Clay vs. Schauf: Maurice Jones-Drew or Chris Johnson?
If you follow me on Twitter or regularly check out my rankings, you probably noticed that I’m a big believer in a resurgence for Maurice Jones-Drew this year. One person who definitely noticed was industry friend and Chris Johnson supporter Matt Schauf of Draftsharks.com.
We decided to do a little back-and-forth on the two backs. Enjoy.
Schauf: Over the summer, I saw this photo of a chubby, troll-lookin’ dude with a bad foot at an outdoor club where he got into some trouble. Imagine my surprise when I learned that this guy registers as an RB1 on your list. I respect you, Mike, so I’m gonna let you start stating your case …
Clay: I respect you, as well, Matthew, so I’m a bit concerned that, like many, many others, you’re overlooking one of the best tailbacks in football because of one letdown season.
Consider this: Prior to 2012, Maurice Jones-Drew missed a total of three games in six seasons. That’s pretty impressive for a cat (pun intended) who totaled nearly 1,800 touches during that six-year span. The 10 missed games in 2012 may seem like a concern, but the way I see it, he’s fresh after nearly a full season off. The Jaguars’ offense will return to it’s run-heavy scheme under Gus Bradley, and they’re short of offensive talent. Jones-Drew will get the rock early and often, rewarding owners who took a shot on him in the second round. I don’t know how you can possibly disagree, but I’m a nice guy, so let you give it a shot …
Schauf: Well, one could also put that another way. In his 4 seasons as the starter, MJD has finished 2 of them with major injuries: the torn meniscus in his left knee back in 2010 and then last year’s Lisfranc foot injury.
So there’s the knee and the foot to wonder about. And then you throw in the crappy offense, now run by a 1st-time NFL coordinator and employing a brand new blocking scheme. The switch from power blocking to zone blocking didn’t treat Darren McFadden kindly in Oakland last season. That certainly doesn’t make it a negative switch for everyone. But it’s just 1 more thing to wonder about with Jones-Drew. I prefer to minimize the question marks on my picks — especially within the 1st couple of rounds.
Chris Johnson, for example, carried 1 big question out of the past 2 seasons: his blocking. Consider that answered with guards Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack. And blocking TE Delanie Walker hasn’t even hit the field yet.
Johnson has reportedly enjoyed a tremendous camp and rated 10th-best among RBs in PFF’s preseason grading through 3 outings. And his team’s questionable passing game should mean receiving numbers at least similar to MJD’s … you know, if your guy makes it through a full season.
Clay: Jones-Drew has had nearly an entire year to rest his overworked body, so I’m not at all worried about the knee or foot. Running backs do tend to begin the decline phase around his age (28), but he’s only six months older than Johnson, so we can throw that out the window. Additionally, following his “major” injury in 2010, Jones-Drew appeared in all 16 games in 2011. Oh, and he did alright, posting 1,980 yards and 11 scores on 386 touches. Only Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy scored more fantasy points.
Last year, prior to his injury, Jones-Drew handled an absurd 80 percent of the carries and 13 percent of the targets in Jacksonville. I had an opportunity to speak to him last week via DIRECTV’s 2nd Annual Fantasy Football Teleconference and I asked if he expects a similar workload in 2013. He said the coaches have made it clear he’ll see 20-to-25 touches-per-game, six or so of which will be via the passing game. Obviously six receptions-per-game (equal to 96 receptions over a full season) is not going to happen, but 20 or so carries-per-game and a handful of targets is very reasonable. In fact, it’s what he’s done his entire career as a starter.
There are so many things I like about Jones-Drew that I almost forgot about Johnson–something he’s made easy with back-to-back-to-back pedestrian seasons. It’s been three years since a 2,509-yard, 16-score 2009 campaign that saw him average 5.6 yards-per-carry and 10.1 yards-per-reception. Since then, he’s seen a big volume of touches (yes, that’s a good thing), but he’s averaged a mediocre 4.3 YPC and 6.5 YPR. Is he having a strong preseason? Sure, but the sample size is extremely tiny. Let’s look at a 2012 season that saw him rank out as Pro Football Focus’ second-worst running back out of 59 qualified. Here are a few players who averaged more yards-after-contact-per-attempt: LaRod Stephens-Howling, William Powell, and Felix Jones. Ouch. And, in case you’re wondering, yes, he graded out just as poorly in both 2010 and 2011.
