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Chris Johnson, Black Swans, and the Titans Offensive Line Upgrades


This piece was inspired in part by Shawn Siegele’s article on Chris Johnson, which you should read first.

If you can find an article on the web that raises any red flags about Chris Johnson, and which predates this article I wrote in August 2011, I would be interested to see that. It’s probably a dick move to bring up that article at this point for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve written a lot of stuff in the time I’ve covered fantasy football and I’ve had some bad calls too. But also, while that article urges a little caution on Chris Johnson and notes that Sim Score projections had 10 other running backs higher than him in 2011, I still say that I would rate Johnson as my 4th RB at the end of the article. So I was only partially right in terms of pumping the breaks on Chris Johnson (translation: I was a pussy). But one reason that I think that article is really interesting is because it was one of the first times that I rolled out similarity based projections and I remember that the general reaction to the article at the time was that people thought it was just a reflection of a fantasy content business in which everyone has to scream louder for attention. That may be true about the fantasy content industry and yet the Sim Score projection for Johnson offered in that article had merit anyway.

Chris Johnson is now two years older than the age that I urged caution on in that article, so it seems silly for me to write an article advocating on his behalf now right? And yet I’m going to do it anyway. But there’s an important point to be made about CJ before I begin. I’m not evaluating him with the same framework that I would have used in 2011 or 2012 because he doesn’t cost as much to draft now as he did then. He’s solidly in the range of the RB2 group now. And yet he’s probably just as physically talented as when he required top 10 picks in 2011 and 2012 (and he’s less physically talented than when he ran for 2,000 yards). At this point in his career Chris Johnson is a Black Swan. He is the Taleb-ian low probability, high impact event. But what if the Titans have just fully embraced this fact and plan to let CJ be CJ. They’ve upgraded their offensive line and there are rumors that they might run some read option. Both would be huge for getting CJ opportunities to just sprint towards the end zone. That is pretty much what he’s good for these days.

Here’s a table that shows running back carries if you throw out carries for less than 4 yards. So conditional upon a running back picking up at least 4 yards, what is his yards/carry average. You can see that Chris Johnson’s average on such runs is still right behind CJ Spiller.

Y/A Average When Filtered for Runs >= 4 YDS (Min. 75 Such Runs)

Name G Carries Y/A
Adrian Peterson 16 160 12.30
Jamaal Charles 16 136 10.50
C.J. Spiller 16 111 10.40
Chris Johnson 16 116 10.00
Doug Martin 16 139 9.40
Marshawn Lynch 16 149 9.30
Alfred Morris 16 159 9.00
Reggie Bush 16 103 9.00
Matt Forte 15 108 8.80
Michael Turner 16 79 8.80
Arian Foster 16 142 8.70
Frank Gore 16 126 8.70
Ahmad Bradshaw 14 99 8.60
LeSean McCoy 12 96 8.40
Ray Rice 15 112 8.40
Vick Ballard 15 91 8.40
Stevan Ridley 16 136 8.30
Steven Jackson 16 114 8.10
BenJarvus Green-Ellis 15 110 8.00
Willis McGahee 10 78 7.80
Ryan Mathews 12 83 7.00
Trent Richardson 15 118 6.90
Mikel Leshoure 14 96 6.90
Shonn Greene 16 125 6.80

More than any other running back in the NFL, CJ might need that daylight that the re-vamped Titan offensive line can provide. Maybe Chris Johnson isn’t even a running back anymore, maybe he’s just a runner.

But there’s probably another reason to expect some improvement out of CJ and that is that I think he’s essentially in a contract year. After this season the Titans can cut him and have to eat only a $4 million cap charge for the pro-rated part of his bonus, but they can save themselves his $8 million/year salary in the process. CJ has to give them a reason to not just move on with a younger runner that they could get for $500,000/season.

The Titans line is part of the equation for me. The other important part is CJ’s reduced ADP in 2013. The real cherry on top would be if the Titans ran a decent amount of read option. I think that scheme could help address some of Jake Locker’s issues with accuracy which will always hold him back from running an efficient pro offense. CJ needs daylight, and he needs the offense to stay on the field so he has more total chances to break one. The Titans may be addressing both of those needs.

In the way of full disclosure, when I advocate on Johnson’s behalf, that’s in the context of my RB strategy which is typically more volume based than other positions. I usually just draft a number of RBs early, so that I have a decent chance of hitting on league winners, and also withstanding injuries. Just for your information.

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