If you were anything like me last year, you drafted David Johnson in the first round and gloated among your league-mates that you landed the 2018 star running back of the NFL. Then after the season started, you realized the error of your ways and either traded him, cut him, or stubbornly played him week after week with your fingers crossed and hopes crushed.
However dismal David Johnson appeared in the 2018 season, we need to remember that he did finish as the RB10 in standard scoring and RB9 in PPR. After his 2016 breakout year, Johnson went from tragically injured to tragically under-utilized. Here is a good comparison of his numbers from 2016 and 2018.
Obviously, the lack of production in 2018 is staggering, but what stands out more is his nearly non-existent role as a receiver. Johnson was PFF’s highest-rated pass catcher in the NFL in 2016, yet offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and later, Byron Leftwich, pounded him up the middle until they were blue in the face.
Enter Kliff Kingsbury
Matthew Betz, in his article 2019 Head Coaching Changes, points out that as the head coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders, Kingsbury heavily relied on his running backs as pass catchers. They amassed the 6th-most targets, 6th-most receptions, 5th-most receiving yards, and 6th-most first downs in the NCAA since 2014. This is excellent news for David Johnson’s fantasy impact in 2019. Kingsbury has also made it clear he plans to use creative ways to get Johnson the ball.
“He’ll get it all sorts of ways,” Kingsbury said on his Kingsbury Chronicle Podcast. “We’ve got to be creative in how we get him the ball.”
Dumping the ball off to a reliable, pass-catching running back may be a necessity because of Arizona’s horrific offensive line. What better way to avoid the pass rush than to toss the ball off to your stud receiving back who happens to have the best hands in the NFL?
David Johnson Is Safe
It is the accepted theory that the Cardinals will choose quarterback Kyler Murray as their first pick in the NFL draft. But, what if they don’t? What if they decide to hang their hat on Josh Rosen for another season and see if Kingsbury can work some magic with the position? Murray does fit Kingsbury’s “Air Raid” offense better than Rosen, so the better option when it comes to Johnson’s production is clearly Murray. However, even if (when, let’s be honest) they draft Murray, he may not see starting snaps right away.
The good news is that it doesn’t matter all that much for Johnson as long as Kingsbury stays true to his comments on using him creatively in his scheme. I also consider Johnson safe in terms of consistency in the upcoming season. According to the Ballers TRUTH about Fantasy RB episodes, Johnson was the 11th most consistent RB despite his sorry surroundings. As I have mentioned, the Cardinals want to do everything in their power to get him the football. It is likely he’ll see more touches and more targets under Kingsbury. Plus, Johnson has the talent and athleticism to convert those opportunities into 1st downs and points on the board.
Top 5… Really?
You may think I am crazy, but let’s compare the top-5 running backs from 2018 with David Johnson’s numbers.
Notice how Johnson had more rush attempts than Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, and Todd Gurley. I understand these attempts averaged only 3.6 yards, but again, you can blame that on the offensive scheme under McCoy and poor utilization of Johnson’s talents. Johnson even topped Kamara’s rushing yards, matched McCaffrey’s and bested Ezekiel Elliott in rushing touchdowns. Even though he had the fewest receiving targets, receptions, and yards among these top-5, he matched Elliot in receiving touchdowns.
What do all of these players have in common? They are among the best pass-catching running backs in the league within a system designed to utilize their strengths. Sounds simple.
Unfortunately, Mike McCoy didn’t quite understand this idea last year. Under Kingsbury’s new scheme, Johnson has the potential to be in the top-5 mix in the 2019 season with a major draft discount currently going in the middle of the 2nd round. Kingsbury will likely abandon the pound-up-the-middle mentality and instead use Johnson’s incredible talents in a multitude of different ways in his explosive offense. Remember the David Johnson of 2016 under head coach Bruce Arians? The Kingsbury Air Raid offense is strikingly similar to Arians’ pass-heavy offense. While Johnson may never top his 2016 breakout, I do see his potential as a top-5 running back in 2019.