In ESPN panel, David Johnson earns a vote as the NFL’s best running back

Dec 1, 2016, 10:33 AM | Updated: 6:54 pm

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson scores a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers on ...

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson scores a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. (Associated Press)

(Associated Press)

You do not have to tell Arizona Cardinals fans how good of a player second-year pro David Johnson is.

He’s not much of a secret nationally, either.

Johnson, who has tallied at least 100 yards from scrimmage in all 11 of the Cardinals’ games this season, is third in the league with 921 rushing yards, and his 613 receiving yards are the most of any running back.

His 1,534 total yards lead the NFL, and he’s chipped in 13 touchdowns, too.

With all that, it should come as no surprise that he is seen as one of the best running backs in football, and in an ESPN Insider piece where Field Yates asked NFL personnel people to name the very best back in the game, one chose Johnson.

After finishing last season second overall in passing yards and first in yards per passing attempt, the Cardinals have retooled their offense this season to be built around Johnson. Some of that is due to poor offensive line play and inconsistent production from receivers not named Larry Fitzgerald. But let’s not undersell how consistent Johnson has been this season.

“Agility, instincts, pass-catching ability [and a] crazy hop cut,” said one front-office man of what makes Johnson such a special player. He is a bruising 6-1, 224 pounds, allowing him to handle tackle-to-tackle rushing duties. However, he’s also a Swiss army knife player because of his exceptional receiving skills.

“[Earlier this season], San Francisco wanted to stop the run, so they lined him up outside and threw it to him,” one personnel man noted to highlight Johnson’s versatility.

What impresses me most about Johnson is his uncanny body control. When you think he is going to go down (or already has been tackled), he finds ways to muster extra yards after contact. He wears down a defense throughout the course of a game, seemingly growing stronger as the game approaches the end of regulation. Do not overlook Johnson’s receiving acumen, either, as he’s the only running back with more than 600 yards through the air this season (no other back has more than 437).

A third-round pick out of Northern Iowa in the 2015 NFL Draft, Johnson showed his immense potential as a rookie when he ran for 581 yards and eight touchdowns while catching 36 passes for 457 yards and four scores. He also ran a kickoff back for a touchdown.

However, there were some questions about whether or not he could handle being the team’s lead running back, but not anymore. In fact, had the Cardinals produced a better record this season, Johnson would likely be in the MVP conversation.

Some games, he gets the job done on the ground. Others, like last week against the Atlanta Falcons, where he gained 58 yards on 13 carries but added 103 yards and a touchdown on eight catches, he helps out via the air.

He’s quite the weapon.

“I love when he’s running routes, because he’s one of the better route runners in this league,” Cardinals QB Carson Palmer said. “He has phenomenal hands. I think it’s more of a product of the score and not being able to just hand the ball off in the third and fourth quarter. He’s one of the guys you want to get the ball to. If we have to do it in the passing game, when we’re down multiple scores, that’s the route we went.”

The running back who earned the most votes was Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, with four. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell and Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman joined Johnson with one vote apiece, while Los Angeles’ Todd Gurley, San Francisco’s Carlos Hyde, Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and San Diego’s Melvin Gordon were also mentioned.


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In ESPN panel, David Johnson earns a vote as the NFL’s best running back