Chris Johnson is one of the poster children for the recent rise of the two back rotation in the NFL. For those that prefer quality over quantity, and value consistency, I think he is also a relatively safe fantasy play to maintain or improve upon his touches in 2009.
Ordinarily, I would be concerned about a back on a team that won 13 games last year getting the same number of opportunities. As most of us know, teams that are winning run the ball. So, the opportunity to get rush attempts is (in addition to the running back’s ability) also tied to the quality of his team’s defense and the offense’s ability to get a lead. If those factors change from one season to the next, then so do the running back’s opportunities.
So why do I think Johnson is a safe play, even if the Titans regress defensively or find themselves trailing in more games in 2009? Let’s start with a comparison of Johnson to other similarly ranked backs. He finished with 251 rushes and 43 receptions in 15 games (sitting out the season finale after the Titans were locked into the top seed), which may seem low to you. However, the standard deviation on his per game rush attempts was 3.2, and the standard deviation on his per game total touches was 4.0.
Now, compare that to previous running backs who finished with the same fantasy ranking as Johnson, from 1996-2005 (Johnson finished 11th in standard fantasy scoring). I list for you the rush attempts, total touches, the rush attempt per game average minus one standard deviation (marked 1 s.d.), and the standard deviation on per game rush attempts for every back that finished ranked 11th in fantasy points.
1996-2005, RB 11
rushes touches -1 s.d. sd rush
1996 Thurman Thomas 281 307 13.4 6.8
1997 Robert Smith 232 269 13.6 5.4
1998 Eddie George 348 385 18.0 6.3
1999 Corey Dillon 263 294 12.7 6.5
2000 Lamar Smith 309 340 15.8 6.3
2001 Dominic Rhodes* 223 256 17.9 7.2
2002 Fred Taylor 287 336 13.1 6.4
2003 Travis Henry 331 359 17.2 6.6
2004 Clinton Portis 343 383 16.2 9.0
2005 Steven Jackson 254 297 15.5 4.5
Average RB11 287.1 322.6 15.34 6.5
2008 Chris Johnson 251 294 15.6 3.2
So we are talking about a little less than 30 touches for Johnson compared to similarly ranked backs from 1996-2005. But look at the difference in consistency. The average standard deviation on per game rush attempts for this group was 6.5 (compared to Johnson's 3.2). If you look at average touches minus 1 standard deviation, Johnson was actually slightly higher than the comparable group as a whole. His low end and average (median) games were in line with the previous era. It's those 2-4 games where those other backs got 30+ touches, while Johnson typically topped out in the low 20’s, that account for virtually the entire difference.
Johnson was more consistent than previous backs, but the Titans’ team numbers weren’t. Lendale White was inconsistent in terms of his rush totals, with his rush attempts directly tied to the Titans’ score situation as the game progressed. Early in the game, and when the Titans were trailing or in close games, Chris Johnson got the vast majority of attempts. When the Titans were playing with the lead, White got an almost even number, and when it was late and with a lead, White got the majority.
I don’t expect that pattern to change, and given Johnson’s explosiveness advantage over White, and with another year of experience, might even expect a slight uptick in the percentage of touches for Johnson when the game is early/close.
So, Johnson, as the “Get the Lead” guy, is going to get his touches. He’ll get them early, he’ll get some late when leading (splitting with White), and if trailing, he’ll still be the guy in there to try to produce the come from behind big play. It’s the “Keep the Lead” guys, like White, that present the bigger risk to hold their value.