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How Should We Value David Johnson?


David Johnson's season, and many of his fantasy owners' seasons, ended abruptly during Week 1 of the 2017 NFL Season. Fantasy's number one ranked player suffered a dislocated wrist that required season-ending surgery. Todd Gurley took over the mantle of fantasy football's best player and enters 2018 as the likely number one pick.

Johnson is fully cleared for the upcoming season. He won't fall out of the first round in any competent fantasy league this year. But how high should Johnson be drafted?

Is there still a case for him going number one overall? We'll unpack everything that needs to be discussed regarding Johnson's stock heading into 2018 and help you decide exactly how to value this fantasy All-Pro if you own a top-five pick in your upcoming draft.

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The Timeline

2016 Season

After an impressive, yet brief, rookie season in 2015, Johnson's stock skyrockets heading into 2016 season. Johnson becomes a consensus first round pick and does not disappoint. He puts up an astonishing 26.7 points per game in PPR leagues, second to only Peyton Manning as the highest total of the past five years. Johnson totaled 2,118 yards from scrimmage and scored 20 touchdowns on the year. He finished just 121 receiving yards shy of becoming the third member of the elusive 1,000/1,000 club. In just his second NFL season, Johnson posted one of the best fantasy seasons in recent memory.

2017 Season

Johnson enters 2017 as fantasy number one ranked player, rarely falling past number two overall in any fantasy drafts. Fantasy owners who picked number one felt like they won the lottery by landing Johnson. Those lottery winners immediately had their winnings poached by the government when they watched Johnson run to the locker room with a season-ending dislocated wrist. Johnson owners walked away from 2017 with a measly 15 PPR points and the potential of wasting a roster spot on Johnson all season long.

2018 Season

If there was a silver lining for David Johnson, it was how early his injury happened. The Cardinals were hesitant to declare Johnson's season over and didn't officially do so until November 22. Johnson was fully cleared on April 3. He'll be available for all of Arizona's offseason activities. As of May, he sits at number four overall on FantasyPro's consensus PPR rankings.

The Injury

David Johnson suffered a dislocated wrist in Week 1 that cost him the rest of the season. While severe wrist injuries aren't incredibly common for running backs, season-ending injuries are. Take a look at some notable star running backs who suffered season-ending injuries and how they responded the following year:

  • Jamal Lewis: Suffered his second season-ending ACL injury in four years right before his second NFL season. Comeback stats: 308 carries for 1,327 yards and six touchdowns along with 47 receptions for 442 yards and a touchdown.
  • Le'Veon BellTorn MCL during his third season. Comeback stats: 261 carries for 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns along with 75 receptions for 616 yards and two touchdowns. (note: Bell only played in 12 games during this season due to a suspension.)
  • Jamaal Charles: Torn ACL during his fourth season. Comeback stats: 285 carries for 1,509 yards and five touchdowns along with 35 receptions for 236 yards and a touchdown.
  • Adrian Peterson: Tore both his ACL and MCL near the end of his fifth season. Comeback stats: You haven't heard this story before? Peterson had 348 carries for 2,097 yards and twelve touchdowns.
  • Maurice Jones-Drew: Suffered a foot injury that required season-ending surgery during his seventh season. Comeback stats: 234 carries for 803 yards and five touchdowns along with 43 receptions for 314 yards. Only played two seasons post injury.

History tells us that stud running backs are studs for a reason. The only person on our list that regressed following his injury was Jones-Drew, who was much later in his career than Johnson and the rest of our examples. Peterson, Lewis, and Charles all had the best years of their careers after missing substantial time due to injury, and Bell has not missed a beat since coming back.

Johnson's injury was much less severe than any of these guys. Knee injuries often derail the careers of many NFL players, but they usually come back fine from wrist injuries. The only concern I'd have in any way related to Johnson's injury is just shaking off the cobwebs. Don't be worried about his injury risk moving forward.

 

The Arizona Situation

The Cardinals are a completely different team than the one he led in 2016. They have a different quarterback, a different coach, and different expectations.

New Coach

The Cardinals hired Carolina's defensive coordinator Steve Wilks as their new head coach for 2018. Since Wilks has been a defensive coach his whole career, the more important hire for Johnson is the new offensive coordinator: former Chargers head coach Mike McCoy.

