It wasn't all that long ago when Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew were two of the first names called in any fantasy football draft. After all, in 2009, they finished first and third in fantasy scoring for running backs. Four years is a tad long in terms of running back shelf-life, but both rushers are only 28 and should still have a few years left in the tank. At least that's what their recent fantasy production would lead us to believe. Both are in the top 12 in fantasy points for running backs over the last four weeks. Are they running like it's 2009 all over again? Or are they just teasing fantasy owners before falling apart in the playoffs?
1) Block party
Statistically speaking, MJD and CJ2K are having comparable seasons. MJD has 616 yards on 194 carries (3.2 avg) with five touchdown runs, while CJ2K has 774 yards on 205 carries (3.8 avg) with four touchdown runs. What was eye-opening on film, however, was the dramatic difference in each back's offensive line production.
Poor MJD. Not only did he start the season a tad hobbled as he regained his legs after late-season Lisfranc surgery in 2012, but his offensive line play has been about as sturdy as piece of string cheese. Take a look at the screen grab below. I've highlighted right tackle Austin Pasztor and right guard Uche Nwaneri, who are three yards and five yards in the backfield, respectively. Not good folks, not good at all.
MJD has endured this type of blocking all season. A quick jaunt over to Pro Football Focus shows absolutely atrocious grades for his linemen, who admittedly have endured some changes (losing first-round pick Luke Joeckel for the season to injury, and Eugene Monroe in a trade to the Ravens). I consider it a small miracle that MJD has produced as well as he has, considering center Brad Meester is the shining star of the bunch with a negative 7.5 run-blocking grade for the season (good for 30th among all NFL centers).
That being said, when the blocking has been there, MJD has shown flashes of his old form. Below, he gets loose on a 44-yard run as he follows fullback Will Ta'ufo'uo up the field. MJD shows some burst at the beginning, and carries a few defenders for extra yardage at the end of the play. Before we move on, note the one highlighted defender. That's 2012 Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, who ends up blocked to the ground and out of the play. You can count the times that happens in a season on one hand.
Flipping the script to Johnson, he's had the luxury an offensive line that consistently opens up running lanes. His problem is hitting them.
Based on Pro Football Focus' metrics, every one of the Titans' linemen is in the top 20 for his position in terms of run-blocking (amongst linemen with at least 10 starts this season), with left guard Andy Levitre and center Brian Schwenke in the top 10. Below, in the Week 9 matchup against the St. Louis Rams, Johnson runs to the left with decent blocking, yet there's a hole ahead of him through which he could grab three to four yards, if not more.
Instead, Johnson pulls a U-turn and tries to reverse the field, barely getting back across the line of scrimmage. I found myself constantly questioning Johnsons' decision-making and vision as I watched the tape. It was as if he wanted to avoid contact all together.
Here, in Week 12 against the Oakland Raiders, Johnson trails guard Chance Warmack, who actually misses his seal block against Tracy Porter (No. 23). Johnson still has two solid options, though. He can plant his foot and hit the hole, or try and beat Porter to the edge (which he likely would) and attempt to turn the run upfield.
Johnson elects for option three, as he runs right into the logjam of bodies for a minimal gain.
Fantasy impact: MJD has been making what he can out of his blocking, which is why his fantasy production has been more consistent of late (double-digit points in four of his last five games). He's not relying purely on good matchups to exploit for big gains. Johnson, on the other hand, has been boom or bust, and leaves more plays on the field than MJD, which means fewer points for fantasy owners.
2) Scoring potential
No one has ever mistaken CJ2K for a goal-line back, which means you typically have to rely on him hitting a big play to score. He's averaged 26.57 yards-per-touchdown this season (for both rushing and receiving scores), while MJD has averaged just three yards-per-touchdown. The difference is MJD gets the rock inside the 10-yard line. Those carries go to Shonn Greene for the Titans, with Johnson being the afterthought.
Fantasy impact: Touchdowns are difficult to predict, but MJD has shown consistency of late, and appears to be fully-recovered from his Lisfranc injury. Jones-Drew has scored in four straight games (the most recent being this awesome half-back option touchdown pass), while Johnson has scored in two of his last four. MJD is the top option in the redzone, which bodes well for his chances of scoring. Johnson has found the endzone more often in 2013, but relies too heavily on the home run play to score. That's a risky bet if the fantasy playoffs are on the line.
3) The "heart" of the matter
Start 'Em, Sit 'Em: Lacy up
Pocket Hercules still fights for extra yards on the field, breaks arm tackles and plunges head first into what tiny openings his offensive line creates. Look no further than his 48-yard run against the Texans in Week 14. He shows passion after big gains, and seems to have the fire to want to produce for his team, even though they've only won three games this season.
While Johnson has still produced since his epic 2,000-yard campaign in 2009 (averaging 190.97 fantasy points per year from 2010 to 2012), most fantasy players and football analysts will admit he doesn't look like the same runner. Sure, he still has his game-breaking speed, but in the film I watched, his biggest games came when he was productive early. In his two best fantasy performances (against the Rams and the Colts) Johnson rushed for over seven yards-per-carry on his first four rushes in each game. He scored 29.00 and 20.40 fantasy points in those two contests. Yet, when he fumbled on his first carry against the Jaguars in Week 10, he looked out-of-sync the rest of the game, and finished with 5.30 fantasy points, his second-lowest total of the season. Basically, if things don't go his way early, it seems as if he loses interest, which worries me if I have him on my team.
Fantasy impact: Who do you want? The guy who's going to give up and shy away from contact, or the guy who's going to fight for every yard and chance to score you more fantasy points? Yeah, that's what I thought. MJD's extra effort spells more fantasy points for owners, while Johnson leaves those points on the field.
While Johnson has outscored Jones-Drew in fantasy thus far in 2013, has more total touchdowns and the better offensive line, I'd take Pocket Hercules as the former fantasy superstar to lead my fantasy squad to postseason glory. While it's an inexact science, MJD passed the eye-test in the games I watched. He ran hard, fought for extra yards and made the most of what his blockers provided. CJ2K too often disappeared on plays when the blocking wasn't there, and the threat of touchdown vulture Shonn Greene worries me. MJD has a relatively cushy fantasy schedule for the playoffs, as he faces the Bills and Titans at home in Weeks 15 and 16, and they're allowing 15.14 and 21.73 fantasy points to running backs on the road. I know it may never feel like the glory days of his early fantasy career, but if you trust in MJD, his short, powerful legs might just carry you to a fantasy championship.