The biggest fantasy personnel move of the 2020 offseason was no doubt the trade that sent superstar wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals. But there was a flip side to that move — as part of their compensation, the Houston Texans received tailback David Johnson in return.
There was a time when that move would have been an earth-shatterer in fantasy football. Back in 2016 Johnson was the No. 1 running back in PPR fantasy points by a massive margin. In the years since though, Johnson’s production has fallen off a cliff — to the point that Johnson lost his starting job in the desert last year to Kenyan Drake.
Still, the Texans saw enough in Johnson that they included him in a trade that sent the best wideout in franchise history packing. It’s not unreasonable to wonder — are they right? Could a change of scenery be all it takes to bring about a career resurgence — and a return to fantasy dominance? Or are the Texans (and fantasy managers who burn a draft pick on Johnson this summer) committing a Cardinal sin of fantasy football and chasing ghosts?
The Case for David Johnson
The Texans were rather roundly blasted for the trade, but one person who wasn’t sad or angry about what the Texans got in the deal was Johnson himself. As Patrick Starr reported for Sports Illustrated, Johnson told reporters he’s thankful for the fresh start and eager to join a Texans team that has made the postseason four of the past five years.
“Very thankful that Bill O’Brien came out and got me,” Johnson said. “I can’t wait to get started. Like I’ve been saying they’ve always been in the playoffs and now, especially with that offense, so dynamic so many weapons. Deshaun (Watson) at the head of it. I think I’ll fit well being utilized every down, not just lined up in the back of the but also as a receiver and having even more weapons on third downs. When we need a big momentum play, I’ll be able to do that for the offense for sure.”
The Texans, who ranked ninth the NFL in rushing last year at 125.6 yards per game, had an opening at running back with Carlos Hyde hitting free agency. Hyde had a career season with Houston in 2019, stepping in for an injured Lamar Miller and picking up 1,070 yards on the ground and 4.4 yards per carry — numbers that netted Hyde an RB28 finish in points per reception (PPR) league scoring systems. Texans general manager Bill O’Brien apparently saw more in Johnson, especially in the passing game.
There was certainly a time that was true. Johnson went completely bananas in his second NFL season in 2016, topping 1,200 yards on the ground and 2,000 yards total with 80 receptions and a jaw-dropping 20 total touchdowns. It was a league-winning explosion in fantasy leagues. After an arm injury all but wiped out Johnson’s 2017 campaign, he was once again a Top 10 fantasy option in PPR scoring systems. Granted, his yardage dropped to just under 1,400 total and he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, but Johnson found the end zone 10 times, caught 50 passes and finished the year ninth at the position.
Now, Johnson joins a Top 10 run game for a head coach who has stated he views the 28-year-old both as one of the most talented runners in the game and a true featured back.
“David Johnson is a three-down back who has had some very productive years,” O’Brien said, via Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. The type of guy he is, I’m so excited about having him, Randall Cobb, Brandin Cooks in our locker room.”
Johnson’s in line for a heavy workload in 2020 — you don’t trade a franchise icon for a player you’re going to pay over $11 million to watch the game from the sidelines. There are those who see considerable fantasy potential in that workload — including Ian Hartitz of Rotoworld.
“Regardless of whether or not you think the long-time Cardinals back still has much left in the tank,” he wrote, “nobody has more unaccounted for carries from 2019 than the Texans. In fantasy football we chase opportunity, not talent. We don’t know for sure if Johnson’s best days are behind him, but he should be in line for 250-plus touches in an offense with one of the league’s brightest young stars under center. Unlike past years, it won’t cost prospective fantasy managers much to invest in the one-time stud *running back).”