AFC South: Chris Johnson

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans are moving away from having a one-back workhorse -- Chris Johnson was cut in the spring -- and will have a running game by committee.

The committee will feature Bishop Sankey, their best all-around back; Shonn Greene, a short-yardage power back; and Dexter McCluster, a change-up pass-catcher. Fullback Jackie Battle can back up the Greene role, while return man Leon Washington can back up the McCluster role.

I figure, when things aren’t good, there is the potential for rumbling about backs being unable to get into a rhythm.

Running backs coach Sylvester Croom says that should not be a complaint.

“I don’t worry about it at all with this group, because the strength is the group,” he said. “They are great people. Each of them has a unique skill set that we need and I think that is really the trend in the National Football League.

"It’s going to be very difficult to find the guy who’s got the power of Shonn Greene, the blocking ability of a Jackie Battle, the change of direction and speed of Dexter McCluster, the veteran experience and hands and quickness of Leon Washington. You’re just not going to find that in one guy these days.”

“They’ll all contribute, and the great things about it is they are all fans of each other, and that’s going to be a big plus for us.”

Johnson used to suggest that when he couldn’t get going it was because he didn’t get enough touches.

Without talking about Johnson, or, I am confident, intending to take a shot at him, Croom said it doesn’t take many carries to show what you can do to get going.

“If you’re out there on a drive and you get four or five carries, I mean how much longer is it going to take you to get rhythm?” he said. “Certain guys are going to get reps on certain things. And so when they get into the game, there will be a rotation. I’ve done it before and never had a problem.”

Chris Johnson has found a new home, and it’s with the New York Jets.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reports it’s a two-year deal. ProFootballTalk says it has "a base value of $8 million, with another $1 million available in incentives based on yardage." I still want to see the guarantee and the structure to have a real sense of it. Johnson was due an $8 million base salary this year with the Titans before they cut him.

He could be great for the Jets. If Johnson plays well there, keep in mind it doesn't mean he would have played well in Nashville.

I see two big questions ahead for him.
  1. How does he react to what’s likely to be a reduced role? He was THE centerpiece of the Titans' offense for the bulk of his time in Tennessee. Will the Jets be selling him as that or giving him a narrower role and not talking constantly about their desire to give him 20 carries a game? The role is likely to be narrower, and he’s a guy who understandably wants the ball and enjoys NFL stardom. He’s been a good teammate, though not necessarily a great team guy. What direction do things go with that?
  2. How does he handle the New York press when things don’t go well? Fair or not, a good share of Jets fans will view him as an offensive savior. If he averages 3.9 yards a carry as he did for the Titans last year, if he fails to break an occasional tackle in the backfield, if he suggests the negative issue is with the offensive line or play calling, a giant press corps will be more difficult for him to deal with than our small group in Nashville ever was.
As Chris Johnson leaves Nashville and the Tennessee Titans prepare for life without their durable running back, it's time to reconsider the idea that he always ran against loaded fronts.

It's simply overstated.

ESPN Stats & Information tracks runs against a loaded box. That's any run front where the offense has fewer players available to block than the defense has in the front.

Any team or player claiming he faces loaded boxes "all the time" is exaggerating by a great deal, unless by "all the time" he means "less than a quarter of the time."

During Johnson's six seasons with Tennessee, among backs with at least 500 carries, veteran Thomas Jones faced the most staked boxes -- on 23.7 percent of his carries.

Johnson tied for 13th with Marion Barber, Arian Foster and Clinton Portis. Those four faced loaded fronts 17.5 percent of the time since the 2008 season.

Let's dispense with the idea that CJ, or any back, is constantly running into loaded fronts.

Also, the whole benefit of drawing extra defenders into the box is that it helps open things up downfield.

Tennessee was hardly a big downfield passing offense during Johnson's time with the team.

Here is an interesting piece by Matt Bowen of Bleacher Report on what level of threat CJ will provide a new team at this stage.
INDIANAPOLIS -- It was almost two years ago that Indianapolis Colts running back Vick Ballard entered the NFL as a bright-eyed rookie.

