Going into 2016 it seems like everyone agrees the top two dynasty running backs are Todd Gurley (ADP 1.22)and Le’Veon Bell (ADP1.78), but after them it appears beauty is in the eye of the beholder. David Johnson (ADP 5.78) and Devonta Freeman (ADP 5.89) are RB3 and RB4, respectively. Ironically, Mark Ingram has the most third place rankings amongst the rankers but he’s also ranked between 10 and 14 in four other rankings which kind of sums up the state of the running back position. Today, Karl Safchick is going to tell you why Devonta Freeman should be the third running back off the board and I’m going to do my best to convince you David Johnson deserves your pick.
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Eric’s Argument for David Johnson
This is an interesting debate. Neither Johnson nor Freeman entered 2015 as the starter for their teams. Arizona brought in Chris Johnson and already had Andre Ellington on the roster. The Falcons had just drafted Tevin Coleman to give their running game a spark. By the end of the season both runners had proven they’re not only the best runners on their respective teams, but deserving of being top fantasy options.
David Johnson played his college ball at Northern Iowa and was drafted by the Cardinals in the third round of the 2015 draft. He was expected to face a bit of an uphill battle adapting to the size and speed of the NFL game. When Chris Johnson was signed and after he had found the Fountain of Youth, Johnson was able to be eased into his rookie season, but it was evident from week one what kind of talent the guy had. Against the Saints, Johnson didn’t log a single carry but he caught one of his two targets for a 55-yard touchdown. As soon as he catches the ball he looks to get up field as fast as he can.
I often like to refer back to The ORANGE Report on players, a phenomenal annual scouting report put together by our own TheFFGhost, to see what his strengths and weaknesses were prior to being on an NFL team. A player can see his potential increase or decrease based on landing spot so it’s always good to review their draft profile based in a neutral environment. This was what Ghost had to say about Johnson:
“Johnson has excellent vision and can see a whole host of opportunities that no one can even see when the tape is slowed down, much less at the full speed he sees it. Many times those opportunities will require him to plant and make immediate cuts to take advantage of them, something he is able to do quite well. Johnson can go from a full sprint to planting and moving laterally in the span of one or two steps, an amazing feat. Even if defenders are able to put their hands on him they will find it very difficult to bring him down due to his strength and great size. Measuring in at around 6′-1″ and weighing right around 224 pounds he is one of the bigger running backs in this class and matches up athletically very well with any running back prospect. Johnson is not just one dimensional either, he is a great asset for any team to have in their passing game as well. He has great hands and is an above average pass blocker as well.”
Ghost nailed David Johnson’s outlook and this was before he landed on the Cardinals. Besides the play of Chris Johnson, David had a few rookie blunders which kept him from stealing more playing time. In week four, he fumbled the opening kickoff and dropped another would-be touchdown in a loss to the Rams, drawing the ire of the head coach who stated “he played like a rookie today”. He would be used sparingly over the next six weeks until he was forced into the starting lineup after Chris Johnson broke his leg. In a bit of redemption, Johnson would face the same Rams team which put him in the dog house but with a much different outcome. He carried the ball 22 times for 99 yards and caught two passes for 21 yards and a touchdown while proving he has what it takes in pass protection. It truly was a coming out party and a sign of things to come.
Johnson would surpass 100 total yards in each game weeks 13 through 16, including an eye popping game in week 15 against the Eagles where he rushed for 187 yards and three touchdowns while adding four catches for another 42 yards. The Eagles had no answer for him. Two of his touchdowns were of the garden variety goal line plunges but the third was a filthy 47-yard touchdown run where he looked like Marshawn Lynch or Adrian Peterson as he unleashed a couple “grown man’s stiff arms” running through the entire Eagles defense. Much like Lynch’s “Beast Mode” run in the playoffs against the Saints, this felt like the moment people really took notice of the rookie runner.
One of the main reasons I feel confident in Johnson is his elite skills in the passing game combined with his big frame. He has the look of three down bell cow type of runner with a high weekly floor. In weeks he faces a difficult matchup on the ground, he is nearly dud proof because of his contribution through the air. This was the case against the Panthers in the NFC Championship game. Even though he rushed for only 60 yards on 15 carries, he caught all nine targets for an additional 68 yards. He was the best option the Cardinals had that day.
Eric’s Argument Against Devonta Freeman
Much like Karl, I don’t hate the player I’m making a case against. I believe Freeman deserves to be drafted as an RB1 for 2016 but I think David Johnson is the better option. Entering last season, Freeman was beat out for the starting gig by rookie Tevin Coleman, a player handpicked by the current coaching staff. It wasn’t until Coleman broke a rib in week two and didn’t have any other choice than to give the keys to Freeman. His stretch from week three to week eight was the best in the game and truly difference making but the second half of the season wasn’t anything special. Outside of week 11 (three carries for 43 yards) he wouldn’t average more than 3.5 yards per carry and scored only four touchdowns total. Something happened to the Falcons offense down the stretch and outside of Julio Jones it lacks difference makers. Roddy White has lost a step and somehow doesn’t appear to be a favorite of the coaching staff. My concern is Coleman has a strong offseason and forces his way back into a committee attack. The saving grace for Freeman is his elite pass receiving ability, an area Coleman lacks mightily.
Karl’s Argument for Devonta Freeman
Freeman’s success as the RB1 in fantasy in 2015 certainly wasn’t the fault of the Falcons offense. Atlanta finished as the 7th best offense in terms of yards, but only 21st in points. With a Pro Bowl quarterback in Matt Ryan, All Pro wide receiver Julio Jones and one of the league’s best offensive coordinators in Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons should certainly make a comeback in terms of offensive efficiency.
