ARIZONA CARDINALS

NFL.com writer: David Johnson best of 2015 RB class, has no ceiling

May 5, 2017, 10:04 AM | Updated: 1:32 pm
Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) during an NFL football game against the Washingto...
Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) during an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Six different running backs were chosen before the Arizona Cardinals grabbed David Johnson with the 86th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Two of the runners picked before Johnson — the Rams’ Todd Gurley and the Chargers’ Melvin Gordon — have reached the Pro Bowl. The other three — a group which includes Ameer Abdullah, who went to the Lions in the second round before the Cardinals could pick him — have had varying degrees of success, though none have established themselves as franchise backs.

Then there’s Johnson, who followed up a good rookie season with a historic 2016 campaign, where he notched 100 yards from scrimmage in an NFL record 15 straight games to start the season while accumulating a franchise record (and league-best) 2,118 scrimmage yards and 20 total touchdowns.

It’s probably safe to say if teams could do it over, Johnson — who suffered an MCL sprain in Week 17 but has completely recovered — would be the first running back off the board.

While not necessarily out-of-the-box thinking, it is amusing in that with as much effort goes into identifying the very best talent, sometimes luck — or situations, or any number of factors — matters more than anything.

At any rate, with it all put together, the way NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal sees it, when re-ranking the 2015 RB class, Johnson is head and shoulders above all else. The Northern Iowa product is in the “No ceilings” group, which has just one member.

Rosenthal pointed to Johnson’s performance against the Seattle Seahawks in a Week 16 victory, where he ran for 95 yards and three scores while also catching four passes for 41 yards.

It’s bizarre to think back to the draft profiles and scouts who questioned Johnson’s toughness and power, saying he played running back like a receiver. In the final 20 minutes at Seattle, Johnson touched the ball 13 times for 99 yards and two scores to key an Arizona victory. He did it mostly with power, fighting for extra yards, excelling at resetting and finding a new hole after breaking a tackle. Johnson had 73 touches just against the Seahawks last season, a snapshot of a year in which Johnson answered any questions about his ability to be a workhorse.

What makes Johnson transcendent, however, is how he closed the Seahawks out with two catches. The kill shot came on a go-route where he lined up wide, beating safety Kam Chancellor before coming back to the football like a seasoned wide receiver. Perhaps those scouts now see that playing running back like a receiver is a good idea.

Johnson was the very definition of a workhorse for the Cardinals last season. Of the 782 total receptions or rushing attempts — a number that includes quarterback runs or kneel downs — Johnson was the ball carrier or receiver on 373, or roughly 48 percent.

According to Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, it does not sound like that workload is in danger of being decreased, so it’s reasonable to expect his monster production to continue.

Rosenthal went on to add that it would be unfair to put crazy expectations on Johnson, 25, going forward, but cautioned that it is also unfair to ask defenses to stop the running back’s diverse skill set.

It’s as if the football gods gave Emmitt Smith the receiving ability of Marshall Faulk. Johnson sees the ball on third-and-short and is often the primary receiver on third-and-long. He can run inside but also innately feels when a defender is near, jump-cutting away before the pressure gets there. Opponents rarely hit him squarely.

The writer went on to note that Johnson and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell are the only two players in NFL history to post a season with at least 1,200 rushing yards and 800 receiving yards by their second NFL season, adding that Arizona’s star has a chance to reach uncharted territory.

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NFL.com writer: David Johnson best of 2015 RB class, has no ceiling