Now, 877 yards and a torn ACL later, Ballard is considered an elder statesman when it comes to playing in the AFC South.

And it's true. Ballard is one of the most experienced running backs when it comes to playing in the AFC South. Turnover at running back in the division has taken place during the offseason. Gone are division fixtures Chris Johnson in Tennessee and Colts nemesis Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville. Even Ben Tate is gone in Houston.

Houston’s Arian Foster is sitting at the top in the division. He’s rushed for 5,063 yards and 45 touchdowns in five seasons with the Texans.

Ballard rushed for 814 yards and two touchdowns during his rookie season in Indianapolis. His second season came to an end during Week 2 when he tore his ACL while making a cut during practice.

All signs point to Ballard being ready for training camp where he’ll compete with Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw for carries. Don’t automatically assume Ballard will be the third back because Richardson did not play well after the Colts acquired him from Cleveland in Week 3 last season. Bradshaw needs to prove he can stay healthy after having his season end in Week 3 with a neck injury.
Some key numbers from ESPN Stats and Info on Chris Johnson, who was released by the Titans on Friday:

Four-digits: Johnson's current streak of six straight 1,000-yard seasons is the longest active streak in the NFL. No one else has a current streak longer than three years. Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch have done it the last three seasons.

Two thousand: Johnson is one of seven players in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. The list: Eric Dickerson, 2,150 yards in 1984; Adrian Peterson, 2,097 in 2012; Jamal Lewis, 2,066 in 2003; Sanders, 2,053 in 1997; Terrell Davis, 2,008 in 1998; Johnson, 2,006 in 2009; O.J. Simpson, 2,003 in 1973 (14 games).

Bell cow: Since 2008, Johnson had 69 percent of the Titans' rushing yards. That's the highest percentage of his team's rushing yards of any player in the league. Peterson had 66 percent for the Vikings, Matt Forte had 63 percent for the Bears, Maurice Jones-Drew had 59 percent for the Jaguars and Steven Jackson had 58 percent for the Rams.

Losses and no gains: Johnson has been tackled for a loss or no gain on 410 rushes since he entered the NFL in 2008, the most during that time

YAC: Since 2009, only Thomas Jones and LaDainian Tomlinson -- who were both more than 30 years old during the stretch -- averaged fewer yards after contact than Johnson.

The list: Jones, 1.23; Tomlinson, 1.42; Johnson, 1.45; Ray Rice, 1.47. (Minimum 500 rushes.)

YBC: While Chris Johnson has struggled with yards after contact in the last five seasons, he has the fifth-most yards before contact since 2009. That list: Jamaal Charles, 3.76; C.J. Spiller, 3.35; Reggie Bush, 3.12; LeSean McCoy, 3.12; Johnson, 3.07. (Minimum 500 rushes.)

Runs of 20 yards or more: Johnson had progressively fewer 20-yard rushes in each season since his huge 2009 campaign: 22 in 2009, 13 in 2010, 11 in 2011, eight in 2012, five in 2013.

Against loaded boxes: Johnson runs versus loaded boxes year-by-year: 59 (4.56 average), 68 (5.44), 51 (4.31), 36 (3.42), 46 (7.28), 44 (3.91). That's 44 of 279 in 2013 or 16 percent.
Tennessee Titans general manager Ruston Webster visited with me, Chad Withrow and Jonathan Hutton on The Midday 180 this afternoon to talk about the team's decision to cut ties with Chris Johnson.

"There is some sense of relief that we're through it and we're moving forward and I am sure it's the same for him," he said.

He also said the team never got to the point where it offered a reduced deal.

I think it's safe to presume that between agent Joel Segal's tone in a meeting at the combine and Johnson's comments to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean about not taking a pay cut, the Titans figured it would have been fruitless. And I'm not sure they wanted him at even a reduced price.

"I don't know that we ever got into solid numbers on those things," Webster said.

Other topics:

On the timing: The Titans had to do their due diligence. Ultimately, they weren't able to make a trade.

"In the end I had told Chris and Joel that once we exhausted those options that we would move on and that's what we did," he said.

