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This blog was born out of a Dynasty Rankings thread originally begun in October, 2006 at the Footballguys.com message boards. The rankings in that thread and the ensuing wall-to-wall discussion of player values and dynasty league strategy took on a life of its own at over 275 pages and 700,000 page views. The result is what you see in the sidebar under "Updated Positional Rankings": a comprehensive ranking of dynasty league fantasy football players by position on a tiered, weighted scale. In the tradition of the original footballguys.com Dynasty Rankings thread, intelligent debate is welcome and encouraged.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Swing for the Fences: The Chris Johnson Hype Train

It's getting a little lonely in here driving the Chris Johnson hype train, so let's see if anybody is ready to hop on-board.

I'd like to proclaim that it started in May, back when we were putting together the first Beckett/Rotoworld offseason fantasy football magazine. All of the contributing writers were asked to fill out a 'bold questions' survey, and under "Top Rookie RB," I offered up Chris Johnson. To me, as obvious as Darren McFadden's talent was, it was equally as obvious that he still wasn't a patch on Adrian Peterson's ass. The hype was simply too much for me to stand in line to pick him as the top rookie. As much as I liked Jonathan Stewart coming into the league, he had the recent toe surgery and a possible time share with DeAngelo Williams. Rashard Mendenhall wasn't going to be the top rookie while splitting time with Willie Parker. And Kevin Smith and Matt Forte were a step down in talent while mired behind awful offensive lines. Chris Johnson, though, had special talent, impressive college production, and was entering a plum situation -- a Titans offense desperately in need of a playmaker.

In truth, however, the seed was planted back in March by my friend Brad Spieser of twinkilling.com. Brad is a college sports freak with impressive instincts and a keen eye for talent. When he talks college football, I always listen . . . the filter remains on, but I do listen. In an e-mail exchange on March 15, Brad's scouting report on Chris Johnson was the following:

"That guy runs mean. Similar to Marion Barber, actually. Now he's probably 20 lbs. lighter than Barber, but I bet he can add 12 to his frame. And God, that speed..."
I didn't know Chris Johnson from Chris O'Donnell at the time, but a scouting report that unique certainly got my attention. I filed it away, gave it a Brad filter, and figured this guy was a souped-up change of pace back.

Then I came across a blog post by Eagles beat writer Dave Brooks from the Trenton Times. After stumbling upon a Football Outsiders study from historic combine performances and how they translate to success in the NFL, Brooks applied the "adjusted 40" formula (which considers both weight and speed) to this years crop of rookie running backs, and the top four scores came up as such:
1. Chris Johnson -- 121.91
2. Darren McFadden -- 120.05
3. Rashard Mendenhall -- 118.98
4. Jonathan Stewart -- 118.78
Interesting to note that Miami's Jalen Parmele came in 6th, Matt Forte 7th, Jamaal Charles 9th, Felix Jones 11th, Ray Rice 13th, Kevin Smith 14th, Tim Hightower 16th, and Steve Slaton 21st.

To quote Brooks: "The heavy hitters all show up as first round picks - McFadden, Mendenhall, Stewart. However, the fastest player I've seen on tape in quite a long time, Chris Johnson, bests them all. Chris Johnson as a 2nd round pick to the Birds? Yes please."

Now, even with the Football Outsiders cache behind the chart, it's not like I took the results as gospel. But it was another item that drew my attention to Chris Johnson.

So by early May, he had finally gotten my attention. On May 3, I was doing the Rotoworld news shift and stumbled upon a Nashville Tennessean article about new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger and his expectations for the offense. His stated intention to use Chris Johnson in a variety of roles similar to Reggie Bush caught my eye:
"We were out there making up routes," offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said. "I've never had a guy that can do (things Johnson can)." To finish off the Rotoworld blurb, 'The Titans envision Johnson lining up in the backfield, in the slot, out wide and even in the return game. They hope he's a fast learner.'
At this point I'm intrigued enough to pick Chris Johnson as the top fantasy rookie on a lark, but not convinced enough to put up a strong defense when Rotoworld's Evan Silva got the magazine in the mail, promptly hopped on AIM, and had some fun at my expense. I demurred, saying only that I must have been feeling goofy that day.

Rotoworld's next Johnson-related blurb didn't come until late June:
Titans RBs coach Earnest Byner says first-round pick Chris Johnson has showed an excellent work ethic and mind for the game during OTAs.
Work ethic? Good mind for the game? Could be typical first-round pick offseason sunshine, but still, it wasn't the speed that impressed him. It was work ethic and football IQ, two necessities for impact rookies.

Next came another Nashville Tennessean article in early July, of which the following were highlights:

Before, during and after minicamp practice sessions, Johnson has looked the part of a first-round draft choice. He accelerates through traffic. He cuts on a dime. He catches passes effortlessly.

