David Johnson: The Underdog

by Chase Vernon · Fantasy Football

Long have my leaguemates and associates known:

I can’t stand David Johnson.

No, he never wronged me in any way because I never had shares of him. I just couldn’t pull the trigger on a four-year back who was the first selected out of Northern Iowa in nearly 50 years. Even with his superior advanced stats and metrics.

David Johnson Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile

In 2015, I selected Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon with early picks. With the later ones, I targeted Jameis Winston and Tyler Lockett. I ended with zero shares of the 23-year-old rookie. I soon realized, I might come to regret the decision.

After finishing 2015 as RB8, Johnson spectacularly broke onto the scene the following year. His 407.8 fantasy points in 2016 were the most in a decade, with only Christian McCaffrey scoring more since. Unfortunately, acquiring the second-year back for 2017 was a pipedream, and I wasn’t willing to chase it.

But my agony was short-lived.

How the Mighty have Fallen

In 2017, David Johnson injured his wrist, causing him to miss the entire year. Although he played the entire season in 2018, issues with his back started to flare up. With the combination of the nagging back issues, terrible offensive line, and brutal playcalling executed by rookie quarterback bust Josh Rosen, Johnson’s efficiency plummeted. 2019 didn’t look much better.

In Johnson’s final year with the Cardinals, his back became problematic. In addition, he incurred a high-ankle sprain, which forced him to see his lowest Snap Share (54.5-percent, No. 24 among qualified running backs) since his rookie year. Alas, the Cardinals were over the injury-plagued running back and shipped him to Houston.

Johnson’s start with the Texans had people excited. In Week 1 against the Chiefs, he came out guns blazing with 19.9 points, finishing as the RB9. Through Week 7, Johnson was hanging around as RB18 until getting concussed in Week 9. 

Missing the next three games, as well as Week 14 to Covid-19, people dismissed him as yet another injury-riddled disappointment. However, during the final three games of the season, he melted faces. Looking like the David Johnson of 2016, he amassed 393 yards on 51 total touches, 17 of them as receptions , and three touchdowns. Yet, very few noticed.

David Johnson Contract

David Johnson Contract Per Spotrac

After spending the offseason reworking his contract, it seems the Texans locked in Johnson as their starter for one more year. If they cut him, they would see $4.25-million in dead cap space while only saving half a million. So if he’s a lock to make the roster, what is his role? 

Texans Starting Running Back David Johnson

In 2020, the Texans played David Johnson sparingly. His top five games in snap percentages all came when Duke Johnson didn’t play. His next three were following Bill O’Brien’s firing in which he only lasted three games before getting put on the IR. Don’t think bell cow is in the realm of possibilities for Johnson. Instead, think about the areas he succeeded in during 2020.


Johnson was tied for No. 1 with Myles Gaskin in yards per reception with 9.5 (minimum 30 targets). Even though Duke played one less game and saw 201 snaps less, he only had 13 fewer on third down. Duke’s 87 third-down snaps only resulted in eight total targets. So why even mention it?

Desean Watson doesn’t target the running back

Watson has played a total of 521 third downs since coming into the league. He has personally decided to run the ball on 83 of them and pass on 438. Watson only targets the running backs 13-percent of those attempts. He has opted to rush himself 20 more times than give it to a back. Lamar Jackson is the only other quarterback who targets his running back less on third down. Even if you combine Kyler Murrays third-down runs with his passing attempts, his target percentage would still be more than Watson’s.


But the Texans Added Running Backs

There is a legitimate concern where injuries won’t be the only obstacle. The Texans added Rex Burkhead, Mark Ingram, and Phillip Lindsay to the backfield. However, Burkhead makes Johnson look like a model of health; Ingram is older and also struggles to stay healthy. Lindsay couldn’t stay healthy last year while being wildly inefficient, especially in the passing game. With the injuries abundant, keeping for aging running backs might not be a bad idea.

The undersized Lindsay seems to be the biggest threat to the workload, but don’t confuse him with a pass-catching back. He maxed out at 35 per season, and even Royce Freeman had five more receptions, although Lindsay out-snapped him by over 80. The lack of receiving work could be partly because Lindsay didn’t do well with pass blocking, but everything is pointing towards Johnson being on the field for third downs. 

Weighted Opportunities

You want Weighted Opportunities. You want target after target funneled to your running back. Last year Johnson had 160.4 (No. 26) Weighted Opportunities 135 of his 193 opportunities came from rushing the ball on first and second down. Only 15 of the 135 were inside the red zone. If any of the three running backs take opportunities away, it will be those of the low weighted opportunities. 

If the Texans use Johnson the same way they used him in Weeks 15-17, we may see an efficiency explosion. His Weighted Opportunities were through the roof: 43.4-percent of his looks came on either a red zone carry or a target. During his legendary season in 2016, he saw 41.9-percent of his opportunities in the same fashion. 

If Desean Watson does not play, Tyrod Taylor is the likely starting quarterback. Taylor is mobile as well, so wouldn’t he run and not give as much opportunity to the players out of the backfield? While Taylor scrambled on 19.6-percent of his attempts to Watson’s 14.9-percent, he also targeted the running back on 21.5-percent of his attempts. His career mark would have tied the Raiders for the ninth highest Target Share to the position in 2020. 

While some might blame Taylor’s receivers in Buffalo or Anthony Lynn’s play calling as to why he hyper-targeted the backs, not much is different in Houston. Tim Kelly will have to adjust the plays as very few can play the game like Watson. Even with Watson, the last three weeks of 2020, they targeted the running backs 23.5-percent of the time. As for receiver, outside of Brandin Cooks, their talent is suboptimal at best.

The Pendulum is Swinging Too Far for David Johnson

High-scoring offenses typically house the running backs we desire most in fantasy, especially in the first two rounds. However, there are outliers such as David Montgomery, James Robinson, and Antonio Gibson. But are they really outliers? 30-percent of the running backs inside the top 15 were on bottom-10 offenses. Seems it might be better to be on a bad offense and be a focal point, than be in a mediocre offense and be a secondary or tertiary piece. 

David Johnson‘s current ADP on Underdog is 138.0. He’s being drafted a full round after Latavius Murray and Kenyan Drake while going just three picks before Nyheim Hines. Murray and Drake both logged two games with more than 16 points in Half PPR formats, while Hines had three. Johnson had four while playing at least three games fewer than all three.

I’m saying this for the first time ever: Johnson is significantly undervalued.  

Look for David Johnson to be the reason the Texans generate 14 points per game in 2021.