On evolving running back economics: "For whatever reason, the way offenses are going right now, the use of the multi-runner backfield as opposed to just having the one guy has changed the economics of things. And I think you can even look to the draft and see what's happened to the running back position in the draft. Very few, if any, will go in the first round this year. So that has changed.

"The league is a little different now in how they value the position. So I think those running backs that signed the big contracts are a little bit the victims of the circumstances at this day and time."

Will the Titans definitely be drafting a running back: "We will definitely look at that position in the draft."

On the interest level: Webster said there were points in time during the process where he thought the team had a chance to get a deal done that then didn't work out.

"There was a market and there were times I felt good about it," he said.

Johnson as a player now: "I think Chris still has a lot left … . I think Chris will have a some good years left in him.

On starting the offseason program Monday without Johnson: "I think it's important for the head coach to start new and be able to move forward. Saying that if we'd have felt that keeping him was the best thing for the franchise, we would have done it. I think it's good for Whiz to be able to start anew with everybody on board and heading the same direction."

On Johnson's health: Webster said Johnson passed his physical Friday and would have been able to participate in organized team activities.

On what they will look to bring in to go with Shonn Greene and Dexter McCluster: "I think moving forward we're going to look for another back with just some all-around ability, with size and speed, some explosiveness and possibly one that could stay on the field all three downs.

On how the draft class rates: "I think it's good. I don't think there is necessarily that one, the Adrian Peterson of the group that's going to go in the top 10. But there's a lot of depth there, from probably the late first to the fifth."

On confidence he can find a back if they wait until the fourth or fifth round: "I am, yep."

Meanwhile, Johnson issued a statement that he also tweeted:

"I'd like to thank all of my teammates, the fans, the staff and the coaches who have supported me throughout my journey with the Titans. I have grown so much as an individual and as teammate over the past few years, and I am excited about the opportunity to bring my experience and talents to a new organization. I'm looking forward to the next chapter and can't wait to contribute to my new team."
The Titans held on to Chris Johnson until Friday because they felt they had potential to trade him.

At least two teams gave Tennessee a real sense that a deal could be reached. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported four teams were interested, but a source tells me Miami and Buffalo were the teams that came closest to making a move.

Johnson would have had to reduce his contract, which called for base salaries of $8 million, $8 million and $7 million.

I can't envision Johnson wanting to go to Buffalo. Choosing to hit the open market instead of facilitating a trade there would be an understandable move.

The Dolphins and Miami might be attractive. But if he didn't like the Titans' offensive line in transition, the shakeup the Dolphins have undergone hardly suggests a line that will have jelled by opening day.
Just two seasons ago, the AFC South was a running back's paradise.

Three of the highest-paid running backs in the league belonged to the Texans, Titans and Jaguars. Only one remains in the division: The Texans' Arian Foster.

Former Jaguars star Maurice Jones-Drew signed with the Oakland Raiders in free agency and on Friday the Tennessee Titans released Chris Johnson. (We broke down the chances of each team isigning him; I rated the Texans as low.)

The AFC South is following a trend. It's not that the running game isn't important -- it is hugely important -- but individual running backs aren't as valuable to teams anymore. The free-agent market showed that: Former Texans running back Ben Tate received a miniscule $6.2 million over two years to be the Cleveland Browns' starter.

The reason? I checked in with a few coaches during the owners meetings last week.

"I don't think you can have just one," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "We were at our best when we had two and sometimes three. Way back when we had Derrick Ward with us we had three and all three contributed very much. I think you need to have depth, you need to have versatility... The best are the backs that you evaluate today all have to have someone that comes in the game. Going way back it may not have been as important as it is now. Today it is."

There was a time when running backs were stars -- Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell. That time is waning.

"It's probably the most punishing position on the field," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "You look at it as a position that you want to have a first-down runner, a change of pace runner, there's different body types and there's different skill sets.

"You've got to have a running back that can pass protect. ... He's very involved in pass protection. Very rarely do you see a true four-down alignment. He's got to be able to identify the defensive formation, who the line's going to take and who he's going to take. Defensive coordinators do such a great job of changing up who's rushing. He's got to be the guy that blocks the fifth or sixth rusher. Never really have an idea who it's going to be. I think it's gone to more of a committee position."