Just as important, he has grasped the nuances of Mike Heimerdinger's offense.

"Everything they're throwing at me, I've got down," he said. "If I execute everything they've given me, that will let them go ahead and start adding more ways to get the football in my hands."

This is encouraging on several fronts. Rookies usually face a serious learning curve. Johnson has digested everything and is asking for more.

Heimerdinger, who is in his second tour of duty as Titans offensive coordinator, will do his best to accommodate Johnson. Already, he has scratched out formations that put Johnson in the slot and flanked wide as well as his customary spot at running back.

"I haven't had a back quite like him to work with," Heimerdinger said. "He can do a lot of things from a lot of spots. It gives you some options, some matchups."

. . .

But straight-ahead speed is one thing; football speed is another. Titans Coach Jeff Fisher calls it "useful speed" because Johnson is able to move laterally at full speed.

"There's a lot more to the way I play than just being fast," Johnson said.

In a similar article run in the Nashville City Paper, a giddy Jeff Fisher's best quote was, "Chris Johnson is a playmaker. You will see that from Day 1."

It wasn't until a couple of weeks later, however, when the picture started to come into sharp focus. Drexel Perry's Total Titans blog referenced a radio interview with OC Mike Heimerdinger, who hinted that Johnson's transition into being an early down back could begin as soon as this season:

In a radio interview conducted by Titans Radio, around the 9 minute mark, Dinger expresses his desire for Johnson to carry the ball 15-20 times per game. Despite Chris’s ability to catch the football and contribute on returns, Dinger’s hopes are geared around CJ making an immediate contribution in the running game.

Dinger compares Johnson to current Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis, saying that CJ is around the same size as Portis when he entered the league. Portis averaged about 17 carries per game in his rookie debut in 2002, running for 1,508 yards while scoring 15 touchdowns on 273 rushing attempts.

Hmmm . . . 15-20 carries per game? That doesn't jibe with conventional change-of-pace back wisdom. Maybe that was just idle radio chatter. If so, why did he repeat his "early down back" vision of Johnson a couple of days later in the Nashville Tennessean:

So far, there’s been a lot to like about Johnson. He’s been one of the biggest stars of training camp, and the confidence he has in his own abilities is starting to spread to those around him.

Something else about Johnson that might be misunderstood: his role in the offense. All the talk about him being a situational back whose best success will come as a receiver is over the top.

“I am just looking at him as a tailback,’’ offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said. “What we do outside of turning and handing him the ball is a bonus. He can do a lot of things, but I want to find out if we can turn and hand him the ball and how many times we can do that. I look at it different than all the ‘experts.’ I expect to see him out there on first and second down.’’

On handoffs he’s shown the ability to dart through holes and traffic in a flash. On pass plays he’s caught the ball almost effortlessly and quickly moved into space. Quarterback Vince Young complimented Johnson for his ability to pick up blitzes against oversized linebackers. And no one is questioning Johnson’s speed — he’s run a 4.2 40.

“He’s easy to spot, but hard to keep an eye on,’’ said center Kevin Mawae, who’s entering his 15th NFL season. “That kid is lightning-fast, probably faster than any running back I have been around or played with. He’s talented.’’

Johnson is more than a speedster, though, and there’s a misconception that because of his size — he’s listed at 5-11, 200 — the Titans will mostly put on the outside in space instead of handing him the ball in the middle of the field.

His vision is good and there’s not a lot of guys squaring him up and getting real good hits on him,’’ Heimerdinger said. “And when he carried it at East Carolina, he ran between the tackles there and he wasn’t playing against the Sisters of the Poor. I don’t have any question that he can carry the ball and make good runs.’’

How many carries, or touches, Johnson gets early in the season will depend on how quickly he picks up the offense, Coach Jeff Fisher said. Exactly how many ways the Titans will choose to use Johnson is unknown.

“You’re going to have to watch,’’ Fisher said. “I am not going to go into details and tell you exactly what we are going to do with him. But ... the more touches he has, the more opportunities you have for big plays.’’

Ok, so it's becoming more and more obvious that his offensive coordinator can't wait to utilize his wildcard, and the head coach is downright coy about a weapon he knows is flying under the radar . . . you can practically see Fisher smirking at the thought of dropping his Chris Johnson bomb on the rest of the league starting in Week 1.

August 4th may have been the tipping point on Johnson hype. A local report, an AP article, and an ESPN puff piece all came out that day. The Nashville Tennessean's Jim Wyatt named Johnson as the Titans "reason to be excited" going into the preseason opener against the Rams:

Johnson looks like the real deal. He's lightning fast, and doesn't waste any time once he gets his hands on the football. Another plus: he catches passes with ease.

Going into camp I wondered how much of an impact Johnson might have as a rookie. Now I'm wondering how much he's going to impact LenDale White's playing time.

