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Johnson is a physical specimen with above average athleticism and receiving ability. At 6’1”, 224 pounds, he is on the bigger size of most running backs. For such a big back, one would expect he wouldn’t be very fast or agile, but that is not the case. In fact, Johnson is one of the most athletic backs in this running back class. He ran the fourth fastest forty yard dash time at the combine with a time of 4.5 seconds. Because of this, he posted the second highest speed score of the combine, a 109. The speed score adjusts forty time for weight, and anything over 100 is considered excellent. Johnson also posted the fourth best agility score (3 cone + 20 yard short shuttle), the second highest vertical jump, the second highest broad jump, and the fourth most bench press reps. Needless to say, Johnson is a superb athlete.
Johnson is also a dangerous weapon out of the backfield. He was the best receiving back in this class and his receiving skills translate very well to the pro game. His receiving skills were on full display against Iowa last season as he posted over 200 yards receiving against the Hawkeyes. Because of this, Johnson can step in right away and become an instant contributor for the Cardinals as a third down back. Finally, Johnson was named the most outstanding running back during the Senior Bowl Practices. Although he didn’t win the MVP for the game, he did have 49 yards rushing, one rushing touchdown and one catch for 16 yards. It was an impressive week for Johnson, and helped open many scouts eyes to him.
For a big back, Johnson lacks the power you’d expect him to have. He goes down too often on first contact and has trouble getting through arm tackles. His vision isn’t horrible, but it is still below average. While he tested well in the agility tests at the combine, he doesn’t look to have great short area quickness on film. Johnson also has trouble finishing at the goal line.
Johnson joins the Cardinals and immediately slots in as the team’s back up. He should garner playing time right away, and could begin to steal carries from starting running back Andre Ellington. Ellington has been injured twice in each of his first two seasons in the NFL, and was also injured twice in college. In the case of an injury to Ellington, Johnson could take over the starter’s role and never look back.
As mentioned above, Ellington is Johnson’s main competition. Current backup Stepfan Taylor has 19 career receptions and averages a paltry 3.3 yards per carry for his career – he isn’t a threat to Johnson in the short or the long term. The same can be said for Kerwynn Williams and Marion Grice and both of these players are free agents after the 2016 season.
Short Term Expectations
This season, I expect Johnson to improve each week and gradually receive more touches as the season progresses. He faces a steeper learning curve than most rookies, as he is going from a FCS school to the NFL. Expect Johnson to start the season as Ellington’s backup and be fantasy relevant by season’s end.
Long Time Expectations
Long term, I expect Johnson to eventually overtake Ellington as the Cardinals starter. Ellington’s injury history and inefficiency should allow Johnson to overtake him in the next year and half to two years. Although head coach Bruce Arians seems to love Ellington, he can’t stay healthy and Johnson’s receiving skills fit perfectly in Arians offense.
One of Johnson’s best comparables is Matt Forte. Both are bigger backs who are above average athletes and elite pass catchers. Both players also “broke out” before their 20th birthday. Forte was more productive in college, while Johnson tested better athletically. Johnson’s level of competition was below average, though it wasn’t that much different from Forte’s as he played at Tulane. Forte tended to destroy his competition on the ground, while Johnson did so through the air. Forte was a much better runner than Johnson at this stage of his career, though. I’m not saying to expect top five running back numbers from Johnson, but the two are very similar as prospects.
Projected Rookie Draft Round
Johnson’s current rookie ADP is 18 overall, and the eighth running back off the board. After the first nine players of this year’s rookie drafts, I have all the players in a relatively equal tier. This includes Johnson, Jay Ajayi, TJ Yeldon, Devin Funchess, Duke Johnson, Jaelen Strong and Phillip Dorsett. David Johnson is in the top half of this tier for me, along with Yeldon, Ajayi and Funchess. For that reason, I would begin to consider him in the late first and early second round of rookie drafts, especially if the league is PPR.
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