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Apr 17

Sizing up the signing: Chris Johnson joins the typically ground and pound New York Jets

Chris Johnson arrives in New York coming off a quiet top 10 fantasy season. Does the move help or hinder his value this year? (Photo: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated).

Chris Johnson arrives in New York coming off a quiet top 10 fantasy season. Does the move help or hinder his value this year? (Photo: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated).

After a fairly quiet period of free agent availability – due in part to his late arrival to the market and disinterest in taking visits with teams – Chris Johnson signed Wednesday with the New York Jets. Johnson will make $8 million over two years which is a reasonable real world contract for a back entering free agency and represents double the per year value of incumbent starter Chris Ivory‘s rate, making a clear (and otherwise obvious) statement about the role they anticipate Johnson playing in their backfield. The folks at Pro Football Talk share our perspective.

Those are the facts, and the move helps the Jets real world outlook, but what does it mean in terms of fantasy football value? Much of that will become clear through the offseason and into the early weeks of the 2014 campaign but we can draw some early assumptions.

The high level stuff is obvious: the move is bad news for Chris Ivory (and Bilal Powell) relative to their value heading into the day on April 16, and it isn’t good news for Johnson relative to his 2013 value in Tennessee, given that there is a more complex relationship presented in terms of backfield opportunities.

Beyond that though, we can make some reasonable inferences about their 2014 value.

Last year, Johnson was the unchallenged king of the Tennessee Titans backfield racking up 321 touches in a full 16 game season. His efficiency numbers weren’t outstanding (i.e. 3.9 YPC, the lowest such mark in his career) but he topped 1000 yards rushing for the sixth consecutive season and finished as fantasy’s 9th overall back. His 279 carries represented 62.6% of the teams overall rushing attempts. Shonn Greene, the second in line,  played in 11 games and averaged just 7.5 touches per game – playing very much the role of the second fiddle and reaching double digit rush attempts just twice.

In New York, meanwhile, it took Chris Ivory a number of weeks to stake his claim on the workload distribution, but he still averaged 11.5 touches per contest in 15 outings including 14.8 per game over his final 10 outings. Meanwhile, on the season, backfield mate Bilal Powell topped 200 touches in a fairly even season long split. With Johnson in town, we’d expect Ivory to slip into the support role with Powell’s touches most significantly impacted.

The point being made here: Ivory finished last season as the 37th overall scoring back and now finds himself unlikely to top last year’s overall workload and production. He was top 21, a back end RB2, from Weeks 7-16 when his workload picked up (including an obnoxious 34 carry outing against New England) but Ivory finds himself back in the quagmire that was life in New Orleans – struggling for carries behind the starter and unlikely to reach the 240 touch mark that would be required (15 touches per game, his average from Week 7 onward) required to keep him in the RB2 conversation with Johnson in town, no matter how run heavy the Jets trend.

Last year, in Marty Mornhinweg’s first season as Offensive Coordinator in New York, the Jets ran the ball 493 times including 100 carries by non-RBs. With Johnson on the team, there isn’t room for 200 carries from Ivory, even if some of Geno Smith‘s 71 carries are distributed to the running backs but the team was already top 5 in the league in terms of rush attempts last season so assuming a fantasy relevant contribution from Ivory seems unwise. Beyond that, Johnson has missed just one game in his six year career, so his durability suggests that Ivory won’t suddenly find value as a short or long-term fill in.

For Johnson meanwhile, the question revolves around the same issue: workload. At the end of the day, this is the crux of any fantasy running back’s value – particularly one who is coming off a season with a poor yards per carry average. Ivory is likely to see a reduction in his workload, as is Powell, but with two reasonably productive backs on the roster it should be expected that they’ll each carve out a portion of the touches they each saw last year. A combined 200 carries doesn’t seem out of reach compared to their 2013 totals and as a result, finding 250 touches for Johnson becomes a tricky proposition. To me, that 250-270 range is much more likely to be his final output this season than last year’s 310-330 range.

There is a reasonable school of thought that suggests that Johnson will benefit from fresh legs, and can now focus his energy on ‘hitting the home run’ which has been his signature over the course of his career but many will point out that this has actually cost Johnson yards in recent years as an over-eagerness to look for the 80 yard carry every time he touches the ball as opposed to hitting the hole and taking what is there has led to a lot of short gains and behind the line tackles. I don’t expect that tendency to change with fewer opportunities. As a back with more than 2000 career touches in six seasons, it stands to reason that a slightly reduced workload will make him a better asset to his real world NFL team but it likely spells bad news in fantasy – particularly when you consider that the immense cumulative workload is likely a contributing factor in his underwhelming 2013 YPC number.

You’ll recall that in last year’s offseason Tennessee worked to improve their offensive line, as former lineman head-coach Mike Munchak made this a point of emphasis. The group graded out as a top five unit in the NFL in terms of run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. The Jets, meanwhile, had the 2nd worst unit by comparison with each of their offensive linemen who played over 400 snaps receiving a negative PFF performance mark (that Ivory ground out 4.6 yards a pop behind this group is quite impressive). The team added Breno Giacoini to the mix this offseason, who is generally regarded as an upgrade, but it should be noted that in nine games for Seattle last season he also received a negative run block grade. It remains to be seen whether the team will address the unit during the draft, and how they’ll play on the field, but the short answer is that this doesn’t appear to be a better blocking situation to be sure.

Of course, New York has committed a lot to their offense this season making several key additions at WR including the addition of Eric Decker and a healthy Michael Vick behind center (if he is named the starter) should help the run game. Indeed, Marty Mornhinweg’s offense will look much different this season, but bear in mind that it hasn’t always been conducive to the run. The Jets claim to boast a ground and pound attack, and this seems to be something that HC Rex Ryan will push for again this season, but before arriving in New York last year Mornhinweg’s teams had gone 11 straight seasons without finishing in the top 10 of the league in rushing attempts, finishing outside the top 20 seven times. New York will still run the ball plenty, but the signing of Johnson doesn’t suggest an increase over last year’s 493 carries, if anything the presence of an upgraded receiving corps and better performance at QB (either through Vick’s contributions or Geno Smith’s growth) suggests that the team could lean more heavily on the pass in 2014 than they did last season.

For Johnson’s part, he notes that his dismissal from Tennessee and the limited interest in his services has left him with a chip on his shoulder. He’ll turn 29 in the first month of the season but is eager to prove that he still has something left in the tank. With questions in recent years about his motivation and work ethic since signing a big money deal with the Titans, it is conceivable that a renewed focus and a change of scenery will push Johnson to increase his production on the field. With five carries over 20 yards last season (none over 40) and a number of long catch and runs, Johnson did still exhibit some explosion. This piece isn’t intended to write him off, as I think a motivated CJ still has something to offer his team, and his fantasy owners, but I do think that the overall context is a downgrade.

All told: expect a reduction in Johnson’s workload relative to 2013 for the above mentioned reasons and assume at least a slight downgrade in the blocking around him, along with the overall system in terms of its reliance on the run (LeSean McCoy and others have been productive fantasy assets in Mornhinweg’s offense, for what its worth). The math doesn’t add up for another top 10 outing from Johnson but he should still see enough work to deliver mid-range RB2 numbers. It remains to be seen whether owners will be drafting him based on 2013’s output or 2014’s reality on draft day, and there is certainly a right price for the former 2000 yard back – it just isn’t as high as last year’s.

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