The AP article was even more effusive in praise:

The running back from East Carolina, drafted with the 24th overall pick, is showing that the 4.24-second speed in the 40-yard dash he displayed as the NFL Combine's fastest player translates very nicely so far with pads in training camp.If one teammate is right, Tennessee might have captured "lightning in a bottle."

"His speed is so deceptive," fullback Ahmard Hall said. "It seems like he's such a slippery runner. He sees blocks so well, then he's bouncing out. If he gets that edge, it's over. I don't think anybody in the league can catch him. ... Now we have a guy that is lightning in a bottle. If he touches that ball, a few good blocks, a cut here or there, and he's gone."

. . .

"You're going to have to just watch," coach Jeff Fisher said.

"I'm not going to go into details and tell you what exactly we're going to be doing with him. We're going to use him as a running back. We're going to use him as a wide receiver, and we're going to use him for everything in between. He's a talented young man, and (we'll) also try to use him as a returner."

The Titans aren't predicting how many touches Johnson will get, but they want the ball in his hands — a lot.

"The more touches he has, the more opportunity you have for big plays," Fisher said. "It's not going to preclude us from using the other players on our roster. We're still a run-oriented offense. We're going to complete it with a good solid passing game and converting third downs. We're going to mix him in in all those areas."

. . .

Johnson also has earned a vote of confidence from Vince Young, the quarterback he'll be protecting from the pass rush.

"What I like about it is he's picking up the blitzes," Young said. "For him to step up in there and pick up certain blocks, that's what I see and everything else. That's what he can do. ... He's fast enough, you get the ball in his hands, he's going to do the rest on his own."

ESPN's Paul Kuharsky concentrated on Johnson's elusiveness:

The most striking thing in training camp practices has been how difficult it is for defenders to get a good lick on him.

"I don't want anybody to get a big hit on me, but I know they're going to try to give me their best shot," Johnson said. "I like to make people miss and break tackles. And I'm prepared to deliver a big blow back."

At some practices, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz screams "square him up" more often than anything else, and he's not talking about LenDale White or Chris Henry.

"It's hard," Schwartz said. "Once the pads have been on, guys have been lighting some people up pretty good -- except for him. And it's not that they are not trying, it's just that he's slippery. He can glide, he can cut in a hurry and it puts such more stress on your defense as far as angles and things like that. You can't be sloppy at all when you have an explosive player like that."

. . .

But we knew he was a blazer. I didn't imagine he would be so hard for a defender to get to when they were facing him up and I wasn't sure what to expect between the tackles, where he's looked as good as he has on the outside.

Said fullback Ahmard Hall: "Everybody knows he's fast. But he's so deceptively fast because he's so smooth and fluid and just makes guys miss. Once I make my block, if I'm not in there I'm watching him and it's amazing to watch. I can't wait to see what he does in a real game. You're not going to get a clean hit on him. He has great balance, he's going to slide off of it or he'll make you miss in the hole."

If Johnson continues to improve, though, his role could grow and the amount of touches the Titans want to get him could eat away at the workload of White.

I don't know about you, but I can't wait to get a look at Chris Johnson in live game action. Neither can Titans veteran center Kevin Mawae:

“More than anything, I’m eager to see Chris Johnson under the lights,” center Kevin Mawae said. “He’s shown flashes of how great he can be during practices, especially during training camp. But I would like to see him under game-type conditions when the real bullets are flying so to speak, because he seems to be something special.”

Me too, Kevin. Me too. And, yes, I have put my money where my mouth is. Last week I dealt Pierre Thomas (who I'm also very high on) and my 2009 first-round pick for Chris Johnson. It was a good value-for-value trade, but I can't wait to see just how badly I came out ahead on a special playmaker.

Remember: Swing for the fences -- championship banners fly forever.


benm3218 said...

What an awesome article. Great writeup. I am so stinking excited about this guy. The problem is, I play in a salary cap dynasty league in Nashville, TN. He is going to go so expensive.

He has a nose for the endzone too doesn't he. He is always looking ahead at the goal line and moving forward. The one play in the highlight video where he is rolling on top of 4 guys with his arms stretched out for the TD is great.

apex_pirate said...

Wanna see some high quality video on CJ? Here are two links for you to digest Thanks to BlueWaterPirate



Chris Wesseling said...

Thanks, benm.

Good to hear from you. I'm sure the same crowd that doubted Adrian Peterson will be doubting Johnson. Some people just won't let themselves be happy.

Fantasy football is a playmaker's game. There's really no benefit to drafting steady, low upside guys while letting someone else gamble on the guys who might make a difference weekly but might not.

Chris Wesseling said...

apex pirate,

Thanks for the links. Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

I took CJ fifth in the rookie draft for my fantasy league, some guy scoffed at me then selected Felix Jones with the next pick. Another drafter asked me who he was... Seeing him play in college made me take him over even Forte (who fell to me later in the first round anyway...)

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