Impact Analysis: Tennessee Titans improve backfield

by Robert O'Brien on May 6, 2008 @ 06:56:18 PDT


The Tennessee Titans recently selected East Carolina University running back Chris Johnson with the 24th pick of the 2008 NFL Draft. The Titans selection of Johnson indicates that they value his dynamic, game-changing speed and big-play ability. His 40-yard dash time of 4.24 seconds was the fastest at the 2008 NFL Combine. Johnson's blazing speed and good hands make him a nice potential target for quarterback Vince Young, and the Titans certainly hope that he can become a receiving game threat in the vein of Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook or New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush. However, the Titans selection of Johnson has some downside as well. Johnson has a small frame (5-foot-11, 195 pounds), which makes him a poor bet to be an every down contributor in the NFL. Since Johnson seems unlikely to contribute much between the tackles, it is reasonable to question the Titans for taking him in the first round.

The Titans backfield

Johnson joins running backs LenDale White and Chris J. Henry in the Titans backfield. Last season, White enjoyed a solid sophomore campaign, totaling 1,110 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. His final tally is less impressive when you consider the fact that White averaged only 3.7 yards per carry over 303 carries. Henry served as White's backup at times but was stuck behind running back Chris Brown (Houston Texans) for most of the season, receiving only 31 carries during a forgettable rookie campaign.

Titans head coach Jeff Fisher seemed reluctant to trust the rookie with the ball. On several occasions, Fisher publicly stated that Henry had to learn more about the NFL game. Henry also received a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, which decreased his overall number of carries. Henry performed tolerably in limited action with a 3.8 yards-per-carry average. However, the selection of Johnson should push Henry down the depth chart into the No. 3 position.

Even with White entrenched as a 300-carry workhorse, Johnson still figures to get a good number of touches. His ability to catch the ball should help him stand out from White and Henry.

Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger

The Titans fired offensive coordinator Norm Chow after the 2007 season, a season in which their passing game ranked 27th in the league. Heimerdinger is expected to bring a more aggressive approach to the passing game, which may work out well for Johnson. Johnson has the ability to line up out of the backfield, in the slot and even out wide, which should give Heimerdinger the opportunity to try and create mismatches with Johnson's speed. He can certainly help stretch the field if he is used in this type of role.

Of key importance to Johnson's role in Heimerdinger's offense is whether or not he will be able to pass block. If so, then Johnson could be a nice safety valve for Young when downfield receivers are not open, and his value would certainly be greater. On the other hand, if the Titans cannot trust Johnson to pick up blitzes, then he will likely find himself in the slot or on the sidelines on plays that call for Young to look downfield.

Fantasy football outlook

Johnson's outlook appears decent for 2008. There is the potential for him to become the type of versatile player that a Westbrook or Bush is, though that will likely be on a much smaller scale with not nearly as many touches as those two players earn, barring injury. Johnson was also active in the return game in college, and his explosiveness may allow him to score touchdowns as a running back, receiver or kick returner. Consider him a weak No. 4 or quality No. 5 option with some upside due to his speed and the team's desire to create mismatches for him.

White enters the 2008 season as a solid No. 3 running back, one who could also benefit from the addition of an explosive element to the team's offense. He has the ability to be a bruising goal line back and could move up to a No. 2 option if he can add more touchdowns to his respectable yardage totals.

Henry figures to be the odd man out in this equation. The team all but acknowledged drafting him was a mistake when they spent a first-round selection on Johnson. Don't duplicate that error in fantasy leagues this year, and allow him to go undrafted.

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About Robert O'Brien

Robert O'Brien has been a KFFL contributor since April 2008.

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