Bent, TheJetsBlog.comYesterday, the Jets announced that they had signed running back Chris Johnson to a two-year deal. Johnson is a well-known player with whom most NFL fans will be familiar. However, it’s still worth looking at recent footage to try and get an insight into what Johnson has left in the tank and what he could bring to the table.
Johnson is a 28-year old former first round pick who has surpassed 1,000 yards in each of his six seasons in the NFL (all with the Tennessee Titans). He’s a three time pro-bowler and was an all-pro in 2009 when he became just the sixth player in NFL history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season. Johnson has also caught 272 passes and scored a total of 58 touchdowns in his NFL career.
After the jump, I’ll be reviewing his career so far and looking at footage from last year to try and assess some of his strengths and weaknesses.
Who is Chris Johnson?
The 5’11” 203-pound Johnson wasn’t a highly touted collegiate player as he was better known for his kick returning abilities until his senior year when he broke out with a 1,400 yard season. However, his 4.24 forty yard dash at the 2008 scouting combine definitely turned heads. Still, it was a surprise when the Titans selected him 24th in the draft, but many experts were left eating their words when he rushed for over 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie, leading them to the postseason.
In 2009, Johnson had an incredible season, rushing for over 2,000 yards at an average of 5.6 per carry and setting an NFL record for yards from scrimmage in a season. While he hasn’t approached those kind of numbers since then, Johnson has still rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of the past four seasons and hasn’t missed a game in his entire six-year career. In 2013, he had career lows in yards per carry and yards from scrimmage, but it emerged after the season that he’d played most of the season with a torn meniscus in his knee. He still managed to rush for 1,077 yards and scored a total of 10 touchdowns.
Let’s look at Johnson’s numbers, then review what he brings to the table.
1,742 carries, 7.965 yards, 50 touchdowns (4.6 ypc)
272 catches, 2,003 yards, eight touchdowns
78% catch rate (including preseason games)
18 career fumbles (13 lost)
240 broken tackles, including 39 as a receiver
11 penalties committed
68 20+ yard runs
18 40+ yard runs
Seven sacks, seven hits and 41 hurries surrendered in 576 pass block snaps
Here are my observations based on watching footage in detail from the 2013 season:
Usage - The first thing to note is that Johnson plays all three downs. The Titans would sometimes spell him for a series here and there, but there were three games where he missed less than 10 snaps overall (including one where he missed just two). In 2012 there had been five games where he missed five or fewer snaps. This, when coupled with the fact that he didn’t miss any games yet in his career, and also that he was playing hurt last year, shows some impressive durability.
In terms of how he was used, Johnson was a tailback most of the time, as you’d expect. However, when the Titans would go five wide, he’d stay in the game and usually line up out wide. He had 50 snaps as a receiver out wide and a handful in the slot.
Running Ability – Johnson’s track record speaks for itself, but the biggest question mark surrounding his move to the Jets is whether he’s losing some of that breakaway ability that made his so productive in his early years. The numbers don’t look great, with a yards per carry average of less than four for the first time in his career in 2013 and a long run of just 30 yards.
However, Johnson was still pretty dynamic in the open field; The Titans just struggled to get him into those situations very often. As evidence that he can still be a “home run hitter” I submit this 58-yard touchdown run from preseason:
…and this spectacular 66-yard catch and run from the regular season:
In addition, in 2012, Johnson broke three runs of 80 yards or longer, without which his yards per carry average would have been just 3.6 yards per carry, so in 2013 he was arguably more consistent in terms of picking up yardage.
There were some encouraging performances from midseason onwards that suggest Johnson still has some gas in the tank. Against the Rams, he broke several long runs on his way to 150 yards and two scores and it’s also encouraging that he had one of his better games (127 yards and two scores) on the final day of the season. All told, Johnson averaged 4.2 yards per carry over the last 10 games. There was also a game against the Colts on Thursday night football where he ran for 70 yards and two scores in the first quarter (on eight carries) but then only managed 14 more yards on nine carries and a catch the rest of the way.
When at his best, Johnson has tremendous acceleration and makes good reads and sharp cuts. He also isn’t afraid to lower his head to fight for tough yardage, especially near the goal line. However, at this stage of his career, it does seem like he needs a few extra inches of daylight to get up to speed.
Pass Protection – Since he plays every down, Johnson is obviously called upon to pass protect quite a lot. It’s important that he’s comfortable in that role and his pass protection numbers are not too bad. However, I’d definitely stop short of calling him any kind of specialist in that role and would question how much of an upgrade he’d be over the inconsistent Bilal Powell or the improving Chris Ivory in pass protection.
Johnson did make several missteps as a pass blocker and was more often than not used as a safety valve instead. On a couple of plays, he seemed a bit tentative when picking up the blitz, although maybe that was connected to him not having complete confidence in his bothersome knee.