Freeman, while being in the league a year longer than Johnson, is actually almost a year younger. Breaking out early is an important factor in determining future success in the NFL. Only 26 times since the year 2000 has a running back combined for 1,600 rushing and receiving yards in their rookie or sophomore year. The 26 running backs who have accomplished this feat are All Pros, pro bowlers and many are future Hall of Famers. There are only a few who didn’t go on to have amazing careers. In other words, Freeman is among good company.
Even if you don’t like Freeman’s ability as a running back, you can’t deny his value as a receiver. In 2015, Freeman hauled in 73 catches (one less than Mike Evans and one more than Rob Gronkowski). While a 4.0 YPC leaves a little to be desired, being a capable running back, and an amazing back out of the backfield, will keep you on the field in the NFL.
In full transparency, I have Johnson listed as my RB8, so it’s not as though I hate him as a player. In September, I called him “one of the best ‘buys’ in dynasty.” At that point he was being drafted as the RB31. Most of these articles are more about who you prefer in a grey world, rather than it being an easy choice in a black and white landscape.
Karl’s Argument Against David Johnson
While the February ADP only has Johnson and Devonta Freeman separated by only three picks (22nd overall, 25th overall), seeing trades online, you can probably get significantly more for the former. This isn’t a debate about who is better given their price, though.
My biggest concern with Johnson is his age. 24-years-old is is young (especially coming from a 30-year-old), but let’s put his age and relative success in historical context. Not many running backs find success without having a 600+ yard season under their belt by their age 25 season (Johnson rushed for 581 yards and turns 25 in December). Larry Johnson burst onto the scene in 2005, before being out of gas by 2007. More recently, Rashad Jennings and Darren Sproles have found relative success and fit this criteria. If David Johnson can become Larry Johnson, even for two years, he’d be worth calling a RB1, but if he follows the path of thousands of other running backs during that span, he will certainly not live up to his current price.
With his lack of season-long accomplishments, I’m surprised the public’s consensus has become what it has with Johnson. This was a player drafted with the 22nd pick in the third round (86th overall) in the NFL draft. While he’s certainly outperformed his draft stock, do we think the NFL would classify him as a surefire first-round draft pick if we were to give 32 teams the chance to draft again? Karlos Williams, Thomas Rawls and TJ Yeldon all rushed for more yards, in less games, and none of these players are being drafted ahead of Johnson in dynasty. While all three had varying draft pedigree, Williams and Rawls had a significantly higher YPC.
A question I ask myself when evaluating Johnson as a player, is “How much of his relative success is due to playing in the best offense in the league in 2015?” Andre Ellington actually had a much more efficient year while playing through injuries and 30-year-old Chris Johnson found success when given opportunity. The Arizona Cardinals led the league in yards and were second to the Carolina Panthers in points scored. If playing behind an MVP candidate and one of the league’s best receiving corps were a part of Johnson’s success, we may want to pump the breaks. Only seven times in the last ten years (50 possible instances) did a non Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees led team finish top five in offense after doing so the year before (Cowboys 2008; Texans 2009, 2010; Eagles 2011, 2014; Lions 2012; Steelers 2015). Carson Palmer (36) and Larry Fitzgerald (will be 33 before the 2016 season starts) are in the twilight of their careers. The high powered Cardinals offense may be a one hit wonder.
David Johnson is the clear winner, right? Just kidding. Karl brings up valid points and it’s clear we both like each of these players. It’s pretty clear neither player has an extensive resume and we’re basing a lot of our projections on a limited sample size. They both shined bright for stretches last year and both had some forgettable times. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference when deciding between players ranked so closely together. Who do you prefer?
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Like the article a lot, but I have to say…the narrative that Coleman “beat out” Freeman in camp is oft repeated but a little disingenuous. As an owner of both Coleman and Freeman, I was watching the “battle” intently, only there was no battle. Both were hurt for a lot of the pre-season, and Coleman simply healed up faster than Freeman did, so he received more reps in practice and got the start. It’s not as if Coleman outplayed Freeman, it was more a “first man standing” situation.
And one other question for Eric…Nick and Jeff’s fascinating “Reel Talk” series reviewed game film on DJ, and found his vision to be a real weakness, not a strength. I love a good debate, so what did you see differently?
As a rookie, runners too often get the ball and run as hard as they can into the offensive line. When you get a player the ball in space though, that, in my opinion, is when his true vision comes into play. If he runs to find contact, he lacks vision. When he slices and dices through a defense, that’s vision. As the season progressed, so did Johnson.
Thanks for the reply, Eric.
It’s a different kind of vision, though, isn’t it? I played both D line and linebacker in college, and the vision needed in the trenches – where there are bodies everywhere, tight spaces and constant collisions – was entirely different when out in space. You have relatively more time and far more room.
I suppose it’s fair to say DJ has great vision as a receiver, however his vision as a rusher needs a lot of work.
How does Karlos Williams (517 via DLF) rush for more yards than DJ (581) in less games now? And there would only be 8 instances a team can have back to back top 5 years in a 10 year span as year 1 and 10 would not qualify. Add to that Peyton, Brees, and Brady are ALL older than Palmer, where is the improbability exactly?
DJ was not a feature back and Freeman was, plugging in stats like you did isn’t painting a true picture.