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David Johnson was not the elite RB you thought he was after 2016

Running back David Johnson #31 of the Arizona Cardinals runs out to the NFL preseason game against the Oakland Raiders at State Farm Stadium on August 15, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

David Johnson’s career with the Arizona Cardinals had to have taken a turn somewhere and for some reason.

It could’ve been when Bruce Arians, the head coach who built his offense around Johnson, retired in 2017.

Maybe it came before that, when to cap a historic 2016, Johnson sprained his MCL in the season finale. Maybe it was the wrist injury in the first game back from the knee scare that abruptly canceled the running back’s 2017 season.

Scheme fit, play-calling and poor offensive line performance played their parts, too.

But at some point during the past few seasons, it became clear that the problem was with the running back — not all the things around him.

Johnson’s 2016 season was fantastic on the field and exciting to watch from the stands. It shouldn’t be overlooked as one of the better seasons put together by a running back ever, or at least the most unique. Johnson’s 15 straight games of more than 100 scrimmage yards tied a record held by Barry Sanders. He set a Cardinals mark for scrimmage yards over a full season and in terms of total touchdowns through his first two years as a pro ranked among a handful of Hall of Fame players.

Was that sustainable? It’d be silly to think so.

The Cardinals and general manager Steve Keim came to an even more realistic conclusion at some point in the past two years.

Arizona traded for running back Kenyan Drake midseason in 2019. The team put a transition tag on him Monday and then traded Johnson in a blockbuster to the Houston Texans for receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

The trigger decision to prompt that Monday action was all about this: Drake didn’t just have the “hot hand,” as coach Kliff Kingsbury and Keim said of the decision to bench Johnson last year.

Drake is and has been a younger, under-utilized and more productive running back when their entire careers are considered.

Dicing up the tape and taking a look at the numbers bore out the reality.

Stat Kenyan Drake 2019 Chase Edmonds 2019 David Johnson 2019 David Johnson 2018 David Johnson 2016
Carries 171 60 94 258 293
Yards per attempt 4.8 5.1 3.7 3.6 4.2
Yards after contact 2.69 2.95 2.05 2.38 2.53
Forced missed tackle rate 17.0% 13.3% 6.4% 8.5% 15.0%
Explosive run rate 12.9% 15.0% 8.5% 7.8% 11.6%

(Stats via Pro Football Focus)

Drake and Chase Edmonds last year were wildly more explosive and more elusive than Johnson.

Even comparing Drake’s entire 2019 season split between the Dolphins and Cardinals to Johnson’s historic 2016 campaign makes the former appear superior in terms of missed tackles forced and the explosive runs created per carry.

Drake’s 3.15 yards after contact per attempt over his career is significantly greater than Johnson’s 2.44.

As a receiver, Johnson is considered a more skilled route-runner, but their yards after catch numbers over the course of their careers are 8.1 and 8.0, respectively.

In career scrimmage yards per touch, Drake (5.5) slightly outpaces Johnson (5.4).

Johnson’s numbers largely declined over the past three seasons. That Johnson dropped off from 2018 to 2019 considering the offensive coaching staff improvements and offensive line health stabilizing said a lot about whether outside factors could be blamed for a lack of production.

The Cardinals gave Johnson chances. They rode with him early on in 2019 after he showed signs of drop-off in 2018. Injuries popped up again.

They continued to support him publicly — albeit with some respectful criticism from Keim — through his failure to jump back into the fold following Arizona’s trade for Drake. The Cardinals promoted Johnson’s charity work and his effort to fight his way into a bigger role, and the running back himself remained honest about being frustrated. He didn’t pass blame while acknowledging disagreements about why his play had dropped off.

Those things shouldn’t be missed.

The lack of on-field production just couldn’t be overlooked.

Johnson just never looked like the back who rushed for 1,239 yards to go with 879 receiving yards in his second NFL season.

His 2018 was a relatively healthy campaign, but an injury-plagued offensive line and uninspiring gameplans by two offensive coordinators under head coach Steve Wilks limited him.

Johnson still rushed for 940 yards and seven touchdowns, adding 446 receiving yards, but the early signs of a coach’s distrust cropped up when then-rookie Edmonds took a key third-down snap from Johnson in the third game of the season.

Now with 989 touches and with many more plays wearing on the 28-year-old Johnson — Drake is only 25 years old with 600 touches in his NFL career — it made sense for Arizona to move on.

Kingsbury, like Wilks, clearly saw better options on Arizona’s roster. Both of them saw Johnson as a liability too often.

As it became more clear Drake was more than just the “hot hand,” the Cardinals through the media expressed the belief that Johnson could find that 2016 magic once again. Likely, that was just to keep Johnson’s trade value at a maximum, even as it appeared Arizona would have to sweeten any Johnson deal by eating money or throwing in a draft pick for the troubles of taking a risk on the 28-year-old back.

Agreeing to trade Johnson for Hopkins ended the two years of waiting.

The Cardinals had determined Johnson didn’t struggle because Arians left him or because Mike McCoy would only run him up off the hip of a rookie center. It wasn’t that Wilks and Kingsbury stunted his confidence or rhythm by pulling him out of the game too often and in key moments.

It’s that there was a better running back or two on the Cardinals roster all along.


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