Receiving Threat - Johnson has always been a productive receiver, so he does have that ability which is certainly something Marty Mornhinweg offenses have looked to exploit in the past. We know that Mornhinweg strives to get his playmakers the ball in space, so that could be a good way of extra getting production out of Johnson. Johnson was one of the league leaders in yards after the catch last season, but his YAC per catch was higher than his overall yards per catch average which tells you that he was catching a lot of passes behind the line of scrimmage.
Despite his good numbers, Johnson is somewhat limited as a weapon in the passing game. In the past two seasons, he has caught just one pass more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, on this play where he was covered in the flat but broke off downfield on an improvised route as the quarterback bought some time. As you’d imagine, basically all of his production comes from screen passes and underneath dump-offs. However, as LaDainian Tomlinson showed in 2010, you can add an extra dimension to the offense (and help a young quarterback have some easy success to develop rhythm) just by doing that – and this is an area where Powell and Ivory have struggled to contribute.
Hands - With so many dump-off passes, it’s not surprising that Johnson has a high catch rate and not too many drops. He dropped four passes last year and three the year before that. It was poor concentration that was to blame for most of these, as he does look comfortable catching these easy passes most of the time. I didn’t find any examples of him making tough catches, but then again he wasn’t called upon to do so.
Fumbles – Johnson’s fumble rate isn’t too bad. He had three last season, two as the ball was punched out as he hit the hole and one on a freak play where he got trapped in the backfield and tried to reverse his field and got nailed from behind. There were also one or two fumbled hand-offs which were attributed to the quarterback.
Short Yardage – Johnson isn’t a power back, but does still have some success in short yardage situations, usually on the kind of one-cut zone plays that Mornhinweg also uses. As noted, though, he will fight and drive for extra yardage at times.
Special Teams – Johnson does not play on special teams. Despite being a good return man in college, he has had just one kick return for 17 yards and that was in his rookie season.
Instincts – Johnson shows good instincts as a runner and in downfield blocking situations, although there will be times where he has nowhere to go and dances around behind the line looking for a gap to emerge rather than just falling into the line to take what the defense gives him. The touchdown reception linked to above was a good veteran play showing good instincts in the passing game, but we didn’t see much more of that kind of thing.
Attitude – There are some questions over Johnson’s attitude although he has been saying all the right things since arriving. He held out over money and griped over his touches in the past, which could be an issue considering part of his contract is made up of yardage incentives. Other sources have queried his effort and said that he looks out for the big play, occasionally to the detriment of the overall gameplan, but who knows how accurate these reports are? From the footage, he seems like a popular teammate who gets fired up about making plays to help the team.
Injuries – As noted, Johnson hasn’t missed a game yet in his NFL career, but does have major red flags over the condition of his knee. Still, he passed physicals with both the Jets and Titans and finished the 2013 season on a high, so hopefully that’s something that won’t hold him back come September.
You can’t help thinking back to Curtis Martin, who gutted the way through the 2005 season with a knee injury and was on course for 1,000 yards or thereabouts when they shut him down with four games to go. In 2006, Martin wasn’t ready in time for camp and was forced to retire. Sometimes, when running backs start to have issues, the downfall is swift and sudden. Martin was five years older than Johnson is now in 2006 though.
Johnson is a big name and while there may be fears over how much longer (if at all) he can perform at an elite level, the Jets are getting him on a reasonable level contract and won’t be entirely reliant on him to carry the load.
From the footage, I was encouraged to see that Johnson still has the burst and open-field quickness he has relied upon to become one of the league’s better backs. While he didn’t break as many long gains, he does still possess the ability to get out to the second level and is dangerous when he does that.
Marty Mornhinweg’s offense does require backs who can produce in the passing game and protect the quarterback and while I’ve said that Johnson might not be all he’s advertised to be in those areas, his experience and competence in either role is valuable.
While Johnson will compete for a role and most likely end up splitting carries with Chris Ivory, the obvious comparison to look at is Tomlinson, who joined the Jets coming off a career-worst year and rejuvenated his career (improving his yards per carry average from 3.3 in his final season with the Chargers to 4.2 with the Jets). While the offensive line took a lot of the credit for that, this was the year where Matt Slauson was a first year starter and Damien Woody went down injured to be replaced by Wayne Hunter, so they were hardly at their best. I’d instead attribute Tomlinson’s success to the fact he had a reduced workload and was able to remain fresh much deeper into the season. That’s something that could benefit Johnson too.
In terms of whether Johnson will benefit from the Jets offensive line being better than the Titans were last year, I wouldn’t automatically assume that to be the case. The Titans are not a bad run blocking team and I’d put last year’s Jets team on about the same level. However, if the Jets can get improved play from the left guard position, their line should improve substantially this year and that will give Johnson a good chance to have some success.
We’ll return to looking at some of the players the Jets have added to the active roster since the end of the season with a look at defensive lineman TJ Barnes in a few days…