If you look at the offenses McCoy's teams have run over the years, it's hard to understand how the same person was behind any of them. McCoy's first big break came as the offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos. These are tough to use in predicting David Johnson's success. His first year in Denver saw a career year for veteran back Correll Buckhalter, but he was in the backseat behind rookie back Knowshon Moreno. His second year was a disaster that ended McDaniels tenure as head coach. His third season required him to reconstruct the offense around Tim Tebow; and to McCoy's credit, produced phenomenal results. The Broncos signed Peyton Manning prior to McCoy's fourth season. Similar to LeBron James, you're never really in charge of the offense when Manning is on the field. McCoy made the best out of a few bizarre situations in Denver and found himself as the head coach of the San Diego Chargers in 2013.

McCoy's tenure in San Diego was far from a success, but we did learn some things about how McCoy will handle various running back situations. The Chargers had their best season under McCoy in 2013. The team was led by the thunder and lightning duo of Ryan Matthews and Danny Woodhead. Matthews had a career year on the ground, rushing for 1,255 yards and six touchdowns. Woodhead produced over 1,000 all purpose yards including 600 through the air. Woodhead would go for 1,000 yards again in 2015, this time with a career high 755 receiving yards. In his final season in San Diego, McCoy began to unlock Melvin Gordon, who had 997 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground while adding 419 receiving yards.

Here are the two big takeaways from Mike McCoy's coaching history: he adapts to the talent available, and he'll get his running backs involved in the passing game when they have the skills to do so. This bodes well for Johnson. McCoy has never had a running back as versatile and talented as DJ. I'd expect McCoy to build the offense around Johnson and try to unleash him as the two-way force he was in 2016. After all, McCoy was able to make Tim Tebow a fringe fantasy QB1.

New Quarterback

What's the first thing you think of when you think of Sam Bradford? Now that you've thought of injuries, what's the second thing? Check-down passes!!!

Jokes aside, Bradford is a capable quarterback when healthy - and he's dangerously accurate. Bradford is at his best in a run first offense. His running backs have never produced crazy receiving numbers, but he's also never had David Johnson. A Bradford-led offense would almost certainly revolve around Johnson. I'm not sure Johnson's receiving numbers are as high as they were in 2016 with Bradford, but I wouldn't be shocked if his rushing numbers were even higher.

The Cardinals also drafted quarterback Josh Rosen with the 10th pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. It seems like Rosen will be eased in, but should he find himself starting games for the Cardinals in 2018, Johnson will likely be relied upon heavily. Rookie quarterbacks always perform better with a stable running game behind them.

Whether the quarterback is Bradford or Rosen, I'd expect a similar result: more carries and less receptions compared to 2016.

 

The Other Guys

David Johnson is a sure-fire first-round pick who's in play at number one. Lets briefly look at the other players who's stock is similar to Johnson.

Todd Gurley

After a disastrous 2016 season, Gurley rebounded by being the runaway fantasy MVP in 2017. Gurley finished number one in PPR scoring by 40 points and posted 25.6 PPR points per game. Not much has changed in the Rams offense. They have a new offensive coordinator, but with head coach Sean McVay still around, the offense will stay the same. The only personnel change was replacing Sammy Watkins with Brandin Cooks. Gurley is arguably the most talented offensive player in the NFL playing in one of the leagues best offensive systems. It's easy to understand why he's the likely number one overall pick.

Two important notes in the case for Johnson over Gurley: Gurley had been incredibly inconsistent in his career before last season, and his 25.6 points per game was still a full point less than Johnson's in 2016.

Le'Veon Bell

Bell has set the bar for what an elite running back should produce in the NFL. He's finished in the top three in overall points per game among skill players in three of the last four seasons. I can't imagine a world where a healthy Bell isn't a top five fantasy back, and even five is low. He's the safest pick you can make at number one. Even if his ceiling is a little lower than Johnson or Gurley, he has the highest floor out of any back in the draft.

