Fantasy News & Analysis

Cardinals used running back David Johnson unlike any other in 2016

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 18: Running back David Johnson #31 of the Arizona Cardinals smiles while sitting on the bench during the NFL game against the New Orleans Saints at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(“Today’s Crazy Fantasy Stat” is an occasional offseason offering from PFF that highlights something that catches our eye and aids in our preparation for the 2017 fantasy season.)

With the entrance into the league of running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey (among many others), there’s been a lot of talk recently on the skill-sets of running backs. There are ball-carriers who don’t catch a lot of passes, like LeGarrette Blount, and like Fournette is perceived to be. There are pass-catching specialists, like Theo Riddick and Danny Woodhead. And there are the backs who divide their skills, as is expected from McCaffrey.

But there isn’t anybody who has a combined skill-set like David Johnson demonstrated in 2016.

Johnson, named PFF’s top receiver in 2016, recorded 881 receiving yards (most by a running back in this century, since the heyday of Marshall Faulk) on 107 targets (only 2007 Brian Westbrook and 2014 Matt Forte have recorded more in the PFF era). Take his rushing completely out of the equation, and Johnson would have tied for No. 39 in fantasy scoring at the wide receiver position. And he did that with a lower average depth of target than any qualifying wide receiver.

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Johnson’s usage in 2016 doesn’t match any other running back’s usage in the last decade. There have been 67 qualifying running backs with an aDOT of 3.0 yards of higher in that time (Johnson’s was 4.6, 12th-highest). Of those, none have come within 35 of Johnson’s 107 targets, and only 12 players have had even 50 targets at that aDOT.

On top of that, of course, Johnson had 293 carries in 2016. Only one player with at least a 3.0-yard aDOT has recorded more carries in the last decade — LenDale White, back in 2007. 19 running backs have had 100-plus carries with a 3.0-yard aDOT in the sample — take Johnson out, and that group has averaged 32 targets a season, with only Matt Forte in 2010 having more than 56 targets.

Cardinals RB David Johnson

To repeat, Johnson recorded 107 targets on a 4.6-yard average depth of target. That comes out to 492 air yards in 2016. Only Marcel Reece in 2012 has come within 200 yards of that number among running backs in the last decade. Only eight players have come within 300. Only 32 guys have come within 400.

Johnson had an excellent 2016 season by pretty much any measure. But the most notable thing about it is that he did it unlike how any running back basically ever has. Running backs who see that depth of target don’t see a lot of targets. Running backs who see a lot of targets don’t have that depth of target or that many carries. Running backs who see that many carries don’t have that many receiving yards. Take out Johnson’s receiving, and he’d have been the No. 8 fantasy running back. Take out his rushing, and he’d have been the No. 39 wide receiver.

Put them both together, and that season hardly even makes sense.


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