Following a breakout 2016 season, David Johnson was one of the NFL’s most promising young players. In just his second year as an NFL player, Johnson led the league with 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns. As a result, he was named to the Pro Bowl and the AP All-Pro First Team. Now, just a few short years later, the 28-year-old running back’s future with the Arizona Cardinals is uncertain. 2019 was easily the worst season of his career, resulting in his eventual benching by head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Johnson’s play was so poor that at this point, the Cardinals have two options: attempt to move on from Johnson, either via a trade or by cutting him, or hope that he undergoes a remarkable return to form in 2020.
Based purely on his statistics, the Cardinals should trade or cut Johnson
Johnson’s troubles in Arizona date back to early in the 2017 season. A dislocated wrist in Week 1 led to him sitting out for the remainder of the year. When he returned the following season, Arizona had a new head coach, and Johnson’s statistics dropped across the board. He rushed for almost 300 fewer yards and nine fewer touchdowns than in 2016, and his yards per carry dropped from 4.2 to a career-low of 3.6 (excluding the injury-shortened 2017 season).
Johnson’s receiving production saw an even larger decline. During his All-Pro 2016, he totaled 80 receptions for 879 yards, averaging an impressive 11.0 yards per reception. Post-injury, those numbers plummeted to 50 receptions, 446 yards, and 8.9 yards per reception. For most running backs, those statistics would be more than respectable, but for Johnson, it instead represents a massive departure from the standard he set for himself two years prior.
In many ways, 2019 was even worse for Johnson. He dealt with injuries throughout the year, and Arizona eventually benched him in favor of Kenyan Drake, who was acquired mid-season in a trade with the Miami Dolphins. Johnson’s falling out of favor resulted in a further decrease in his rushing production, and he only managed 345 yards, two touchdowns, and an average of 3.7 yards per carry. His receiving totals also decreased, although only by around 75 yards.
Based on the progression of these statistics, Johnson appears to have regressed significantly in each season since his injury. At first glance, it seems as though the Cardinals would be more than justified in trading or cutting Johnson. In reality, though, the situation is far more complicated than that. However, unraveling the intricacies doesn’t necessarily make Johnson look any better.
Using the OSM to examine Johnson’s poor play in 2019
Statistics will not always reflect how well a player actually performed during the season. For example, even though Johnson had fewer receiving yards this season than in 2018, his yards per reception increased by more than a yard. In the NFL, misleading statistics often arise when circumstance limits a player’s opportunities. Johnson was in just such a situation in 2019, which makes evaluating him difficult. Fortunately, the PFN Offensive Share Metric (OSM) was created to analyze situations like this one; to assess players based on how well they played given their circumstances, rather than on their conventional statistics.
In the past, Johnson performed reasonably well on this metric. His 2016 grade of 16.17 was higher than more than half of the other qualifying running backs during that season. He didn’t perform quite as well in 2018, but the drop was relatively minor, down to 15.21. That difference is notable, but still small enough that it is not necessarily indicative of a severe drop in overall productiveness.
Unfortunately, you cannot say the same about Johnson’s play in 2019. His grade dropped to 7.02, the lowest grade of any running back, implying that, while he did have fewer opportunities, Johnson did a worse job of maximizing those opportunities than he did in prior seasons.
Explaining why Johnson’s OSM grade plummeted in 2019
Explaining the substantial fall-off in Johnson’s grade is tricky. One factor that often has a major impact on a running back’s OSM grade is their efficiency rating, the ratio of how many yards of physical distance a running back ran for each yard they gained statistically. The higher the score, the less efficient the player was. However, in Johnson’s case, this metric is not very helpful. His 2019 efficiency rating efficiency of 4.25 was the eighth-highest among qualifying running backs in 2019. While that is a very high grade, it doesn’t represent a substantial departure from previous seasons; his efficiency ratings in 2018 and 2016 were 4.0 and 3.87, respectively. That slight increase from year to year certainly affected Johnson’s OSM grades, but it wouldn’t cause such a steep decline from 2018 to 2019.
To explain that, we need to take into account the level of resistance that Johnson faced in each season. The NFL tracks how often defenses have eight or more defenders in the box against each running back. In both 2016 and 2018, Johnson was in that situation approximately 25% of the time. However, in 2019, likely because of how pass-heavy Kingsbury’s offense is, that number plummeted to just 5.32%, the second-lowest percentage seen by any running back— most of the time, running backs with rates that low have similarly low efficiency ratings. That is because it is easier to run in a straight line when no one is trying to stop you.
To put Johnson’s metrics in perspective, every running back with an efficiency rating higher than his saw eight or more defenders in the box at least ten percent of the time. The closest player in terms of efficiency rating who met that criterion was Damien Williams, whose rating of 4.0 ranked 20th. That is why Johnson was graded so poorly in 2019. Despite facing less resistance than he had for most of his career, and far less than many other running backs, he was unable to take advantage of those more favorable circumstances.
Johnson’s poor play puts the Cardinals in a tough spot
All told, 2019 was the latest in a series of misfortunes for Johnson. Being released would only add insult to injury. That said, he might benefit from a change of scenery. Being paired up with a different coach and a new offense might help revitalize his career. And since the Cardinals do not appear to value him very highly, releasing him might well be beneficial for both parties. Unfortunately, Johnson’s contract makes cutting him this offseason unappealing. Arizona owes him 10.2 million dollars next season, fully guaranteed. Cutting him would result in 16.2 million dollars in dead money, something Arizona almost certainly wants to avoid. An alternative solution for the Cardinals would be to try to trade Johnson, but convincing another team to take on his contract will not be easy.
The final option, of course, is to keep Johnson on the roster. While that might sound like a dispiriting outcome, this scenario doesn’t always end in disaster. Maybe Kingsbury will be more comfortable integrating Johnson into his offense now that both he and his young quarterback have a full season under their belts. If that happens, Arizona should hope that Johnson can reward his coach by playing at the level he has shown himself to be capable of in the past. Because unless the running back is traded or cut, which at the moment seems unlikely, Johnson and the Cardinals are probably stuck with each other for at least one more season.