From 2004 to 2006, the Detroit Lions' latest pickup, running back Rudi Johnson, was among the most consistent backs in all of fantasy football. While with the Cincinnati Bengals, Johnson rushed for more than 1,300 yards and scored 12 touchdowns in each of those three seasons, giving owners pleasant returns on their investment.
Heading into 2007, owners took Johnson expecting a safe pick in the first or second round, but hamstring issues limited Johnson to only 11 games, and he posted a career-low 2.9 yards per carry in those contents. The same hamstring issues lingered during the preseason, which prompted the Bengals to release Johnson. His move to the Lions has certainly caused a lot of frustration from those that drafted Johnson this season anticipating a full-time gig, but it also raises a few questions about the state of the backfield in the Motor City.
The Bengal becomes a Lion
The Lions added Johnson to provide depth to their running back corps, which is not exactly what owners had in mind when Johnson was taken during the middle rounds. If you selected Johnson early in the fantasy draft season, his replacement, Bengals halfback Chris Perry, is an immediate must-add. The bigger decision is whether you cut Johnson or wait until he digests the Lions new playbook and takes the field. Patience is not exactly a trait common in fantasy football, but dropping Johnson may prove too hasty.
There are a few things that owners should like about Johnson, minus the stripes. Johnson, who turns 29 this season, is reunited with quarterback Jon Kitna, who played with the Bengals from 2001 to 2005. Kitna is clearly a step down from Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer. However, receivers Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson are both talented; they should keep opposing defenses honest and unable to risk stacking the box with extra defenders to stuff the running game.
Pass-happy offensive coordinator Mike Martz (San Francisco 49ers) no longer runs the Lions offense, which finished last in rushing attempts in each of the past two seasons. The new offense is expected to be far more balanced and feature a zone-blocking scheme, like the one used with great success by the Denver Broncos. The system will be new to Johnson, so his signing is a bit of a surprise.
Oddly enough, running back Tatum Bell, the man the Lions cut to make run for Johnson, ran for an impressive 4.9 yards per carry during his three-year tenure in the Mile High City. However, Bell was a dud in the preseason and failed to show any of the vision or flash that prompted the Lions to trade for him before the 2007 season.
Fantasy football outlook
Rookie running back Kevin Smith figures to see the bulk of the carries, at least early on, while Johnson plays catch-up. A quick start by Smith could keep Johnson's playing time and fantasy value very limited. On the flip side, Smith may hit the rookie wall and leave the door wide open for Johnson to steal the primary gig.
In the end, Johnson is a safe bet to eat up between 30 and 40 percent of the running back touches, the majority coming in the second half of the season. His addition knocks Smith down half a peg. Offensive coordinator Jim Colletto said the split will be determined by feel once Johnson is up to speed, and he assured that Johnson will play.
Owners shouldn't cut Johnson as he remains a solid No. 4 fantasy running back with modest upside operating behind a rookie. Waiting for him to pay dividends will likely require some patience, though, as he learns to adjust to Detroit's offense.
As for those who have Smith on their squad, Johnson becomes a smart handcuff target. Many viewed Smith as a high-end No. 3 fantasy back with plenty of upside heading into the season. He's essentially a low-end No. 3 with upside as long as Johnson remains a threat to his touches, though.
About Eric McClung
Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a three-time award finalist. Over the years, he's made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts. He's also captured the fantasy football championship in the KFFL staff league twice.
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