Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson was one of the bigger disappointments in the 2018 fantasy football season, although most of that disappointment was due to forces outside his control. Johnson finished the 2018 season as the RB10 in standard scoring despite playing with an atrocious offensive line, bad coaches, and a rookie quarterback who wasn’t ready for the starting role.
The Cardinals sent defensive-minded head coach Steve Wilks packing in favor of the offensive-minded Kliff Kingsbury. A new coaching regime always comes with its share of uncertainty, and that’s especially true for Kingsbury. The former NFL quarterback has never coached at the professional level and is something of a first-year enigma. With that in mind, let’s break down how David Johnson fits into the Kliff Kingsbury offense.
Fantasy Football: What to Expect From David Johnson in Kliff Kingsbury’s Offense
Kliff Kingsbury ran the “Air Raid” offense at the collegiate level and should bring that same scheme to the NFL. This system primarily features four wide receivers and a running back on the field with the quarterback taking snaps from the shotgun. While formations and alignments obviously change on a play-by-play basis, this scheme is generally all about spreading out a defense and attacking the deep part of the field.
The high percentage of shotgun snaps bodes well for Johnson’s production. According to Sharp Football Stats, Johnson averaged 4.0 yards-per-carry on runs out of the shotgun formation. When the quarterback was aligned under center, Johnson’s yards-per-carry dropped to just 3.5. While this statistic works in Johnson’s favor, there are a lot of factors acting against the fifth-year running back.
The Air Raid offense emphasizes the passing game at the expense of the running game. Kingsbury spent five full seasons as Texas Tech’s head coach (not counting an abbreviated 2018 season). When excluding quarterback runs, Texas Tech threw the ball on 64.8% of all offensive plays during Kingsbury’s five years at the helm.
This percentage could go down in the NFL, but there’s no denying that Johnson will have limited carries under Kingsbury. Johnson is one of the best pass-catching backs in the league, but running backs aren’t typically a part of the Air Raid passing attack. Deandre Washington was the only running back under Kingsbury to ever record more than 30 receptions in a season. David Johnson is significantly more talented than Washington, but Kingsbury’s scheme emphasizes deep passes. As a running back, Johnson will never be a threat in the deep part of the field. Unfortunately, this also limits Johnson’s potential fantasy value, as Kingsbury simply doesn’t use his running backs.
While the Air Raid offense doesn’t play to Johnson’s strengths, Kingsbury’s personnel usage should help Johnson’s fantasy value. Back at Texas Tech, Kingsbury tended to use one running back when that player was significantly better than the rest of the depth chart.
Deandre Washington was the Red Raiders’ primary running back in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. During those two seasons, Washington recorded 188 and 233 carries, respectively. By comparison, backup running back Justin Stockton recorded just 48 and 61 carries during those same two seasons. The Red Raiders love to throw the ball, but it was Washington’s show whenever they went to the ground game.
The same should be true in Arizona. David Johnson is one of the most talented running backs in the league and is considerably better than fellow running backs Chase Edmonds and T.J. Logan. Even if the Cardinals add a running back in the 2019 NFL Draft, Johnson should still be the top guy in 2019.
The Quarterback Fit
It won’t be official until April, but all signs point to the Cardinals selecting Kyler Murray with the first overall pick. Murray spent the 2018 season as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback and is a natural fit for Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.
Unfortunately for Johnson, Murray is not a check-down quarterback. During his lone season at the helm, Murray completed just 27 passes to running backs. Trey Sermon led the way with a wholly unimpressive 12 receptions for 181 yards and no touchdowns.
Murray is one of the most athletic quarterbacks in recent memory with a cannon of an arm and elite legs. If he can’t find his man, he’s more likely to put the ball down and run than he is to check down to a running back. This obviously isn’t good for Johnson, as both the scheme and the likely quarterback don’t favor running backs out of the backfield.
Last Word on David Johnson in Kliff Kingsbury’s Offense
Like most transcendent talents who end up in Arizona, it looks like the Cardinals will not take full advantage of their star player. Even though he’s an offensive-minded coach, Kliff Kingsbury’s scheme hurts running back production. The Air Raid offense involves a high percentage of deep passing plays, which obviously isn’t good for Johnson. Kingsbury’s running backs have never been a major part of the passing game, and presumed Week One starter Kyler Murray hardly targeted running backs during his lone season as a starter.
Johnson’s situation looks bleak, but he’s not without hope. For one, the fifth-year running back is still one of the most talented runners in the league, and Kingsbury will utilize him as much as the scheme allows. History shows that Kingsbury prefers to use a bellcow running back whenever possible, and Johnson is considerably more talented than any running back on the Cardinals roster. Additionally, Kingsbury’s shotgun-heavy offense should help Johnson when the Cardinals actually run the ball.
According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Johnson is expected to be the 16th pick in the draft and the RB10. He’s just behind guys like James Conner and Nick Chubb but just ahead of guys like Joe Mixon and Dalvin Cook.
This ranking feels about right, although I’d take Mixon over Johnson. While Johnson has top-five talent, he’s not in a scheme built to demonstrate his ability. This is going to massively limit his ceiling and could lead to quite a few underwhelming weeks. However, the talent is still there and he should see the majority of the running back workload.
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