The AFC South held on longer than most, but this change is enveloping this division, too.
He ran for 2,006 yards in 2009, which is an incredibly difficult feat.

Chris Johnson worked awfully hard to accomplish that.

But he also allowed it to sort of swallow him up. In many ways, his identity is CJ2K.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsChris Johnson had the worst per-carry average (3.9 yards) of his career in 2013.
Two thousand yards became something he couldn’t help but bask in well after the 2009 season was over. He set it as a goal, time and time again. He deemed himself not just as a running back but a playmaker, and used that to get a giant contract.

The trouble was, those monster plays became less and less frequent.

The blocking got worse and the play calling became more questionable, and Johnson was quick to point that out and slow -- and by slow, I mean we're still waiting -- to say "my bad" and take any blame himself.

When his coaches early last season said he was taking plays designed to go outside and turning them inside, he basically denied it.

On Nov. 14, 2013, he scored a chugging, twisting 7-yard touchdown in a loss to the Colts at LP Field.

It ranked as an uncommon effort, and when he was asked about it after the game he said he'd had few chances to make such a play over the course of the season.

There was his failure, in my eyes.

Through that game, he had 168 carries. He saw few chances at high-effort, big-play runs in 168 carries? He finished the season with 279 carries and he had a very low percentage of those kinds of runs.

I think he came to believe things were going to be easier than they were in reality. He talked of 2,000 yards and his TV race against a cheetah and that speed, that speed, that speed.

Paired with his occasional criticism of his blocking and the offense's play calling, it hardly smacked of accountability.

Somewhere along the way, he could have said, he should have said, "There are multiple issues with the run game, but I'm the guy with the ball in my hands and I have to figure out how to do more while the other people involved work on their elements."

That he was incapable or unwilling to see things that way keyed his downfall with the Titans. Well, that and a combination of a 3.9-yard average and that scheduled $8 million salary.

The Tennessee Titans open their offseason program on Monday, and we’ve discussed how and why that should amount to a deadline for the Titans to act with regard to Chris Johnson.

The running back is scheduled to make $8 million this season, he’s coming off a career-low 3.9 yards per carry and since the season ended and the team replaced coach Mike Munchak with Ken Whisenhunt, it has offered no indication Johnson will be part of things going forward.

On SiriusXM NFL Radio on Wednesday, Johnson's agent, Joel Segal, said he spoke to the Titans.

“I think it’s a matter of time before Chris won’t be with the Titans, I just don’t know when,” he said.

I don't rate that as giant news. But he did say publicly what we've been saying for quite some time, so it qualifies as noteworthy.

The Titans have held out for about as long as they can to try to get something in a trade, a move that would have had to come with a reduced contract.

Johnson is about to be on the market. Segal has found new homes for Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson, and will soon be taking calls on another high-profile client.

It’s time for the Titans to make the move. Monday is a milestone, as Whisenhunt and his staff get to see their players for the first time.

It needs to be about who’s in line to be part of the 2014 Titans, not about who’s not.
Keith BulluckRich Gabrielson/Icon SMIKeith Bulluck was a mainstay at linebacker for the Tennessee Titans.
In April 2000, coming off a Super Bowl season, the Tennessee Titans had a solid roster and were drafting 30th.

With Randall Godfrey, Eddie Robinson and Greg Favors on the roster, the Titans weren’t in need of immediate help at linebacker.

The Titans drafted Syracuse linebacker Keith Bulluck anyway.

And for two years, he was mostly a special-teams player, starting just four games while the team stuck with experienced guys in front of him.

For the seven seasons after that, Bulluck was a permanent fixture at right outside linebacker, and after 10 seasons with the Titans he ranked as the best linebacker the franchise has had since it came to Nashville.

For the Titans, Bulluck is the ultimate model of drafting the best player available.

But best player available is largely a fantasyland idea. If the best player available when a team goes on the clock is a guy who plays a position where said team just signed its star to a long term-deal, guess what? It’s drafting someone else or looking to trade back.

Best player available typically means best player available at a position of reasonable need.

Let’s look at the Titans' last 10 first-round picks and the level of need the team had at their positions.

