There is nothing official — at least at the time of this writing — regarding David Johnson’s future (or lack of it) as a member of the Arizona Cardinals. Johnson, in fact, is in the middle of one of the most lucrative contracts in the NFL after signing a three-year extension to become the face of Arizona back in 2018 in a deal that would end paying him $30 million guaranteed and $39 million total if he completes it.
Offering Johnson that deal made sense considering his 2016 season: he finished the season playing the full 16-game schedule and rushing for 1,239 yards on 293 attempts (4.23 Y/A) while scoring 16 touchdowns on the season. Adding wood to the fire, he also completed 80 receptions for 879 yards and four extra touchdowns through the air. End of the year fantasy tally: 407.8 PPR points and a clear RB1 designation.
Using the RotoViz Screener we find Johnson ranking sixth in PPR through a two-season span among RBs since 2015 with a total 625.6 points in 32 games. In fact, only Christian McCaffrey (2018 and 2019 combined) ranks above Johnson while playing all of the 32 maximum games, a clear indication of production and durability. Or was it?
Enter 2017. After just 11 rushing attempts, Johnson had to say goodbye to the year and wait until 2018 to see the field again. He came back in a flashy way, truth be told, and through another full season of playing time he finished the year ranked RB9 to the tune of 246.6 PPR. Not the best of ROIs, as he entered the year with an ADP of 4.3 overall as the second RB off the board, but still good enough to win some leagues.
This past season, his fifth in Arizona, has seen a middling Johnson play his way through the year to finish in a rather mediocre RB37 position when all was said and done. Johnson played 13 games (although he only featured as the “starting” running back in nine of them), rushed the ball 94 times (his lowest mark not counting the lost 2017 year), racked up 345 yards and only scored two touchdowns on the ground. The receiving numbers were also career-lows at 370 yards in 36 receptions with four touchdowns.
There are rumors out there saying that Arizona is done with Johnson and that he won’t be back with the Cardinals in 2020. That is a little bit of a stretch considering Arizona would save no money cutting him, so the only options are having him back or try to restructure his deal and trade him away (Tampa Bay?) Would Arizona be right to do so? Let’s explore.
David Johnson Was Really Good
Just so we get started, this has been Johnson’s career so far.
Before 2019 Johnson had been a top-10 RB in every healthy season, and when you consider he wasn’t fully healthy in 2019 either, these results are really very good.
Over his five-year career, Johnson has played 62 games, still two short of what would be a full four-year career. Looking at accumulated games instead of seasons played or age gives us a better idea of how a player has performed over time. This is how Johnson compares to the rest of RB seasons logged since 2000.
That tiny red line represents Johnson, and as you can see, he’s been among the league’s top performers. The higher, the better. Johnson’s total 1024.7 PPR through 62 games rank, in fact, 11th-best on a per-game basis since 2000.
Where Is David Johnson in the Typical RB Career Arc?
Considering Johnson finished the 2019 season already at 28 years old, his days as a productive NFL RB may already be behind him. The chart below shows the makeup of NFL RBs by age.
Johnson is entering his age 29 season (his career spans the red bars). A total of 2,591 player-seasons fall on that side starting to count since 2000, compared to 655 on the right, and that is including the few outliers at the extreme ages of 37-plus years. NFL careers start to end quickly for RB’s Johnson’s age.
More concerning, though, is how RB production in terms of PPR/G goes downhill almost exactly at the point Johnson is currently at in his career after having played 62 games for Arizona. I have plotted a 10-game rolling average of PPR/G coming from running backs with at least 62 games played in their careers who “started” (as defined by Pro Football Reference) at least 75% of those games.
Johnson’s career spans the red part of the line, and the black part represents what other players have done historically during the rest of their careers on average. Needless to say, Johnson may have already played his best games, and from this point on we shouldn’t expect a better version than what we’ve already seen.
So, How Much Is Left In Johnson’s Tank?
To answer this post’s title question, I had to take one final step. Instead of looking at average fantasy production as games go on through a player’s career, I want to know how much a player’s “fantasy tank of points” is used up through his playing days. It is similar to other concepts already explored like the one depicted in the chart above, only now we’ll get a better picture of how many points we could expect Johnson to still produce in fantasy leagues.