Antonio Brown

If Bell has the highest floor among running backs, Brown has the highest floor among players period. Brown hasn't had less than 1,284 receiving yards since 2012! He led the league in receiving yards last year with 1,533 in just 14 games. His nine touchdowns last year were his lowest since 2013. No expert will predict a decline for Brown this season because there's no reason to think he'd have one. The main reason Brown isn't a year-to-year lock for the number one pick is that a dual-threat back like the aforementioned players has a higher point ceiling.

Other Cantidates

Gurley, Bell, Brown, and Johnson are the clear top four to me, but I'd consider these players in play as well:

  • Ezekiel Elliot: Elliot will have a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas entering the season. After producing an NFL leading 1,631 rushing yards during his rookie year, his 2017 season was marred with off-the-field controversy and less on-the-field production. Elliot's numbers in the passing game have left something to be desired, but so did Todd Gurley's up until his third season. The Cowboys offense has a lot of uncertainty after the release of Dez Bryant and an underwhelming 2017 season. I'd expect them to count on Elliot to reignite it. He'll get a lot of work this season.
  • DeAndre HopkinsHopkins proved once again in 2017 that as long as Brock Osweiler isn't throwing him the football, he's going to produce. He averaged 92 yards and a touchdown during Deshaun Watson's six starts, including one 224 yard game and another three touchdown game. The entire offense will receive a spark with Watson back in the lineup. Hopkins could be in line for a career year.
  • Alvin KamaraKamara and Johnson actually have a lot in common. Both guys put up bananas numbers during their rookie seasons on strange sample sizes and had a ton of hype heading into their sophomore seasons. We know what happened with Johnson. Kamara is a bit tougher to predict. He's a smaller player who produced big play after big play in a time-share with Mark Ingram. Ingram is suspended for the first four games of the season. Will the Saints give Kamara a chance to prove he can be the workhorse in New Orleans, or will they give other players carries so they can keep his role similar to last years? Kamara's upside is as high as anyones this year, but I can't justify taking him over Johnson until we have more clarity.

Odell Beckham deserves an honorable mention here, but I can't make a case to take him over Johnson or most of the guys mentioned above.

Conclusion

Fantasy rankings can be more subjective than we want to believe they can be. There's usually consensus tiers of guys and how they should be ranked. When you get into choosing between guys like Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins, you should trust your instinct and personal preference. Every player mentioned above is ranked that highly for a reason, and there's a case, some worse than others, for each guy to be the number one overall pick. I've laid out enough details here for you to decide how high you want to draft David Johnson. But what kind of fantasy writer would I be if I didn't end this with my personal ranking?

I believe David Johnson is the most talented running back in the NFL. Watching him play is like watching a monster truck move like a Maserati. But there is uncertainty in his situation, and even though it seems like everything will be back to normal for DJ, you have to factor in the uncertainty when you're drafting a guy this high. For that reason, I'd have Gurley and Bell ranked slightly ahead of him. Gurley is the hot-hand in an offense that set the league on fire last season. Bell is the leagues most consistent high-end RB1. They're the top two players on my board.

A big part of the case for Johnson over Brown (and Hopkins) revolves around position scarcity. Take a look at this recent Roto Baller mock draft. Running back takes quite a dip after 3.3. Receiver takes a dip around the fourth round as well, but the gap between Doug Baldwin and Devin Funchess is smaller than the gap between Jordan Howard and Jay Ajayi. Getting a high-end back early in the draft seems more valuable than a receiver.

Still, you should be drafting for best player available at 1.3, and I’d still give Johnson a slight edge here. His 2016 season was absolutely ridiculous. He posted over 2,000 yards and had 20 touchdowns. Brown is a stud, but I don’t see him reaching those kind of numbers at 30. If I’m picking third overall, Johnson isn’t getting past me.

For reference, here’s my overall top 10 as of late June:

  1. Todd Gurley
  2. Le’Veon Bell
  3. David Johnson
  4. Antonio Brown
  5. DeAndre Hopkins
  6. Ezekiel Elliott
  7. Alvin Kamara
  8. Odell Beckham Jr.
  9. Kareem Hunt
  10. Julio Jones

 

More 2018 Fantasy Football & ADP Analysis


Check out all of RotoBaller's fantasy football rankings. Staff rankings are updated regularly for all positions and include standard formats, PPR scoring, tiered rankings and dynasty leagues.