What does the future hold for Chris Johnson?
The Tennessee Titans are fully expected to move on from star running back Johnson this offseason. Owed more than $8 million over the next three seasons, Tennessee can’t possibly keep Johnson on at his current salary. He’s vastly overpaid and will be 29 before the 2014 NFL season begins.
It’s not all on Johnson, though, as he has arguably been improperly utilized at times, while his offensive line struggled mightily in run-blocking the past three seasons. The line did improve in 2013, but was still inconsistent.
To assess Johnson’s future moving forward, let’s take a look back at his past few seasons and see where he might land once on the open market:
Why Johnson Isn’t Elite Anymore
Speed isn’t the problem. Johnson hasn’t visibly lost a step in terms of acceleration, speed, agility and elusiveness. If you’re trying to assume Johnson’s skills have deteriorated with age, you’ll be surprised to find that they haven’t. When Johnson has a hole and the right blocking, he has no trouble blowing through and breaking a long run. We saw it right away in preseason this year – which is why a lot of people got excited about him again.
In 2011 and 2012, it was fairly arguable that the main reason Johnson wasn’t producing on an elite level was because of poor run-blocking. He also had gotten a hefty contract and some have gone as far as to say he “stopped trying”. When you look at game tape, that’s not exactly a reach.
Then again, Johnson’s small frame and inconsistent performance out of his o-line have hampered his progress, while his consistently poor attitude didn’t help. In other words, the reason for his lack of elite production is more of a mixed bag. However, if we want to start with one specific issue, at this point it has to be Johnson’s effort.
You never want to question work ethic or desire on the actual field, but with Johnson it’s a valid notion at this point. Even worse, even when he does appear to be trying his hardest, Johnson doesn’t have the ability to shed tackles and run effectively inside anymore. Effort or not, it just isn’t happening and the Titans can’t assume it suddenly will in 2014. Not for the money they’re paying him.
It’s also fair to point the finger at the way Tennessee has used him. For one, he hasn’t had anywhere close to 300-plus carries in each of the past three seasons. If you ask Johnson personally, this is part of the reason he hasn’t been elite – because he needs to be used as a true workhorse. While it’s easy for him to say that, it’s at least worth noting that he had his two best seasons in Tennessee when he did carry the ball more than 300 times.
While that’s a nice fantasy, it’s not the whole story, though. In reality, giving Johnson more and more carries would come off silly, considering he wasn’t doing enough with the ones he was getting.
The other misuse is Johnson’s lack of receptions in the passing game. He had 50 catches back in 2009, easily his best season of his career. In the four seasons since then, he’s cracked 50 just once.
Johnson is a pure speed back who relies on explosion and quick cuts. He makes that first guy miss, and if the blocking is there, he’s gone. The problem is, he wasn’t getting put in those types of situations enough. In fact, two of his long touchdown receptions on the season came on completely broken plays.
Lastly, it’s hard to blame Johnson for a lack of effort or production when his passing game doesn’t do him any favors. No one in Tennessee would tell you the Titans have a formidable passing game right now, and really they haven’t had one for Johnson’s entire career. He managed to make things happen at a high level for two years despite this, but it eventually caught up with him.
As bad as all this sounds, Johnson is still technically in his prime and has still put up 1,000-plus rushing yards and 1,200-plus total yards in every single season he’s been in the league. In fact, last year was the first time in his career he dropped below 4.0 yards per carry (3.9).
There are a lot of flaws to discuss when it comes to Johnson, but there is still a lot of good. The Titans can’t pay $8 million a year to hope it all changes for the better, though, so they’ll understandably cut him. But that doesn’t mean he can’t find success elsewhere. Let’s take a look at his top potential suitors once he hits free agency:
Oakland is almost certainly letting Darren McFadden go and Rashad Jennings is also a free agent. Johnson still has the speed and versatility to be a force in the league and unlike McFadden, he’s never had any trouble staying healthy. The real question is if he’s okay with losing in a different city.
Miami’s run-blocking is worse than Tennessee’s and they are also swimming in mediocrity, but they also don’t have any running backs they can fully trust. If Johnson doesn’t expect to break the bank, he can try reviving his career in South Beach.
Andre Brown and Peyton Hillis are free agents, while David Wilson (neck) can’t be counted on in 2014. New York really didn’t get a ton out of their ground game in 2013 and in an effort to get more balanced this year, they might consider some outside help. Johnson could give them the home run threat they’re lacking.
It’s no secret the Browns prefer Ben Tate over all other free agent running backs, but they have no real talent at the position and they’re no lock to land Tate. They should at least consider Johnson if the price is right.
How evil would it be of Johnson to go to a division rival and tear it up? We probably shouldn’t put it past him, as he’ll be fairly upset once finally cut. The Jaguars aren’t expected to retain veteran back Maurice Jones-Drew and they don’t have a ton of reliable talent in their backfield.
This post comes from Kevin Roberts of FantasyFootballOverdose.com. You can follow Fantasy Football Overdose on twitter at @NBAandNFLInfo, and for more Chris Johnson Stats, News and Rumors visit Fantasy Football Overdose – your online source for anything about fantasy football.