Breaking Down Chris Johnson's Fit, Role and Expectations with the New York Jets

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Breaking Down Chris Johnson's Fit, Role and Expectations with the New York Jets
Associated Press
Former Titans RB Chris Johnson (above) has reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with the New York Jets.

The New York Jets have had a quiet offseason so far, but their most recent signing could be their noisiest yet. 

After adding Eric Decker to the receiving corps earlier in free agency, ESPN's Adam Schefter is reporting that the Jets have now agreed to terms with former Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson to bolster the running game for Gang Green in 2014:

The signing will be met with varying degrees of praise and scrutiny.

Bringing Johnson in on a two-year contract suggests this is a "prove-it" deal that presents low risk and high reward for the Jets. General manager John Idzik has earned an early reputation for signing such deals and taking fliers on players who have proved they can play in the NFL.

And Johnson plans to prove Idzik and the Jets made the right move, telling Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean:  

With Pro Football Talk suggesting that the deal is worth a total of $8 million, the Jets didn't break the bank—although they did pay a pretty penny, based on what other running backs have earned this offseason (an average of $4.17 million over two years, according to Spotrac). 

The question then becomes whether the risk will pay off. The answer to that—and ultimately, the success or failure of this signing—boils down to two questions:

  1. Can the Jets offense prove to be the fountain of youth for Johnson to breathe new life into his career after years of trending downward in Tennessee?
  2. Will the Jets use him as a role player in their offenseas they shouldor will they make him the bell cow?

Make no mistake, Johnson has proved he can play in the NFL and was once considered the most dynamic running back in the league. However, those days are far behind him.

Titans RB Chris Johnson
Year Att Yds YPA TD 10+ 20+ Rec Yds TD 10+ 20+
2008 251 1228 4.9 9 36 9 43 260 1 5 2
2009 358 2006 5.6 14 49 22 50 503 2 19 3
2010 316 1364 4.3 11 37 13 44 245 1 6 1
2011 262 1047 4.0 4 26 11 57 418 0 12 4
2012 276 1243 4.5 6 29 8 36 232 0 7 1
2013 279 1077 3.9 6 23 5 42 345 4 13 4

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

In 2009, Johnson became the sixth running back in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. He had a stretch of 12 100-yard games from the middle of 2009 to the beginning of 2010, but since the end of that streak, he has broken the 100-yard plateau in just 18 of 63 games.

This statistical slump goes beyond just the volume numbers. He averaged a whopping 5.6 yards per carry in his 2,000-yard season, but from 2011-2013, he averaged below four yards per carry in 29 of 48 games. 

JJ Zachariason of NumberFire suggests Johnson isn't even average at this point in his career, but notes at the end of his column that the Jets might be a good landing spot for him in a "tandem role":

I can’t stress enough how overrated Chris Johnson is as a running back in the NFL. Literally, the only thing that he has going for him is the fact that he can stay healthy. But a lot of that has to do with the fact that he avoids contact, which is part of the reason his numbers are so, so poor.

It’s no surprise that teams haven’t been insanely interested in giving Johnson a roster spot. He’s not a true lead back, and the perception that surrounds him is completely inflated by one truly good season. And even that season, while historic in raw number form, wasn’t as good as those numbers indicated.

That being said, there are still flashes of a big-play threat. Over the past three years, Johnson has 78 rushes of 10-plus yards (10th most in the league) and 24 rushes of 20-plus yards (sixth most). 

In that respect, Johnson would make a nice change-of-pace back to alternate with the likes of Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell. Perhaps those two could soften up defenses and Johnson could capitalize by breaking long gains.

Of course, the Jets aren't just bringing him in to carry the ball.

Johnson has 135 receptions over the past three years, the seventh most of any back in the league, and he's been good for 40 or more receptions in five of his six seasons in the league. Four of Johnson's 10 touchdowns in 2013 came via pass.

Ivory and Powell combined for just 38 receptions and no receiving touchdowns in 2013, so the Jets could use better receiving threats in their backfield. Johnson undoubtedly upgrades the Jets in that area.

Just don't ask him to protect the quarterback.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The Jets may get even more use out of him as a receiver if Michael Vick is the starting quarterback. Eagles running back LeSean McCoy thrived in the passing game as Vick's primary checkdown option.

From 2010-2012 (Vick's three years as the Eagles starter), McCoy had the third-most receptions and the sixth-most receiving yards of any running back in the NFL.

With Vick at quarterback, Johnson could even see defenses flowing one way to respect Vick's ability to run, opening up cutback lanes—and if there's anything we know about Johnson, it's that he loves those cutbacks.

Johnson's speed is far more effective in space, where he doesn't have to dance behind the line of scrimmage while he tentatively decides which hole to hit.

All in all, Johnson rounds out the Jets backfield in the right role. He can move the needle for the Jets offense as a change-of-pace back, but if the Jets are using him right, he should not be the guy who is asked to shoulder the load.

  

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases. Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.

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