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NFL Player Profile

Is David Johnson fantasy's cheapest 3-down RB?

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: May 7, 2020, 1:52 am ET

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2020 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

Twitter had a lot of fun at Texans coach Bill O'Brien's behalf this offseason. Of course, he almost certainly deserved it, but just because the head coach/general manager didn't get proper value for DeAndre Hopkins doesn't mean that Deshaun Watson and company are doomed.

The biggest shakeup in the Texans Offense other than replacing Hopkins with Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb is in the backfield, where David Johnson is fully expected to replace Carlos Hyde as the featured back. O'Brien has already confirmed that he views Johnson as a three-down RB, meaning Duke Johnson's rather-robust receiving role could be turned over to the former-Cardinals star.

Let's get to the elephant in the room: that one run where Johnson looked like a sloth incapable of ever gaining positive yardage again.

Keep in mind this occurred in Week 10 after Johnson had missed two games due to back and ankle injuries. He would only handle the ball 17 more times the remainder of the season.

Previously we saw Johnson emerge as one of the league's most-talented backs. His ability to dominate as both a rusher and receiver helped him earn the PPR-RB1 crown in 2016. While rare, talented backs such as DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy among others have gone on to put together highly-productive stints with new teams after many considered them #washed.

What follows is a breakdown on what to expect from Johnson with the Texans in 2020.

2019 wasn't all bad for Johnson

Johnson played between 60-87% of the Cardinals' offensive snaps in Weeks 1-6 last season, ultimately posting 76-298-2 rushing and 30-315-3 receiving lines. This was great! Only Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Austin Ekeler and Nick Chubb had more PPR than Johnson after six weeks of action.

Johnson's ability as a receiver was particularly impressive, as he demonstrated the ability to beat defenses from pretty much anywhere on the field.

Then the back and ankle injuries came into play. Johnson clearly wasn't 100% down the stretch in 2019, but O'Brien confirmed that the 28-year-old RB passed both his exit and entrance physicals with flying colors.

There were certainly some causes for concern along the way. Only Kalen Ballage had a lower Elusive Rating than Johnson among 61 qualified backs (PFF). The five-year veteran hasn't averaged even four yards per carry in a season since 2016.

And yet, there's little reason to be anything but optimistic in regards to Johnson's potential for a workhorse role.

BOB typically feeds his starting RB

O'Brien has been the Texans head coach since 2014. Hopkins was largely the team's only staple of consistency during this span. Watson has settled in as the franchise QB in recent years, but before that we saw a carousel under center that was almost exclusively more bad than good.

Still, one trend that has persisted throughout time has been the offense's reliance on a bell-cow back.

  • 2014: Arian Foster 260 rushes, 59 targets
  • 2015: Alfred Blue 183 rushes, 16 targets (Foster missed 12 games)
  • 2016: Lamar Miller 268 rushes, 39 targets
  • 2017: Miller 238 rushes, 45 targets
  • 2018: Miller 210 rushes, 35 targets (missed 2 games)
  • 2019: Carlos Hyde 245 rushes, 16 targets

250 touches seem more than reasonable for Johnson in 2020. This number, like most statistical thresholds, is fairly arbitrary, but there has been a strong history of success from players that manage to reach this "milestone". Overall, only 9-of-153 RBs with at least 250 touches in a season failed to finish better than the PPR RB24. Yes, 2019 featured three of those players in David Montgomery, Carlos Hyde and Sony Michel, but none of them possess the same sort of receiving ability as Johnson.

Nine different RBs had at least 300 touches in 2019. This was the case in all but one season from 2000-2013, but this sample shrunk to between 4-7 RBs from 2014-2018. Assuming good health and at least average performance ...

Johnson looks a lot like fantasy's cheapest three-down RB

I broke down every backfield post-free agency in an effort to get an idea of who might be looking at a featured role entering next season. Afterwards it seemed to me like the following backs could see a role consisting of at least 70% of their offense's snaps:

A quick breakdown of their outlook now: Each of the big-five backs is plenty safe ... It's also tough to call Ekeler, Johnson and Drake anything but projected three-down backs based on their 2019 usage and competition on the depth chart ... Sanders proved to be plenty capable of handling a large role down the stretch of 2019, although the Eagles smell like a prime candidate to scoop up an early-down veteran like Hyde, Miller or Devonta Freeman to complement him on early downs ... Coach Adam Gase stressed that the Jets are looking to employ more of a one-two punch at RB this season and proceeded to sign Frank Gore ... Each of Henry, Singletary and Williams are expected to lose snaps to their team's respective rookie drafted inside of the top-three rounds ... Fournette might still see plenty of work on early downs, but the presence of Chris Thompson makes it more than likely he won't come close to seeing triple-digit targets again.

It's a bit awkward for me to hype up David entering 2020 considering I truly believe Duke Johnson is the best RB in Houston:

  • David career stats: 4.0 yards per carry, 7.2 yards per target, 5.4 yards per touch, 28 years old, 36th-percentile BMI
  • Duke: 4.4 yards per carry, 7.1 yards per target, 6.5 yards per touch, 26 years old, 59th-percentile BMI

Duke was again phenomenal in 2019, ranking third in both Elusive Rating and yards per touch. The "he can't run inside the tackles" take is objectively wrong.

Unfortunately for Duke stans like myself: O'Brien didn't trade one of the most-loved fixtures of the franchise for him. That just so happens to be David. Regardless of whether or not you think the long-time Cardinals back still has much left in the tank, nobody has more unaccounted for carries from 2019 than the Texans.

Johnson is presently the PPR RB27 in season-long formats and going in the RB20-26 range in best ball. His workload profile is that of a sure-fire RB2 with the potential for much more. Zero-RB drafters should hone in on snagging DJ in the middle rounds after ideally getting some high-upside WRs early.

In fantasy football we chase opportunity, not talent. We don't know for sure if Johnson's best days are behind him, but he should be in line for 250-plus touches in an offense with one of the league's brightest young stars under center. Unlike past years, it won't cost prospective fantasy managers much to invest in the one-time stud RB.

Ian Hartitz

All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.