with his ridiculous hands.

2019 didn’t help.  After getting hurt and Kenyan Drake’s signing, Johnson’s future with the Cardinals was coming to an obvious conclusion despite the near-perfect fit between Kliff Kingsbury’s offense and Johnson’s talents.  A key part of Johnson’s success on the field is to be heavily utilized in the passing game. How this didn’t translate under Kingsbury is beyond me.

More Targets Among Lesser Talents

DeAndre Hopkins is gone as is RB Carlos Hyde.  Hopkins’ absence in this offense leaves a heaping pile of vacated targets in the passing game.  In 2019, Hopkins was targeted 150 times out of DeShaun Watson’s 333 pass attempts. Those targets will inevitably be redistributed elsewhere between newcomer Randall Cobb, Kenny Stills, and Will Fuller, who battles a long history of injuries that have kept him off the field.  I think it’s fair to say that one can and should include Johnson in that list of available receivers.

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It’s important to note that Hopkins had a significant role as a field-stretching deep threat.  While I’m not saying that Johnson will become the next Hopkins, I am saying that Watson will be forced to look more toward the middle of the field without Hopkins on the team.  Out of Watson’s 333 attempts, 81 of those were considered “deep” – more than a 20-yard attempt through the air.

While the offensive line has improved, Watson will still need an out when the O-Line crumbles around him.  That may include scrambling out of the pocket for short, dump-off passes or designed plays to get the ball out of Watson’s hands faster to avoid a sack.  In 2018, Watson was sacked a whopping 62 times, the most in the NFL that year. Last year, it dropped to 44 but was still 4th highest in the league. If Johnson can be used in the passing game, he has the opportunity to be more involved to create plays with his hands and his legs and score us more fantasy points.

As for the Texans’ run game, David Johnson only has Duke Johnson as the forerunner for his competition so far.  Carlos Hyde leaves 245 rush attempts on the table to split between the two running backs. The biggest problem here is that both David and Duke Johnson are known for their exceptional ability to catch the ball.

RB1 Still Isn’t Off The Table

There are a lot of questions surrounding Johnson as a Texan.  Will Duke Johnson usurp his role as Drake did in Arizona? Will Bill O’Brien and Tim Kelly incorporate his skill set appropriately?  Will Watson use him in the passing game when traditionally he doesn’t target RBs? Can he stay healthy enough to be an asset to your fantasy team?

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After Johnson’s 2019 season, it’s not hard to imagine him having another total bust year.  His move to the Texans puts him in a nearly identical position that he was facing in Arizona, just switch Kenyan Drake for Duke Johnson.  However, this year, he has to face that competition from Week 1 instead of halfway through the season.

If Watson can be productive, move the chains consistently, and avoid sacks with David Johnson, then I don’t think it’s a stretch that Watson could target him early and often.  Add to that all the vacated targets and missing security blanket that Hopkins previously afforded. Whether or not Johnson can stay healthy remains to be seen.

During the 2020 combine, O’Brien announced that OC Tim Kelly will be taking over play-calling duties for the season.  O’Brien has basically groomed Kelly since their days at Penn State when Kelly was his graduate assistant in 2012 and 2013.  Kelly will serve as the quarterbacks’ coach and the offensive coordinator so the relationship he has with Watson will be critical to the success of the rest of the offense.

I also believe that Kelly doesn’t want to make his long-time boss look like an idiot any more than he already does.  If you trade away your best player, nay, the best WR in the league because you didn’t want to pay him, but sign an RB34 for the same amount of money… you’ll have something to prove.  Quickly. And often.  That all but guarantees that Johnson will start and stay on the field and play an integral role in the offense to justify the trade.

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Is it really possible that Johnson returns to the RB1 conversation as a Texan?  While his 2018 season wasn’t nearly as glitzy as his breakout 2016 year, we shouldn’t forget that he still rushed 258 times, for 940 yards, and seven touchdowns, finishing as the RB10.

To put these numbers into perspective, Saquon Barkley finished as the RB11 with only 200 attempts for 911 yards and 5 touchdowns last year.  Todd Gurley finished as the RB12 with 203 attempts for 789 yards and 12 touchdowns. Even if Johnson can’t bring the 2016 fire, RB1 numbers in an offense that should feature him a LOT (or risk riots) with a plethora of vacated targets and little competition isn’t too far fetched.

Conclusion – Value, Value, Value – Did I say Value?

According to Fantasy Football Calculator, David Johnson is being drafted toward the end of the sixth round, as of this article date.  It’s early still, but if he stays at this position or plummets further, you have the opportunity to snag a potential RB1 workhorse later in your drafts.  If Johnson falls flat in 2020, it won’t carry the same agonizing pain as it would if you had drafted him in the first or second round.

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me thrice….?  There is no doubt that drafting Johnson has risk and many people may shy away from the headache.  If I am able to stack my roster with some key studs and I am staring at Johnson’s name toward the end of the sixth round or later in my draft, I am not hesitating to smash the draft button.

Hopefully, Johnson’s 2020 career will end with “Remember when he was a breakout in 2016?  I can’t believe he did it again.”


NP Merrill says:

So we’ll-written it’s almost convincing. Seriously though, agree that the risk-reward ratio justifies a later pick, and if going zero RB you could certainly do worse.

Paul says:

Very good piece here by Lauren.

We’ve seen DJ’s floor and his ceiling.

Not many RBs have the skill-set that Johnson has.

Given the current situation in Houston, DJ could be in for a ginormous workload in 2020.

Considering where I’ve seen DJ going in mock and start-up drafts.

The reward far outweighs the risk in my eyes.

Great Job, Lauren.

Excellent read! I’m all about value when it comes to drafting players even when risk is involved. Sometimes you just have to take a chance and hope for the best.

It also helps when you draft your “big guns” ahead so that the dangerous piece you take doesn’t completely blow up in your face.

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