David Johnson’s 2019 campaign is a harsh reminder of how much things can change in just a few months. After seeing80+% of the offensive snaps for the past two seasons, he was fully healthy, Johnson’s usage fell to only 42% of snaps under first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury. The former All-Pro running back struggled to stay healthy last season and fell out of favor as trade acquisition Kenyan Drake became the preferred option in the backfield. Johnson was traded back to the Texans as a part of their deal with the Cardinals to ship out DeAndre Hopkins. DJ likely won’t be an early-round pick in 2020 due to recency bias, but he could be a draft-day steal for prudent fantasy football owners?
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Oof. David Johnson has to be categorized as one of the biggest draft busts in recent memory – after being a consensus first-round pick, he ranked outside the top 30 running backs in fantasy points per game. Things got worse for DJ as the season went on, as he scored 75% of his fantasy points in his first six games and quickly fell out of the team’s rotation after that. The trade acquisition of Kenyan Drake all but sealed his fate as the former Dolphins running back performed much better. How David Johnson wasn’t a good fit in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense is still absolutely beyond me. The real question as we head into 2020, with Johnson on a new team, is how big of a grain of salt do we take with these numbers?
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Carlos Hyde, the Texans running back in 2019, is no longer on the team. Duke Johnson, Buddy Howell, and Karan Higdon, but none of them profile as a between-the-tackles every-down guy. Duke has topped 100 carries just once in his career, and Howell and Higdon have only five carries all-time between the two of them. David Johnson was clearly brought in to be the starter, and while Duke will still be involved in some passing downs, DJ’s versatility and route-running ability should keep him on the field on the vast majority of the team’s snaps. Add in the 150 vacated targets with Hopkins’ departure (more on this in my Cooks piece), and you have the recipe for a massive opportunity in 2020 for the veteran running back. The real question is whether or not he can stay healthy and perform at his previously elite level, but the outside variables seem to set him up for success this season. Hyde was never an elite talent, and he still put up borderline RB2 value last year, so I think Johnson is set up to return to RB1 status in 2020.
Controversial? Maaaaaaaaybe….. but I apologize for nothing! https://t.co/AshL38pDqU
— Lauren Carpenter (@stepmomlauren) April 12, 2020
ADP: Late 10th/Early 11th Round
Auction Price: $8
DJ’s ADP and auction value are pretty misleading at the moment. I fully expect him to shoot up to at least the 5th or 6th round by the time fantasy drafts come around in August, although even at that range, he could be a steal. Based on opportunity alone, in a high-octane offense, Johnson could deliver borderline RB1 numbers next season, and I’ll be thrilled to draft him anywhere after the 4th round.
The floor for David Johnson isn’t particularly high this season. We watched him disappear off the face of the Earth this past season in Arizona, and anyone drafting him has to do so with the knowledge that his days as a starting running back might just be over as he will turn 29 during this upcoming season. His one season-ending injury was a fluky wrist dislocation, and aside from an MCL sprain in 2017, he doesn’t have a lengthy injury history. DJ has 781 career carries, which isn’t very many compared to the mark where most veteran backs start to decline in rushing ability. I think Johnson has one more elite year left in him, but the downside can’t be ignored.
While DJ left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth last season, he should still have the upside he showcased just a few years ago in 2016 when he picked up 1,239 rushing yards, 80 receptions for 879 yards, and 20 combined touchdowns. Odds are he won’t come close to that production in 2020, but there’s a massive gap between that level of success and viable starting fantasy numbers. Let’s not forget Johnson was once the consensus first overall pick in fantasy not too long ago. I like Johnson’s odds to be an RB1 this year, with the potential for more.
Houston Texans Offense
Houston has a high-octane offense led by top-end quarterback Deshaun Watson. While they haven’t supported a prolific rushing attack in recent years, they also haven’t had a running back with Johnson’s level of talent since Arian Foster. You can make the case Johnson is the best between-the-numbers offensive threat on the team. The upside for 70+ receptions in this offense is certainly there, as DJ can line up as a wide receiver frequently, and they will need every bit of production he can muster after trading away top receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins leaves behind 150+ targets and a world of the offensive output which somebody will have to pick up – why not Johnson? Tim Kelly takes over as the offensive coordinator as Bill O’Brien cedes play-calling duties. We don’t have much of a resume to work with to project how his offense will perform, but it’s hard to imagine the Texans being below average offensively in 2020 – they ranked 14th in points per game in 2019.
DeAndre Hopkins ↔️ David Johnson…
Fantasy Instant Reaction from @MattFtheOracle:
• Hopkins & Kyler
• Johnson in HOU
• Deshaun Watson impact
• Kenyan Drake & more pic.twitter.com/Vr8IGpwzqs
— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) March 17, 2020
Strength of Schedule
The Texans play in the AFC North, and their division foes don’t figure to boast elite rushing defenses in 2020. The Jaguars ranked 31st in 2019 and watched Calais Campbell leave in free agency. The Colts ranked 19th, and while they added DeForrest Buckner, they shouldn’t present a massive challenge. The Titans were 9th in rush defense in 2019. Still, they were forced to trade away defensive end Jurrell Casey this offseason to clear cap room to resign Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry (all numbers via Football Outsiders). Outside of their division, Football Outsiders ranks opponents in the Packers, Ravens, Bengals, Browns, and Lions all as having below-average run defenses in 2019. The best part of projecting David Johnson’s stat line is that he figures to benefit in some ways from facing strong defensive lines. While that sounds counter-intuitive, he will be heavily utilized in the underneath passing game, and if the Texans are struggling to keep Watson upright, he will check the ball down to DJ all the more often. Johnson is a matchup-proof type of player at his best, and if he can stay healthy, there isn’t a matchup that should offer him too much of a challenge in 2020.
Fantasy football is like buying the stock market in a lot of ways – when a stock is being sold by everyone and is dipping in value, that’s when you buy and find the biggest return. David Johnson could bounce back like a blue-chip stock this season, and make fantasy owners look silly for selling their shares in him over the summer. Of course, he could also start to show his age and prove that his poor season last year was no fluke, but with a mostly clean injury history and less tread on his tires than most 28-year-old running backs, I think he should be able to perform. The Texans’ offense certainly needs him this year, and he has the upside to perform like the locked and loaded RB1 he used to be.
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