2013 – Guard Chance Warmack (10th)

The Titans were coming off a year with major injuries on their offensive line, and interior line help was priority one.

2012 – Wide receiver Kendall Wright (20th)

Nate Washington and Damian Williams finished the 2011 season as the starters, with Kenny Britt gone after three games with a torn ACL. The other Titans receivers, Lavelle Hawkins and Marc Mariani, were bit players at best. Wright was a bit of a surprise, but receiver certainly qualified as a position where there was room for a weapon out of the slot.

2011 – Quarterback Jake Locker (eighth)

The Titans parted ways with Vince Young and moved on from Kerry Collins to Matt Hasselbeck. With a new coaching staff in place, the team needed a young quarterback to build around.

2010 – Defensive end Derrick Morgan (16th)

The team’s top pass-rusher, Kyle Vanden Bosch, had moved on to Detroit as a free agent. And the contract clocks were ticking on Jason Jones and William Hayes.

2009 – Wide receiver Kenny Britt (30th)

The team’s 2008 receiving corps was Brandon Jones, Justin McCareins, Justin Gage, Lavelle Hawkins, Chris Davis and Paul Williams. There was not a dynamic guy in the bunch. Jones had moved on to San Francisco as a free agent and McCareins wasn’t going to be back.

2008 – Running back Chris Johnson (24th)

The Titans were ready to move on from Chris Brown, who signed as a free agent with the Houston Texans. The Titans needed someone to go with LenDale White in the backfield.

2007 – Safety Michael Griffin (19th)

The Titans were, mercifully, done with Lamont Thompson, whose game has devolved. Despite the need for a free safety, the Titans put on an extensive charade where they pretended Griffin would be a cornerback. He started 10 games at free safety as a rookie.

2006 – Quarterback Vince Young (third)

The Titans were ready to move on from an aging Steve McNair and Billy Volek had lost stock. It was time for the Titans to try to find their next quarterback, and the top guys – Young, Jay Cutler and Matt Leinart -- were all highly regarded.

2005 – Cornerback Pacman Jones (sixth)

Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson were the starters in 2004. But Rolle was gone after the season as part of an unavoidable salary-cap purge and Dyson went to Seattle as a free agent. Tennessee had a big need at cornerback when it drafted Jones.

2004 – Traded out of first round

The Titans picked tight end Ben Troupe in the second round, 40th overall. Frank Wycheck retired after the 2003 season, Erron Kinney’s knees were a problem and Shad Meier had established he was going to be a bust.

If all those guys rated as the best player available on the Titans' board, then one of two things happened:

  • The stars regularly aligned where the guy they rated as the best guy and a significant need corresponded.
  • Their boards were heavily weighted toward need.

Best player available is a rare thing, like Bulluck was a rare player.

Best player available at a position of need is usually what it really means.
Drops are surely subjective. You and I might look at a play and you’d say Phil should have caught it and I’d say he couldn’t have.

ESPN tracks drops and applies a strong benefit of the doubt standard. A drop has to be something quite obvious.

Pro Football Focus breaks down targets into catchable balls, and judges drops more harshly.

Both ESPN and PFF then compute drop rates -- ESPN simply by dividing drops by targets, PRR by dividing drops by catchable balls.

By any standard, Kenny Britt had a terrible 2013. ESPN says he dropped four passes, PFF counted seven.

Britt is a free agent, and the Tennessee Titans have no interest in bringing him back. He’s drawn a decent amount of interest and will be a reclamation project somewhere.

Another Titans receiver, Damian Williams, is on the market and looks unlikely to return unless his price drops.

No coach or player is going to say anything more than none is an acceptable drop total. But everyone drops some. Let’s sample three top guys at random just for some context on their ESPN drop rates from 2013: Detroit’s Calvin Johnson was at 5.2, Andre Johnson at 3.4 and Larry Fitzgerald 0.7.

I was spurred to look at the Titans’ drops as PFF has put out stories recently on receiver drops, running back drops and tight end drops.

Here’s how last year’s top pass catchers fared for Tennessee.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Tennessee Titans are on the verge of doing something with star running back Chris Johnson.