Using a 16-game rolling average (to get a smoothed average over the length of a full season), the results are pretty similar to those of the last chart but exactly the point at which Johnson is currently (62 games played) is where RBs have historically started to see their production fall until reaching retirement.
During his first 62 games, Johnson’s total 1024.7 PPR points yield an average of 16.5 PPR/G, which is more than great but is likely the highest of ceilings he’ll ever reach.
Assuming he stays healthy (a big assumption), it wouldn’t be hard to see him play a few more seasons in the NFL before calling it quits. Players who average between 14 and 17 PPR points over their (at least 62-game) careers typically play about eight NFL seasons, meaning Johnson likely has about three seasons left, though given his recent health issues, even that might be an optimistic outlook. Erring on the side of caution, we could safely expect Johnson to play between two and three more seasons.
The next plot tells us that Johnson should have accrued around 66% of his total career PPR points already. That means Johnson should still have 34% of his points to get — that is to say, we could expect Johnson to get 527.9 more PPR through two or three seasons.
If Johnson plays two more seasons (32 full games), he’d have to average 16.5 PPR/G to get there. If he plays three, he’d need to go at an 11.0 pace. The 16.5 points per game represent his current career average, but whether his true talent still reaches that level is an open question.
Arizona Could Move On From Johnson. Should You Do the Same?
At the time of this writing Johnson’s price in early best-ball leagues tell the story we could have expected to find in our tracker:
Not only do the data points start at an already “low” level (earliest overall ADP 59 in the past three weeks), but they have trended even more downward ever since to a current average ADP of 89.5 (RB36 off the board) with the latest pick coming at an incredibly low 129th spot (11th round).
Remember that we have estimated Johnson will score somewhere between 11.0 and 16.5 PPR/G going forward, and most probably decreasing each year he remains in the league. From 2000 to 2019, RBs with fantasy points averages in that range have had ADPs of around RB11 on average and finished their seasons ranked around RB14. Coincidentally, Johnson’s teammate Kenyan Drake (he will probably be re-signed this offseason) is currently the RB14 in best-ball ADP, and looks like a much safer pick than Johnson given his most recent 2019 production and levels of play. He should be Arizona’s running back going forward.
At his current ADP of RB36 and 89.5 overall, Johnson might still be a steal. Johnson is the RB with the most-valuable pair of ADP and Career PPR/G marks. Although injuries and a potential lack of opportunity in Arizona are impacting his average draft position these days, 11 PPR/G or more is still within Johnson’s range of outcomes.
Three RBs who are going off the board before him (RB25 Kerryon Johnson, RB27 Raheem Mostert, and RB30 David Montgomery) had fewer PPR/G than Johnson both in 2019 and over their full careers. Twenty-one total RBs currently have earlier ADPs (from RB6 Derrick Henry to RB34 James White) while having fewer career PPR/G. If you think Johnson’s time as one of the top backs in the league isn’t up yet, he’s a tremendous value.
If you’re willing to take the “risk” of drafting Johnson, you wouldn’t be pulling any crazy move at his current ADP given his upside and the lower career/recent outcomes of most RBs being drafted before him.
On the other hand, if you think Johnson carries too much risk after weighing in the fact that he has suffered heavy injuries, lost the RB1 role in the Cardinals offense, and that history says he’s already past his prime, then you might want to look elsewhere. If that’s the case, there are two rookie-RBs worth considering with similar overall ADPs: Cam Akers and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Shawn Siegele explores their profiles after building a model in the RB Prospect Lab:
Cam Akers and Clyde Edwards-Helaire currently battle for the fourth slot at RB [among 2020 prospects]. Akers is the former uber-prospect who overcame Florida State’s collapse to catch 30 passes and score 18 TDs as a junior. Edwards-Helaire benefited from LSU’s historic offense on the way to a final-season emergence. His 55 receptions and 17 TDs highlight a campaign with more than 1,800 yards from scrimmage.
David Johnson’s start to his career was impressive — even historical — but once he suffered an injury in 2017 things reversed course and he never reached those levels again. We all thought 2018 put him back on track (he finished RB9) but 2019 was a year to forget, and there’s a good chance it’s downhill from this point on. Now, it’s up to you to take the risks involved in getting him in your roster or walk a safer path in 2020.