Rust vs. Rest: Demise of David Johnson's fantasy career may have been greatly exaggerated

It was Week 1 of the 2015 NFL season. The Arizona Cardinals (coming off of a year in which they managed an 11-5 effort and nabbed their first postseason appearance since 2009) were hosting the New Orleans Saints. With a little over a minute and a half left in the fourth quarter, Carson Palmer connected with the team’s rookie RB, who took it to the house and clinched the victory for the Desert Birds. That rookie back with the soft hands and explosive after-the-catch ability was, of course, David Johnson. His first catch in the NFL was a precursor of things to come … or so it seemed. 

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Despite seeing an increase in playing time and flashing considerable potential as a dual-threat talent, it wasn’t until Week 13 that Johnson earned his first start (after Chris Johnson went down with a broken leg). In that effort, the Northern Iowa product averaged 4.5 YPC and managed 120 scrimmage yards and a TD on 24 touches. He was fantasy’s RB6 for the week. Over the remaining three games of the FF season, he produced consecutive top-12 finishes, averaging over 25 fantasy points per contest. 

Not surprisingly, he became one of fantasy’s hottest first-round selections heading into 2016. Rostering the SPARQ-monster paid off for fans of the virtual game, as Johnson officially broke out and wrapped up his sophomore campaign as FF’s most productive player at the position (to the tune of 2,118 total yards and 20 TDs on 373 touches). 

David Johnson was at the height of his powers in 2016. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

2017, however, would not include the encore performance that many had anticipated. In fact, the very first day of the year proved to be a harbinger of things to come, as Johnson was carted off the field with an MCL sprain in the Cardinals’ Week 17 contest against the Rams. The injury did not require surgery but, looking back, could be viewed as the starting point of the RB’s physical deterioration. While it was actually a wrist dislocation — suffered in the third quarter of the season opener — that cost him the entirety of his third professional campaign, questions about Johnson’s durability have yet to quell. 

Now 28 years old, the Iowa native is hoping a change of scenery will better his chances of a comeback effort. After playing through a variety of nagging afflictions (wrist, back, ankle) in 2019, Johnson fell out of Kliff Kingsbury’s favor and was relegated to a backup role behind former-Dolphin Kenyan Drake. While the starter, however, Johnson posted five top-12 fantasy finishes over his first six games of 2019. Over those efforts, he averaged 12.6 carries and 5 receptions per contest. 

Anyone who’s watched even a sliver of Johnson’s film can see that his ability as a receiver is what sets him apart. That bears out in his early season stats from last year when he averaged 49.6 rushing yards and 52.5 receiving yards per game from Week 1 through Week 6. So while he posted a top-10 yards-per-touch average of 5.5, his true yards per carry average was outside of the top-50 players at the position (3.6). The boost that his work in the receiving game provided for his overall stat line not only masked his inefficiency as a runner but added credence to those who question whether or not he still has the necessary burst to be effective as a rusher (particularly on early downs and/or at the goal line). 

I, once again, asked Dr. Alex Weber — an orthopedic surgeon and team physician at USC — for his professional medical opinion on this matter:

Is #footballtwitter right? 

Could David Johnson be #washed?

“I wouldn’t say that he’s WASHED,” said the doctor, plainly. “In fact, I think he has the ability to come out and be ready to play right away. I think he could be a great producer in the upcoming year.”

Dr. Weber went on to explain, “His prior injuries are not concerning to me in terms of their potential effect on his ability to perform. The things that came up over the past year will be completely resolved by the time he starts his 2020 campaign. They’re non-issues.”  

For the first time since beginning this series with Dr. Weber, I was shook. NON-issues??? David Johnson??? I needed more of an explanation. 

The doc fine-tuned his evaluation, adding, “The culmination of Johnson’s issues do put him at a higher risk for re-injury. I’m not denying that he isn’t injury prone. I’ll even go so far as to predict he misses 2-3 games. But I don’t think he’ll miss appreciable time. That’s because, in my opinion and experience, running backs benefit more from rest than any other position in football. I worry less about rust with them because of the nature of what they do.”

Basically, in terms of rest vs. rust, Johnson’s time off will help him regain his explosiveness, and the change in offense will require a minimal adjustment ... because an RB’s playbook remains less complicated than those of the other skill position players. 

I understand where Dr. Weber is coming from. In the case of Johnson, however, I disagree. 

As previously noted, what makes Johnson special is his pass-catching talent … not his prowess as a between the tackles rusher. Yet the volume that fantasy managers are relying on would come via totes on early downs and at the goal line. Last year, Johnson managed just 2 scores over 17 red-zone rushing attempts. That’s a touchdown conversion rate of under 12 percent. Sure, he was banged up, but the doctor is admitting that Johnson will, undoubtedly, get “nicked up” again. So I’m concerned about his efficiency, as well as his ability to stay on the field — especially in high contact situations. 

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Fine then. Forget about his work as a rusher. He’ll certainly make up for it — as he has in the past — on passing downs, right? Well, the problem with that analysis has to do with Houston’s other running back. Duke Johnson — who averaged nearly 4 looks per contest (with Nuk Hopkins on the team) in 2019 — is a more than capable receiver out of the backfield. Sure, Hopkins’ departure opens up 150 targets, but after accounting for Brandin Cooks’ arrival and the overlap in the Johnsons’ skill-set there’s not a clear-cut path to who will get what. 

After speaking with Dr. Weber, I’m confident David Johnson will start the season healthy. I also believe he’ll get a decent amount of work — certainly, enough to consider drafting him in the sixth round. That’s why he’s my RB26. However, I’m concerned about his usage and the rate at which his deployment will chip away at his effectiveness. This is not a player to reach for … but, rather, one to settle for. 

Which Texans are you targeting in 2020? Let Liz know on social @LizLoza_FF.

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