This was David Johnson in 2016. An absolutely spectacular player. A bigger guy at 6’1”, 224 lbs, Johnson has all the physical tools to be the best running back in the league. And in 2016, he was one of the best. Then in 2017 as a consensus top 3 draft choice, Johnson hurt his wrist in Week 1 and wouldn’t return that season. Still, David Johnson was a top 5 draft pick in 2018 even though he was on a team with a rookie quarterback and not many exciting offensive players.
Johnson wound up being one of the biggest disappointments of the year. The narrative is that the Cardinals just ran DJ up the middle every play into stacked boxes where he had no chance to make plays. My goal was to examine both his 2016 and 2018 seasons on film to see whether the problem was the player, the scheme, or a bit of both. Let’s start with the amazing player that was 2016 David Johnson.
2016 David Johnson was awesome. Big, powerful, unbelievably shifty for his size, and able to split out wide and beat safeties with great route running. His most impressive trait is his ability to stop and change directions on a dime, and then quickly accelerate to full speed. Just look at the clip above. That jumpcut is absolutely amazing. Then he’s able to cut back outside, accelerate through the closing defenders and breakaway to the end zone. What a spectacular run.
Check out this clip to see Johnson’s power and ability to stay balanced through contact:
Johnson takes the handoff, immediately makes a huge jumpcut to get outside, breaks two tackles and then stiff arms two defenders. This guy is outstanding. Check out a couple more from 2016 before we get to the disappointment that was 2018. Pay attention to the vision, cutting, and the ability to slip through tight spaces where it seems impossible:
Watch his power to get into the end zone after being hit at the 5:
One of the best things that the Bruce Arians led 2016 Cardinals did was split Johnson out wide and take advantage of the mismatches against safeties and linebackers. These are both against Keanu Neal, one of the best safeties in the league:
And some more out-wide just to show how often the Cardinals put him there and how effective it was:
This catch shows great technique near the sideline:
And finally a catch out of the backfield that just shows 2016 DJ’s ability to make huge plays when a lesser back would have no chance:
The ability to make the catch, stop on a dime, and then accelerate outside is incredible. That is what made Johnson a truly exceptional player. So what happened in 2018?
The narrative was that the Cardinals just ran Johnson up the middle and gave him no chance to succeed. But was this true? On tape it sure seemed like that was the problem, but I went to the stats to know for sure.
According to nflsavant.com, 41.6% of the Cardinals running play were classified as “Up the Middle” in 2016. In 2018? 55.8%. That’s a huge difference. And to make it worse, Jacksonville had the 2nd highest percentage of running plays classified as “Up the Middle” at…. 45.4%. Yikes. The narrative was definitely accurate on that one.
It also didn’t help Johnsons stat line that the Cardinals only ran 56.4 plays per game in 2018, good for 31st in the league. But did the Cardinals at least throw him the ball more to get him in space to make plays, especially since they were trailing in most games? Nope. His targets dropped from 123 in 2016 to 79 in 2018 and his target share dropped from 18.9% to 16%. That was some serious coaching malpractice in the desert. Luckily for fantasy players and David Johnson, the Cardinals have a new head coach for 2019 in Kliff Kingsbury who is known for his Air Raid offense at Texas Tech. He should utilize Johnson more effectively.
But enough with stats. How did Johnson look on tape in 2018? I’m going to skip all the uninspiring runs up the middle and just show the traits that lead me to believe Johnson is still the same player as he was two years ago. Let’s check it out.
I saw plenty of plays where Johnson had the power to push the pile and run through tackles:
Against the Raiders he hit the hole and accelerated to make #31 look foolish chasing after him:
Four runs against the Raiders with a great jumpcut to hit a hole and gain yards before finishing with power (notice that all of these runs are initially up the middle before johnson makes something out of nothing):
This is a great counter run with a couple cuts to gain decent yardage, but there are just too many players in the box to make a truly great play:
And finally a great run that fully restores my belief that David Johnson is the same back as he was in 2016. Notice the cutting to get outside and the acceleration to beat #26 to the corner and get upfield:
So the big question: Is David Johnson still a top notch running back? I can confidently answer that with a resounding YES. He has cutting ability and acceleration that rival Barkley and Elliott. He has the power to finish runs, break tackles, and excel in short yardage. He doesn’t have elite speed, but he is fast enough to break huge plays. And he has the route running chops to burn safeties and linebackers when split out wide. David Johnson is a spectacular player and I fully expect him to be back to his 2016 form this season.