Chris Johnson Will Return to Elite Form with New Team in 2014

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIMarch 19, 2014

Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson (28) walks off the field before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Wade Payne

Trade interest in Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson has hiked up recently—and rightly so.

Although the speedy playmaker will turn 29 during the 2014 NFL season, Johnson is well worth modest trade compensation, or a substantial investment if he's released, because this year he will once again be one of the league's premier ball-carriers.

A fresh start is necessary for both the Titans and Johnson, and ESPN's Ed Werder's latest update suggests that suitors are in pursuit:

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 8:  Running back Chris Johnson #28 of the Tennessee Titans runs with the ball against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field Field at Mile High on December 8, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Titans 51-28.  (P
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images's Mike Florio cited a league source in reporting that a "trade market is emerging," so multiple, reputable outlets are swearing that Johnson can be shipped out of town soon. news services documented what Titans general manager Ruston Webster had to say on the matter, where he said he hoped to get something done soon:

We are kind of going through our options now, working through that. My job as GM is to do my due diligence and make sure that whatever it is, it's the right thing. And that's just what we are trying to do. We'll see where it goes. There is no real timetable, but I will say this: I know for Chris' sake I would like to make it work sooner rather than later.

Tennessee has been a toxic environment for Johnson for just about his entire career. That's no offense to any of his teammates both past and present. Rather, it's more of a commentary on how poor a job the Titans have done in building their roster around such an explosive backfield talent.

Consider the quarterback situation since Johnson was drafted No. 24 overall in 2008. Only aging veterans Kerry Collins and Matt Hasselbeck have made it through more than 10 games in a single season during that span. The other starters have included first-round bust Vince Young, Rusty Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick and potential first-round bust Jake Locker.

Despite those adverse circumstances—not to mention awful blocking in front of him—it hasn't stopped Johnson from stringing together six straight 1,000-yard seasons, a 4.6 yards-per-carry average and 2,003 yards receiving.

For all the questions about Johnson's passion and work ethic, he's missed just one game, which was during his rookie campaign. In 2013, he played with a torn meniscus from Week 3 onward and still fared well despite such a significant injury.

Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean notes that Johnson is willing to restructure his contract to aid his move elsewhere, which makes sense given his big cap figure:

CBS Sports' Pete Prisco agreed with Wyatt's implication that Johnson isn't worth a trade if he remains in his current deal:

The fact that Johnson is willing to restructure doesn't make him seem like a "me-first," anti-team player, as his former teammate Keith Bulluck asserted (h/t's Paul Kuharsky). Perhaps it's a ploy to get out of Tennessee, but it seems clear that Johnson is looking forward to a new locker room, perhaps even a new team with stability at quarterback.

So many factors go into pulling off a suitable trade. However, teams should be jumping at the opportunity to acquire Johnson if the Titans simply release him.

Imagine what Johnson—who would more than likely be playing with a massive chip on his shoulder—could do with even a modest passing game to support him. The shelf life for running backs is shorter than that of other NFL positions, but Johnson's elite track speed and compact power should see him have at least three more solid seasons, provided he lands in the right situation.

An electric rookie year and a 2,000-yard season to back it up created mountainous expectations around Johnson. So much so that even his steady production over the years has been pushed aside by analysts and disappointed fans who believe that Johnson has failed to fulfill his massive potential.

Johnson is too talented to doubt that he can again be a major force in the NFL, especially given the heights he's already ascended. He's proven his heart by playing with pain and still continuing to pound the rock. Revitalized, healthy and with something to prove in 2014, look for Johnson to reward his new team's faith in him by having a big bounce-back season and a return to his elite form.