Giving David Johnson a Second Chance in 2020
Not every splash in free agency is a big contract signing. One of the first big deals of the offseason is a trade that sent Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson along with a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick to the Houston Texans, for DeAndre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick. Most NFL pundits have the Cardinals winning this trade at the moment, but that’s irrelevant for fantasy purposes.
How David Johnson’s Departure Impacts the Cardinals
The largest impact Johnson’s departure creates for the Cardinals is the cap savings. He is still due $10.2 million in base salary for 2020, but now with the move to Houston, the Cardinals applied that savings to the $8 million transitional tag placed on Kenyan Drake. From a financial standpoint, it’s a net positive.
Looking at it from a production and player contribution standpoint, it was clear this past season that the Cardinals were ready to move on. After a Week 7 injury, the team made the trade for Kenyan Drake. Even with a clean bill of health a few weeks later, Johnson never exceeded 50% snap share and 40% just once.
The first six weeks prior to the injury, however, David Johnson was the RB6 in 0.5 PPR leagues. He was also second among running backs with 1.14 fantasy points per touch (minimum 40 touches) so it wasn’t solely volume-driven. His ability to catch the ball remains elite as Johnson had four games of six or more receptions during the short stint as the unquestioned starter. There are obvious fleas though. He has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry over the past three seasons and hasn’t scored a rushing touchdown from more than 10 yards out since 2016.
When Kenyan Drake replaced Johnson after the trade from the Dolphins, he seized the role. Drake played 60% of the snaps or more in every game for the Cardinals and was the RB4 from Week 9 (his first game with the Cardinals) to the end of the season. And unlike Johnson, Kenyan Drake scored multiple touchdowns from further than 10 yards out, rushing for two such touchdowns with the Cardinals just last season. Now, Drake gets an even clearer path to fantasy production as his only real source of competition is gone. That should make him a potential top-five fantasy running back.
How David Johnson Impacts the Texans
The Texans have had success cycling through lower-grade starting backfield options for the past three years. In 2019, that was Carlos Hyde, who saw 64% of Houston’s running back touches, the 11th highest percentage in the league. Hyde’s lack of receiving production (10 catches last year) led to just a 27th place finish among running backs in 0.5 PPR leagues. That was only a result of Lamar Miller’s injury, a running back who finished 16th and 22nd among running backs over the previous two seasons.
Carlos Hyde is unlikely to return as he seeks a new deal as a free agent, but Duke Johnson will be back. The David Johnson trade hurts him the most. Duke finished as the RB32 last year but was a low floor/low ceiling flex option with five games below five fantasy points and only three games over 14 fantasy points. That certainly won’t get any better, but has the potential to get even worse. He failed to play 50 snaps in any game in 2019 and with David Johnson’s best asset being his receiving ability, Duke could struggle to find playing time even when the Texans are trailing.
The Texans wide receivers are going to see a limited impact for the most part. DeAndre Hopkins’ departure is the bigger catalyst for change as Will Fuller and Kenny Stills are perimeter downfield threats where David Johnson is less effective. The Texans did sign Randall Cobb to a sizable deal and have Keke Coutee still, two underneath options who overlap more with David Johnson. To this point, Coutee has largely been used as a short to intermediate option, as evidenced by his career 10.8 yards per reception. Coutee only had two games with more than five targets last year, in nine games, so the potential for production may have a clear limit. As for Cobb, historically he has been a nice slot player with limited ability to succeed downfield. Yes, he averaged over 15 yards per reception last season, but that was the first time that figure exceeded 10.5 since his breakout 2014 campaign. How the short to intermediate targets break out for the Texans will be one of the more fascinating aspects of the passing game in 2020.
I’d mention the tight ends but they don’t have any worth mentioning here.
Lastly, there should be some benefits for Deshaun Watson here. He gets yet another weapon for the passing game and a running back capable of disguising the play call better than Duke or Hyde did in 2019. Watson was also an above-average passer when targeting his running backs from five yards out or closer, but that completion rate plunges off a cliff any further out. Given Johnson’s past success as a receiver, this could be a place where he can positively contribute.
2020 Outlook (and Beyond)
At a minimum, David Johnson is locked in for 2020 with a sizable volume role in a high scoring offense. That creates a pretty safe floor for the veteran and along with his advanced ability in the receiving game, Hyde’s high-end RB3 finish might be a floor for Johnson. The ceiling is the more difficult part of the equation to solve. Yes, he was a mid-RB1 when healthy in Arizona last year but with Duke Johnson around and David Johnson’s injury history piling up and his explosiveness diminishing, a top 12 running back finish seems unlikely. It’s more probable that a healthy David Johnson flirts with top 24 positional value with the upside to provide a few RB1 weeks and to threaten the top 15. That’s worth about 10-12 weekly fantasy points in a 0.5 PPR league. 4for4's John Paulsen currently has Johnson as RB26 in his never-too-early-rankings.
Beyond 2020, it’s hard to be excited by Johnson. He has two years left on his current contract but most of the dead money is gone by 2021, making a release much easier to stomach. Even if he remains on the team, Johnson is already 28-years-old with an injury history and several years of diminishing efficiency. A reduced role could be a possibility but that likely would require a restructured contract. In dynasty terms, Johnson is a fringe top 100 startup option that will plummet with poor performance and age. A short-term option for a contender.