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Chris Johnson no longer an elite RB

4/16/2014 - NFL

Chris Johnson was the No. 8 running back in fantasy football last year. In terms of Value-Based Drafting, he was the 15th-best player in fantasy, and considering his average draft position was 24th, he actually delivered some pretty nice value.

So why can't I muster much more than a yawn upon hearing the news that Johnson has signed with the New York Jets?

There are three factors, actually.

He's not a clear first-string RB anymore

In the five seasons since LenDale White became a nonfactor in the Tennessee Titans' backfield, at least you could count on Johnson to number among the NFL's dwindling feature back community.

Even in recent campaigns when Johnson was frustratingly hit-and-miss, you could be relatively sure no other Titans RB would abscond with his workload.

But in Gotham, Chris Ivory is a part of the Jets' present. He is 2½ years younger than Johnson and outweighs the older man by a good 20 pounds.

Don't get me wrong: There's no question who has more talent in New York's backfield. It's CJ?K by a mile. He's still faster and shiftier than Ivory will ever be.

But it's difficult to picture a scenario where Johnson gets anything approaching his workloads in Tennessee. In 2013, Ivory had 184 touches (182 carries, two catches) and Bilal Powell had 212 (176 and 36). I can make a case that Powell will be the third wheel in 2014, and I can make a case that Johnson out-touches both incumbents. But Johnson has averaged 317 touches over the past three campaigns. He's not coming near that this year.

He's been disappointing for three straight seasons

Yes, CJ generated pretty good overall results in 2013 and he hasn't failed to generate at least third-round value in each of the past three years, but his tape isn't always flattering. When he sees daylight, his speed is still dominant. But it seems he's seen less and less daylight as the years have gone by. You can definitely blame the Titans' offensive line as part of this equation, but Johnson's first steps after a handoff are rarely explosive anymore. Instead, he's transformed into a searcher, even a little bit of a dancer. And when contact comes, he's going down. Among 47 qualified RBs last year, Johnson was 45th in average yards after contact.

Now, it's important that we separate the facts from the frustration that sometimes comes with being a fantasy owner who drafts Johnson. He is, by his nature, a feast-or-famine kind of player, so it can seem like he's spinning his wheels for weeks on end and then suddenly he'll explode and win you a game by himself. That's been his nature for a long time. But the hard truth is that as the years have gone by, the explosions have been fewer and farther between.

He had two 100-yard rushing games in 2013, a career low, and he never produced a run longer than 30 yards. He did have 49- and 66-yard TD receptions on short passes that went to the house, but in each case he was essentially uncovered; as I've said, if you give Johnson open space, he'll still burn you. But facts are facts: I'd be glad to buck conventional wisdom and proclaim that I continue to see greatness in CJ?K as a runner on tape, but he simply doesn't make as much happen on his own any longer.

He's got a crazy amount of tread taken off his tires

Since 2009, Johnson has the league's most carries and most touches from scrimmage and is second in scrimmage yards, behind only Ray Rice. In fact, he is the only halfback not to miss a regular-season game over the past five years. Such durability is to his credit, but it also means he's taken an extraordinary amount of punishment. History isn't always kind to runners with north of 2,000 career touches.

It's true that I've just lamented Johnson's lack of physicality, so maybe you find it somewhat disingenuous to then freak out about too many touches. And that's a fair point; I worry more about a downturn for a physical veteran like Frank Gore than I do Johnson. But these things operate on a spectrum, and it's not like Johnson never gets hit.


Listen, the Jets are probably a best-case scenario for CJ at this point. He was never landing on a team where he would be the unquestioned No. 1 back, because frankly the only franchise that currently has such an opening is the one he just left. There will be weeks where you're glad you took that midround flier on Johnson because he'll get in the open and electrify with a long play. I like his upside more than Ivory's and certainly Powell's.

But the things that frustrated you about Johnson the past few years will be accentuated now that he's probably in some form of committee. In my updated RB rankings for 2014, Johnson is No. 25, Ivory is No. 33, and Powell seems mostly out of the picture, down at No. 80.