Johnson has proven to be more durable, but he’s not as good as Jones-Drew and the Titans didn’t overpay Shonn Greene to sit on the bench all day. He’s going to lose a few carries and a bunch of goal line work. I’m taking the guy with fresher legs, more touch opportunities, and, most importantly, more talent.
Schauf: OK. Johnson might not lead the world in creating yards after contact. But we’ve always known that’s not really his game. Five years into his pro career, he’s still just 191 pounds (allegedly). Sure, he rated a lot better in that category in 2009, but those yards came on his 7 runs of 40+ yards. And even in that monster season, he ranked just 8th in PFF’s elusive rating.
If we’re looking at both players at full health, in a vacuum, then I agree. MJD is the better all-around back. But we both know that we’re not. We’re only interested in fantasy value here.
Johnson finished that pedestrian 2010 as the #5 fantasy RB in standard leagues, #6 in PPR (ahead of MJD in points per game). He also ranked 10th in elusive rating, ahead of Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster, Jones-Drew, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Steven Jackson and Ray Rice, among others.
Even Johnson’s worst year — 2011 — saw him finish 16th among RBs in non-PPR and 9th in PPR. Granted, a couple of good 2nd-half outings inflated his season point total. But Johnson has outscored MJD in fantasy points in 3 of their 4 common starting seasons — even in points per game. Last year found him 12th among fantasy backs across scoring formats in the end.
What Johnson needs is blocking help. PFF graded Tennessee’s run-blocking 5th best in 2009, CJ’s 2K year. The Titans followed that with 32nd, 18th and 16th. And that’s why they went out and snagged those new guards.
We could argue all day on the durability thing and get nowhere. That’s something we’ll just have to wait to see. Shonn Greene? Child, please. Johnson doesn’t need 310 carries to do his thing. And he has reached 43 catches in 4 of his 5 seasons.
Jones-Drew’s situation only seems to have gotten worse in the past 2 seasons. Sure, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry before his injury last year. But his 6.1 yards per catch and 2 total TDs through 6 games signal the lowered ceiling from playing in Jacksonville.
Clay: You’re right, on the surface, it does sound silly to call seasons in which a player finished as a top-six fantasy running back “pedestrian”, but, on a per-play basis, he was exactly that. His fantasy value wasn’t generated by exceptional ability or efficiency. It was a product of average production on a massive workload. In 2010, for example, Johnson was fourth among all backs in touches, but, as you mentioned, fifth in fantasy points. In 2011, he was fifth in touches and 16th in fantasy points. Last year, you ask? Ninth in touches and 12th in fantasy points. I see a theme: underachievement.
We know Johnson is just good enough to convert massive number of touches into a RB1 campaign, but–as mentioned earlier on–I anticipate a drop in touches in 2013. Like it or not, Shonn Greene is in town. The Titans didn’t pay him $10 million of three years to sit and rot on the bench. Jackie Battle could’ve handled that role. Greene isn’t on Johnson’s talent level, but he was quietly fantasy’s No. 15 running back last year, eclipsing a half dozen touchdowns and 1,000 rushing yards for the second consecutive season.
During the preseason, the Titans (oddly) didn’t have any goal line opportunities, but they did face seven one-to-go situations. Johnson handled one, while Greene worked four, all of which were in the first half. It seems very apparently that he’ll both spell Johnson and steal short-yardage/goal line work.
I could go on and on and on, but this is running long, so I’ll stop here. I mean, you must be convinced by now, right?
Schauf: Convinced that the Titans like to give Johnson the ball a lot and that Shonn Greene was the best back on his crappy team last year? Yep.
Johnson garnered just 262 and 276 carries the past 2 seasons, so I think there’s room for Greene without marginalizing Johnson. And that 2,000-yard season of 2009 began with LenDale White in the backfield and run-first Vince Young under center.
The Titans ranked just 27th in the league last year in rushing attempts. I don’t think they signed Greene because they were thinking, “We should run the same amount but bring in a totally average dude to take some carries away from that fast guy with the shiny grill.” I expect them to run more — quite possibly a lot more. I guess we’ll see what happens.