Chris Johnson Poised to Bounce Back

My newest PFF article will focus on Vision Yards, the yards a running back accrues before contact. One of the focal points is Chris Johnson, a player who possesses an elite ability to see and hit the crease.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Johnson did not struggle in this area in 2011 and his disappointing season is unlikely the fault of his offensive line either. Instead, it’s most likely that Johnson’s problem was mostly a lack of confidence at the point of contact . . . and the result of random variation. Luck, basically.

In order to deliver the kinds of electric, long distance TD runs that Johnson has authored repeatedly in his career, you have to possess great vision and world class speed. But you also have to be at least a little bit lucky.

In fact, Johnson’s 2011 struggles are not that uncommon for some of the most dynamic fantasy players in history. In creating a list of historical comparisons for CJ, I looked for players with an individual season featuring fewer than 4.1 yards per rush attempt, 250 or more rushes, and 45 or more receptions that occurred between the ages of 25 and 27. In order to make the list, the player had to be drafted in the first round and have a previous season with at least 1000 yards. Here are the comparable players in the last 20 years.

Chris Johnson Historical Comparisons

Rushing Receiving
Player Year Age Draft Tm Att Yds Y/A TD Rec Yds Y/R TD
Chris Johnson 2011 26 1-24 TEN 262 1047 4.00 4 57 418 7.33 0
Steven Jackson 2010 27 1-24 STL 330 1241 3.76 6 46 383 8.33 0
LaDainian Tomlinson 2004 25 1-5 SDG 339 1335 3.94 17 53 441 8.32 1
Edgerrin James 2003 25 1-4 IND 310 1259 4.06 11 51 292 5.73 0
Ricky Williams 2003 26 1-5 MIA 392 1372 3.50 9 50 351 7.02 1
Shaun Alexander 2002 25 1-19 SEA 295 1175 3.98 16 59 460 7.80 2
Eddie George 2000 27 1-14 TEN 403 1509 3.74 14 50 453 9.06 2
Eddie George 1999 26 1-14 TEN 320 1304 4.08 9 47 458 9.74 4
Marshall Faulk* 1998 25 1-2 IND 324 1319 4.07 6 86 908 10.56 4
Emmitt Smith* 1996 27 1-17 DAL 327 1204 3.68 12 47 249 5.30 3
Emmitt Smith* 1994 25 1-17 DAL 368 1484 4.03 21 50 341 6.82 1
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/14/2012.

 

Needless to say, this is a list of fantasy superstars. It was after his 1994 season that Emmitt Smith went on to have one of the greatest single seasons in NFL history with 2148 yards from scrimmage, 62 receptions, and 25 total TDs. Many forget that Marshall Faulk was not very productive on a per carry basis before the Greatest Show on Turf exploded in 1999. From age 21 to 25, Faulk actually averaged well below 4 yards per tote. Over the next three years, Faulk went on the most ridiculous run in fantasy history. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry, more than 80 receptions, more than 2200 yards from scrimmage, and nearly 20 TDs a year.

The same can be said for several other big names. Shaun Alexander exploded for three straight years after appearing on the list. He averaged over 1900 yards from scrimmage and more than 20 TDs. Edgerrin James‘ career was cut short by numerous injuries, but his age 26 and 27 seasons were prolific. He averaged over 1900 yards from scrimmage and double digit TDs.

Finally, LaDainian Tomlinson is considered to be the greatest fantasy back in history, but in 11 seasons he only managed 5 yards per carry twice. Conversely, he was held below 4 yards per carry five times. In the three years after appearing on this list he averaged an almost unseemly 2034 yards from scrimmage, 56 receptions, and 23 TDs.

The biggest concern for Johnson fans can be seen in the TD category. If Johnson had struggled to score earlier in his career, it would make sense to wonder if he can put it in the end zone often enough to be a viable fantasy No. 1. However, Johnson scored double digit TDs each of the first three years of his career (and for pedestrian Tennessee offenses). His track record in this regard is at least as strong as Faulk’s. It seems unlikely that the Titans become the Greatest Show Redux in 2012, but the probable insertion of Jake Locker combined with the return of Kenny Britt hints at exciting possibilities.

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