Can Jahvid Best be the next Chris Johnson?
Jahvid Best is amazingly talented at running with a football. Jahvid Best is also potentially fragile. These are the two realities that feed and cloud the buzz surrounding this rookie.
Scouting reports on Best are traditionally rife with hyperbole: "Elusive with elite speed" is certainly part of the lexicon, but "explosive" is a mandatory declaration. His NFL combine-best 40-yard-dash time (4.35 seconds) and gaudy college résumé are among the many pros in the Best debate. The cons, however, are littered with previous injury reports on his hip, elbow and shoulder, to name a few. It's difficult to be explosive from the trainer's room.
Several articles have discussed how much Lions coach Jim Schwartz pined over Best as late April approached. The coach mentioned that he craved a home run threat out of the backfield after seeing the amazing boost that Chris Johnson's rookie season brought to the Titans in his last year coaching the defense in Tennessee. Schwartz's uniquely enthusiastic admiration for Best inspired this treasure that he shared with Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver: "Some people watch adult videos on their computer; I go to YouTube and watch Jahvid Best highlight clips. That's what gets me going."
Kind of creepy, Coach, but good to know. Another thing that might be good to know is that "fast" is a relative concept, as Best belongs in the extreme high end of the spectrum. As a track sensation during his senior year in high school, Best's fastest 100-meter time equaled Justin Gatlin's and is better than Tyson Gay's when they were seniors.
Much like fellow former Golden Bear DeSean Jackson, Best proved to be an incredibly explosive, record-setting dynamo who might have lost some stock on teams' draft boards thanks to his diminutive build. At just 5-foot-10 and a generous 195 pounds, Best is significantly smaller than new backfield mate Kevin Smith.
According to Football Outsiders, Best was more than 12 touchdowns, a considerable margin, better than the average FBS-level back in his three collegiate seasons. Some of his highlights include when he dashed for 311 yards in one game as a sophomore and compiled 2,247 total yards during that same season. He proved to be a valuable if underused receiver out of the backfield, averaging more than 9 yards per catch. In the same workhorse sophomore season, he averaged a ridiculous 8.1 yards per carry on 194 attempts. You get the idea; the kid was great when he suited up.
But as mentioned previously, Best struggled mightily with a number of different injuries in college, the most recent being a serious concussion scare that saw him spend a night in the hospital and miss the final month of the season.
What we can glean from Best's days at Cal is that he was, wait for the excessive adjective use, exceptionally explosive as well as likely to spend time with the medical staff. The question remains, then: What role awaits Best in Detroit?
Smith is the only legit threat to Best's touches. The third-year back ran for fewer yards (976 to 747) and fewer touchdowns (eight to four) in 2009 than in his promising 2008 rookie effort, and he saw his yards per carry dip from 4.1 to 3.4. This situation seems fairly similar to the Arian Foster-Steve Slaton dynamic in Houston in that Smith, like Slaton, was an incredibly promising 2008 rookie who has lost luster thanks to injuries and a decidedly weak second season.
The most important factor here is that Smith is recovering from an ACL tear that he suffered this past December. In a recent article in the Detroit Free Press that focused on Smith's path back to the turf, he admitted that he's dealing with highs and lows during the healing process and that "in four months, when I'm a year out, I'll feel better. Next offseason, I should feel great."
The rest of the Lions' backfield is filled out with veterans Maurice Morris and Aaron Brown, both of whom played admirably in Smith's absence last season. However, neither is a threat to Best's share of the running game, or Smith's, for that matter. There has been some talk that fullback Jerome Felton could be the goal-line guy, but again, I'm not sure that really conflicts with that we're hoping for from Best.
Much as with Foster, Best is his own competition. Although with Foster it's a lack of pedigree that inspires doubt, with Best it's whether he can stay healthier than he could in the Pac-10.
The second coming?
Yes, the name Barry, as in Sanders, has been bandied about this offseason by the Lions faithful with respect to Best. Is this an insanely positive perception of a player who has yet to take a live NFL handoff? Of course it is, but just as I have likened this kid to Chris Johnson, he's simply one of those talents who incites dramatic comparison.
So just what kind of offense do we have in the Motor City? For the climate to change, we'll need to see a promising sophomore effort from franchise signal-caller Matthew Stafford. For too long, wideout Calvin Johnson has been the offense's lone feared weapon, which is why Best's arrival has been so anticipated by Lions fans. Johnson's presence should free up some room for Best both on the ground and particularly in the screen game, as defenses regularly double-team and at times even triple-team Johnson. The offensive line is not stocked with stars, but there is some continuity in longtime veterans Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola, the first two selections of the Matt Millen era. (The two have won 33 games in nine seasons.) The addition of guard Rob Sims is noteworthy, as he should provide some stability to the position. The greatest offseason infusion to the O-line could be widely respected new coach George Yarno. This line is regarded as mediocre, but it's likely not bad enough to seriously impact the fantasy potential of Best.
So far in the preseason, Best's numbers mimic his absurd college metrics, with 8.6 YPC on 15 carries for 129 yards and 4 receptions for 29 yards. In our draft kit, we have Best projected for just more than 1,000 total yards and six total touchdowns this season. These projections assume that a fundamentally equal share is in place with an estimate of 176 carries for Best. Last season, the Lions ran the ball 409 times, meaning that if they have a similar total this season (and there's an argument that they'll run more if the team is more competitive), our estimates leave well more than 200 rushes on the table for Smith et al. ESPN.com's NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert wrote recently that Best "seems a lock for 20 touches a game." If we assume 20 touches and extract around 15 carries per contest, we're looking at a role that affords Best more than 200 attempts, not to mention work in the passing game. Essentially, I don't see lack of opportunity or attention in this offense as a real issue with Best, even if Smith proves to share the workload.
Best is a potent and natural playmaker, the rare talent who you can almost assume will produce at an above-average level if he can stay healthy. It's often the ifs that define our fantasy seasons, and this guy certainly has a few of them. Despite the evident concerns, the rewards remain appetizing.
Jim McCormick is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com as well as a regular contributor to Sirius XM's fantasy sports channel and the producer of the "Behind the Helmet" podcast for The Washington Post's "The League."