Can David Johnson Return to Fantasy Football Dominance in 2019?

Can David Johnson Return to Fantasy Football Dominance in 2019? article feature image
Credit:

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: David Johnson

  • The Cardinals are poised for an offensive rebound with Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray. Will David Johnson reap the rewards?
  • Ian Hartitz analyzes the running back's chances of a fantasy football revival and whether he's worth a top pick in your draft.

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2019 season; this is part of that series.


The Arizona Cardinals become only the fourth team in the past five seasons to average fewer than 15 points per game en route to their 3-13 record in 2018.

This generally atrocious brand of football resulted in an overhaul of the entire organization. Former Texas Tech head coach and air raid guru Kliff Kingsbury is the man tasked with turning the ship around and developing No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray.

There’s nowhere for the offense to go but up. Still, former All-Pro running back David Johnson is coming off an unremarkable season that left a sour taste in the mouths of his fantasy football investors.

Let’s dive into Johnson’s chances for a revival in 2019 to decide whether he’s worthy of a high first-round investment in your fantasy draft.

David Johnson’s 2018 Wasn’t as Bad as You Remember

Things weren’t great for Johnson and the Cardinals for much of last season, although it was a tale of two halves when it came to his fantasy production.

  • Johnson in Weeks 1-8: 14.5 PPR points per game, overall RB11
  • Johnson in Weeks 10-17: 16.3 PPR points per game, overall RB7

The entire offense benefited from a fairly breezy schedule after its Week 9 bye, and Johnson ultimately rebounded enough to finish as the overall PPR RB9.

Yes, Johnson averaged a career-low 3.6 yards per carry and 8.9 yards per reception. And yes, the Cardinals’ workhorse remained one of the only true three-down backs in a league that’s increasingly embraced committee backfields.

RBs with 300+ touches by season:

2000: 19
2001: 13
2002: 16
2003: 15
2004: 12
2005: 14
2006: 14
2007: 11

2008: 9
2009: 9
2010: 11
2011: 8
2012: 10
2013: 9

2014: 5
2015: 4
2016: 7
2017: 6
2018: 5 (Zeke, Saquon, CMC, Gurley, DJ)

— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) May 1, 2019

There’s reason to believe Johnson’s rushing efficiency will increase in 2019 thanks to Murray’s dual-threat talents. Increased injury luck along the offensive line should also help.

Still, it’s Johnson’s potential ceiling as a receiver that could help him re-emerge as one of fantasy’s most consistent stars.

Get Ready for Johnson to Ball out as a Receiver Again

Excellence as a receiver has always been a major factor in separating fantasy’s good running backs from the great ones. Johnson has been firmly in the latter category throughout his career, regularly displaying the ability to tear apart defenses in both the screen game as well as on the outside as a true receiver.

The latter ability is particularly rare among running backs, yet the Cardinals (unforgivably) declined to use this part of Johnson’s game last season.

David Johnson percentage of snaps in the slot or out wide by season

2015: 18%
2016: 20%
2017: 13% (played less than one game)

2018: 7% 😢 pic.twitter.com/2951yGDzS2

— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) February 5, 2019

The other problem was the offense’s lack of inclination to feed Johnson targets.

  • Johnson’s snaps per target in 2015: 7.3
  • 2016: 8
  • 2017 (< 1 game): 5.1
  • 2018: 9.9

Overall, Johnson’s 76 targets were just the 11th-most among all running backs last season.

Johnson’s quest to regain his elite 2016 receiving production is helped by the Cardinals’ new playcaller’s love for feeding his running backs in the passing game. Per Graham Barfield, Texas Tech running backs were 10th in college football in receptions (4.8 per game) during Kingsbury’s last three seasons.

The only concerns for Johnson’s potential target share are the additions of talented rookie receivers Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler, along with Murray’s potential reluctance to check down to his running back. The Cardinals’ franchise signal-caller was among the country’s best and most active deep ball throwers in 2018, and Oklahoma’s top two running backs combined for just 22 receptions, 238 yards and zero touchdowns.

One of the NFL’s Best RBs Is Poised for a Return to Fantasy Glory

The No. 1 running back in total PPR, broken tackles and receptions in 2016 is one of the league’s only players with the versatility to dominate the game as a runner and a receiver.

Johnson remains one of the league’s scariest men with the ball in his hands.

The Cardinals’ recent decision to not add a running back in the draft or free agency is consistent with their past choice to make Johnson one of the league’s five highest-paid backs.

Johnson’s current PPR average draft position has him going outside of the top-five picks for the first time since his rookie season. His ability to remain a top-10 fantasy back inside the Cardinals’ historically-bad offense last season indicates massive potential upside within Arizona’s 2019 offense, which is expected to be more up-tempo and almost certainly higher scoring.

There aren’t five running backs with a clearer path to 300 touches than Johnson in the entire NFL. It remains to be seen if DJ will ever return to his 2016 heights, but even a mild improvement from his teammates and coaches should at least enable him to return value as a top-five fantasy investment.

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