After receiving a fifth-round grade in 2007, East Carolina University running back Chris Johnson opted to return to school for one more year. That decision showed foresight on Johnson's part that he could move up significantly for this year's draft. It also proved to be a great decision as he broke out last year with 1,468 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. His 2007 rushing yards were almost as much as the 1,559 rushing yards he had in his first three years combined. He also caught 37 receptions for 528 receiving yards and six touchdowns. The extra year has clearly boosted his value.
Johnson does not have a decision this year and enters the draft as he is a senior. Johnson has been compared to Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook in his versatility. He is also expected to perform in much the same capacity as Westbrook at the NFL level. He will not likely be the big bruising back used in an offense such as the Kansas City Chiefs. Instead, he will likely be used like Westbrook and will be given chances to work in space and as a receiver. He might not possess Westbrook's skill so if you are looking for another comparison, consider Atlanta Falcons running back Jerious Norwood.
Johnson has possibly the best speed of any running back in this year's draft. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Johnson ran a blazing 4.24 40-yard dash, which puts him among the top of the list for fastest times in the laser-timed era. That is the kind of speed that has scouts drooling, especially when envisioning him running back kickoffs and punts. He could easily fill that role in his first year with a team.
If you are looking for a third-down back, Johnson has great hands coming out of the backfield. With his speed, he is also a threat to take it to the Promised Land on every play. In high school, Johnson ran on one of the fastest 4x100 relay teams in the country. He also ran the anchor leg on the relay, generally given to the fastest runner.
Johnson has great vision as a running back. If he is given enough space, Johnson knows when to cut back and how to follow his blockers. A lot of his experience has also come out of the working out of the slot, where he has showed himself to be a good route runner who can create separation, no doubt coming from his speed and his acceleration.
If he wants to be an every-down back in the NFL, Johnson will need to add some considerable muscle to his frame. At the Combine he measured just 5-foot-11, 197 pounds. With that frame, he is unlikely to stand up to NFL tackles with regular carries. With his small stature come worries about his durability. Johnson underwent offseason neck surgery prior to the 2006 season, which forced him out of spring practices that year. He also suffered from turf toe injuries during his college career.
Johnson was wildly inconsistent during his senior year. In the first three games of the season, Johnson totaled 29, 18 and 45 yards, respectively. In fact, only five times did he break the 100-yard mark out of 13 games. He had his best game against the University of Memphis when he broke free for 301 rushing yards and four touchdowns. However, that is a big chunk of yardage; when you subtract that performance and the 223 yards he tallied against Boise State University, he had just 899 rushing yards in his other 11 games.
He also had problems holding onto the ball. In his first three seasons Johnson turned the ball over seven times on fumbles. Playing at a higher level could see that number increase.
Expected Draft Placement
Johnson does not appear to have the physical size to function as a feature back. His talent should still keep him as a first day draft pick, but he likely won't go in the first round. Perhaps he will find a home with the Carolina Panthers in the second or third rounds. They could be looking for a back to spell new starter DeAngelo Williams, and Johnson went to school in Carolina. The Green Bay Packers have two second-round picks and could address the need for a speedy back with one of them.
About Bryce McRae
Bryce McRae is a Managing Editor with KFFL and has been involved in fantasy sports since 1999. He joined KFFL as a volunteer writer in March 2005 before becoming a Hot off the Wire Analyst in March 2006. He began working in his current capacity in September 2008. His work has appeared on fantasy sports sites such as Yahoo! and CBS Sportsline as well as in print. He graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2008 with a B.A. in History and U.S. Studies.
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