- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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Eric Decker gets the money and Michael Vick gets the headlines, but Chris Johnson is the key newcomer on the New York Jets' offense. If healthy, he's the one player who can change the way opponents look at the Jets. He gives Rex Ryan something he has never had -- a home-run threat in the backfield.
Forget about Ground & Pound. If Johnson is anywhere close to his "CJ2K" level of 2009, it'll be Ground & Hound -- as in greyhound.
Johnson, 28, is the Jets' most accomplished skill-position player since LaDainian Tomlinson, a rare talent who transcends the "what have you done for me lately?" principle. Johnson was just ordinary last season for the Tennessee Titans, but a player of his stature gets the benefit of the doubt. His past is good enough to impact the present. He will command respect, and that gives the Jets a legitimate X factor.
"That guy, he's one of the best," Titans cornerback Jason McCourty said last week. "A lot of people have talked about how he's lost it. I think he'll get out there and prove he hasn't lost a step and can still play."
Obviously, the Jets think so, signing Johnson to a two-year, $8 million contract when he was unceremoniously fired by the Titans after five 1,000-yard seasons and one 2,000-yard season. It's a cold business, the NFL.
Anticipating his release, the Jets did a lot of tape study on Johnson. What they saw was a still-gifted back who was restricted by a bum knee and a mediocre offensive line in Tennessee. Doctors took care of the knee, repairing a torn meniscus with an arthroscopic procedure in January. Now it'll be up to the Jets' line to take care of the blocking.
You don't have to be Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight to detect the downward trend in Johnson's career. His production dropped significantly in two of the past three years, underscored by his 3.9 yards per rush last season, a career low.
On the flip side, he has never failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark and he has never missed a game due to injury, extraordinary durability for a running back. McCourty said he can't recall Johnson missing more than five practices over the past five years.
The Jets kept their pre-owned Ferrari in the garage during the offseason, taking no chances. Johnson was limited to light work on the field, but he should be ready for training camp. The goal is to make sure he's humming by Sept. 7, the season opener.
Barring a setback, Johnson will change the dynamics of the Jets' rushing game. For years, they've been a predictable, five-hole attack, with the likes of Chris Ivory and Shonn Greene pounding away between the tackles. Because of his speed to the outside -- the man once raced a cheetah on TV -- Johnson can stretch a defense horizontally. That will soften the belly of the defense.
"He's unique because, at any moment, he can score," Hall of Famer Curtis Martin said.
Martin knows great running backs. On his personal list, he lists Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson as the best in history. Martin said Johnson "had a chance" to challenge the big three. He spoke of Johnson in the past tense, but that doesn't mean Martin thinks he's washed up.
"With things even across the board -- the blocking is the same, quarterback is the same -- I still think he's one of the best running backs in the league," Martin said. "I'll say this: He has as much talent as anyone in the league."
Johnson has 12 rushes of 50-plus yards since 2008, second only to Peterson (17), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Johnson didn't break any long highlight-film runs last year -- who can forget his 94-yard touchdown against the Jets in 2012? -- but his mere presence forced opponents to crowd the line of scrimmage. Only two backs, Peterson and Frank Gore, ran against more eight-man fronts in 2013.
"He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer," Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said.
You put Johnson with a mobile quarterback, whether it's Geno Smith or Vick, and you're putting stress on a defense. You're forcing the defense to bring down a safety, creating opportunities in the passing game. You're doing something the Jets haven't done in a long time: putting a player out there who actually scares a defense.
Decker is a solid receiver, but he's not a game-changer. Vick, if he's playing, isn't that guy anymore. Johnson still has a chance.
"Oh man, he's that one-shot, home run guy," McCourty said.
McCourty didn't want to get into his former teammate's bitter divorce from the Titans, and how Johnson has criticized the organization for mistreating him. But McCourty knows this: Johnson's fire is raging. As Tomlinson showed in 2010, a once-great runner with a chip on his shoulder can be dangerous.
"When a team releases you and there are doubters, people saying stuff, it definitely gives you that kick in the ass that you need," McCourty said. "I look forward to watching him and I hope he has an amazing year. I hope he crushes every team he faces -- except us."