A trade, release or paycut could be in Johnson's future.

Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt talked about what the options are regarding the running back.

"This whole thing is a process," Whisenhunt said at the NFL owners meetings on Tuesday morning. "You go through (it) however it's going to workout. There's not a timetable on doing it. We’re trying to do what's best for the team. We’re certainly sensitive to try and resolve this whole deal sooner than later. It's just a process that you go through."

Whisenhunt wouldn't discuss if he's spoken to Johnson since word surfaced that the team was thinking of parting ways with him.

Last season, Johnson rushed for 1,077 yards on 279 carries with a career-low 3.9 average. Johnson is a productive back, but financially, he's due base salaries totaling $16 million the next two seasons. In 2015, he's scheduled to earn $7 million in a base salary.

It's those figures that are too high for the Titans and maybe any other team considering a trade for Johnson.

Whisenhunt is mindful of the Titans' fan base that is looking for solutions for the football team to get in the win column more consistently.

"Our fan base is important, no question about that," he said. "But I hope the fan base understands we're trying to do what’s best for our team. All that matters is what we do on Sundays and winning those games."
There is a big gulf between a team or a few of them being interested in trading for Tennessee Titans RB Chris Johnson and a trade actually happening.

If the Titans can get a pick for him, that'd be great.

But it takes more than the Titans being willing to deal him and a team being willing to deal for him and the sides agreeing on compensation. (A fifth-rounder? A sixth? A sixth that could turn into a fifth?)

The team that would trade for him likely won't be willing to inherit base salaries of $8 million this year, $8 million in 2014 and $7 million in 2015.

They'd want permission from the Titans to talk to Joel Segal, Johnson’s agent, to negotiate a friendlier deal with Johnson.

Johnson would then agree to that contract with the Titans on the condition they trade that contract to the team in question.

All of that would require Johnson to move away from a very firm stance that he is not taking a paycut.

If he can force the Titans' hand and get released, he can then peddle his services to 31 other franchises. And that’s more appealing.

That’s a stronger stance on principle, and Johnson would be doing some serious backing down to negotiate down in order to facilitate a trade. (He should by the way -- it's time to acknowledge reality.)

Ruston Webster said Tuesday he’d like to get things resolved sooner rather than later, but that there is no ticking clock.

PFT has pointed out one thing that can create a deadline: April 7. That's the start date of the offseason program. If Johnson showed up and suffered a freak injury that cost him the season, the Titans would be on the hook for all $8 million.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In Dexter McCluster, Tennessee gets a player who will be cast in a role for which many of us thought Darren Sproles would be a great fit.

I imagine he will be like Danny Woodhead was for Ken Whisenhunt last season in San Diego, when Whiz was offensive coordinator and Woodhead caught 76 passes for 605 yards and was very much an extension of the running game as a pass-catcher.

McCluster is a listed as receiver, not a running back. Like Woodhead, McCluster is 5-foot-8. At 170, he’s 30 pounds lighter than Woodhead.

In 2013 for the Chiefs, McCluster caught 53 passes for 511 yards and two touchdowns. He also had eight carries for 5 yards.

I spoke in a video earlier today about positional versatility for new pieces of the defensive front. McCluster brings the Titans that on offense.

From Bill Polian’s scouting report :
Versatility may be McCluster's best asset, as he can play RB, WR and return kicks. Speed and explosiveness should be his trademarks, but he doesn't make as many explosive plays as you might expect. As good as he can be in space he tends to dance too much. McCluster is well-built and if he can improve his receiving skills he could really help an offense. He has a head coach in Andy Reid who seems to like his skill set.

I think Titans fans should be excited about McCluster as part of a Whisenhunt offense. I think it also chops away at the room and idea for Chris Johnson to be back and to be used more in the passing game.

Jake Locker, or whoever is quarterbacking the Titans, will now be throwing to Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter, McCluster and Nate Washington. That's a pretty diverse group of four top targets.

Tennessee is also re-signing returner Leon Washington, per Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. Between McCluster and Washington, the Titans should have little worry with the return game, which plagued the Titans last season before the late addition of Washington.