In 2008, Chris Johnson was a tantalizing draft prospect. With combine-record straight-line speed, instant-on acceleration, razor-sharp cuts and and incredible college productivity, his potential was obvious.
At 5'11", 195 pounds, Johnson was a little lean for a three-down feature back. If he were bigger, he would certainly have gone in the top 10. Even so, the Titans took him in the first round, No. 24 overall.
In his first two seasons, Johnson proved he was a feature back and then some.
He racked up an incredible 3,234 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground, plus another 763 yards and three scores on receptions. Amazingly, 2,006 of those rushing yards came during his sophomore season of 2009, entering him in the prestigious 2,000-yard club and earning him the nickname "CJ2K."
He was a first-team All-Pro, the best running back in football and destined for greatness.
Four years later, he's shopping himself to other teams, even offering to take a pay cut in the process, per Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports (via Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith).
According to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, though, Johnson and the Titans are going to struggle to find anyone willing to part with anything for his services.
What's the problem?
Chris Johnson is a human being.
The Hardware Store
There's always been a troubling undercurrent to the NFL combine.
Prospects are weighed, measured, examined inside and out, run through a gauntlet of interviews, stripped down to spandex singlets identifying them by position and number, and then instructed to perform a series of arcane tasks while a live audience of hundreds (and broadcast audience of millions) evaluates their strength, speed, coordination and physical appearance.
The numbers generated by their performances, by their attributes, correlate directly to their value: how much NFL teams are willing to pay (in terms of draft value and actual money) to acquire them.
There are several analogies that come to mind, but let's use a hardware store.
NFL teams look at rookies like power tools. They walk into the hardware store needing a drill, or an orbital sander, or a reciprocating saw.
They look at the attributes, the stats, the features. Ten amps or 12? Corded or cordless? What's the max RPM? "Ugh, I'm not buying that brand again," they say to themselves, "not after the last time." "Ooh, this one's diamond-coated!"
They're looking for a player who will fill a specific role on their team, who fits an already imagined ideal—or they're looking for a really cool toy, something that will challenge and inspire them when they get back to the workshop.
But NFL draft prospects are human beings, real people who have their own motivations, their own dreams, their own aspirations and their own demons.
Boom, Bust, Hit, Miss
Something happened to Chris Johnson that transformed him from a surefire Hall of Famer to an inconsistent, streaky, home run hitter. Whatever he was, he's now a mercurial back whose bursts of dominance and weeks of disappearing average out to, well, average.
During that magical 2009 season, per Pro Football Reference, he averaged 5.6 yards per carry. Since then, he's averaged just 4.18. There's no smoking gun. There was no crippling injury. He's started and played nearly every game of his six seasons.
He got paid in 2011, but that was already after his fall back to Earth, and he was no less productive after the contract than just before. The Titans made a massive investment in the offensive line prior to 2013, but his performance didn't change.
As NFL teams rack up frequent-flier miles to get to pro days across the country, they already have a pretty good idea about the the players available, but they're looking for something they missed.
Whether it's a skill, talent or dimension they didn't know a player had, or a "red flag" they overlooked, they're desperately searching for signs that a player will either do what Chris Johnson did when he came into the league or what he did three seasons after.
Boom, bust, hit, miss; after all of the numbers and measurement and quantification, NFL teams barely even have the language to describe what happens when a 22-year-old kid shows up for work and is—or isn't—what his resume and job interview made him out to be.
When preparing for the draft, NFL teams, media and fans need to remember that every football player is so much more than a collection of stats and attributes. He's a human being, not a power tool, and that doesn't stop when he steps on the field.
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