Making the Leap: Cardinals RB David Johnson

In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, we spotlight emerging players to keep an eye on in 2016. Whether rising from no-namer to quality starter or jumping from standout to superstar, each of these individuals is poised to break through in the coming campaign.

Less than a month into his NFL career, David Johnson became the first player in league history to score a touchdown via run, pass and kick return in his first two games. By the end of his rookie season, he had established a Cardinals franchise rookie record for touchdowns (13).

Along the way, Johnson inspired lofty comparisons to Todd Gurley, Matt Forte and a pair of Hall of Famers in Marshall Faulk and Franco Harris.

Why Johnson is on the list

Johnson's debut season was an unqualified success. From the time he entered the starting lineup in Week 13 through the regular-season finale, no NFL player averaged more yards from scrimmage per game than the former Northern Iowa star's 131.7. Teaming with a reborn Chris Johnson, he transformed Arizona's backfield from a weakness to one of the strongest positions on the roster.

Even to the casual football fan, it's self-evident that Johnson has what it takes to beat out his more experienced counterpart for the starting job in a high-octane offense. He's on this list, however, because his ceiling is as high as that of any running back in the game.

Like a superhero acquiring his powers via exposure to a mutagenic compound, Johnson is a former wide receiver who retained all benefits of that position when he rocked up to nearly 230 pounds and moved to the backfield.

"He's probably as natural a catcher as there is," quarterback Carson Palmer said last December. "He was a receiver growing up and he just grew too much, too fast. He catches the ball really, really well. He understands concepts well. Great body control."

Among active starters boasting a three-down skill set, he ranks with Forte and Le'Veon Bell as the most natural route runners and pass catchers. Three games into Johnson's career, Bruce Arians already had him lining up out wide and in the slot as a runner/receiver hybrid. Arians was actually far more creative with Johnson as a moveable chess piece before the rookie was thrust into the workhorse role in November.

The Packers were one team that paid the price for underestimating Johnson's mismatch potential in the passing game. After hauling in three passes for a season-high 88 yards in Week 16, Johnson revealed that Green Bay started with a linebacker in coverage, adjusted to a safety and finally capitulated with a dime cornerback by the end of the game.

During that blowout victory, NFL Films caught All-Pro cornerback Tyrann Mathieu with an astonishing observation.

"He kind of reminds me of Marshall Faulk," Mathieu raved on the sideline. "But he's just bigger."

That size advantage allows Johnson to succeed as a well-rounded runner in addition to his sterling receiving ability. He's the rare back capable of outracing the game's fastest defensive backs in open spaces and powering through defensive linemen and linebackers in the trenches.

The video below is evidence of Johnson's leg-churning power, showing consecutive runs of 47, 11, 14, 6, 19, 6 and a 1-yard touchdown en route to 229 total yards versus the Eagles in Week 15.

A freakish athlete, he launched an astonishing 41.5-inch vertical leap at the NFL Scouting Combine and recorded the fastest speed by a running back as a ball carrier in 2015, per Next Gen Stats.

The scariest thought for opposing defenses is that Johnson is just "scratching the surface" of his potential, as general manager Steve Keim pointed out in February.

"Just going back and looking at some of the things David did on our tape just recently, from a skill set standpoint, it's scary," Keim said. "At 6-1, 226 pounds, a guy who can bend and make lateral cuts the way he does and have the ball skills and the matchup possibilities out of the backfield ... I think he could end up being one of the better all-around backs in the NFL when you look at being a complete player."

A week later, Arians raised eyebrows when he conceded that the dynamic 24-year-old has a chance to be "one of the all-time best" at his position.

Obstacles he'll face

As is the case with all transcendent football talents, Johnson's primary obstacle is avoiding career-altering injuries.

Outside of that all-encompassing caveat, though, there's little reason to believe Johnson won't capitalize on his vast potential. The issues that threatened to hound him last August and September -- ball security and a tendency to break runs to the outside -- were afterthoughts by the end of his rookie season.

Johnson does so many things so well, including kickoff returns, that Arians will have to exercise prudence in saddling up his multi-dimensional back as a workhorse.

Expectations for 2016

Credit the Cardinals for realizing exactly what they had in their third-round steal last summer. As you can see in the "All or Nothing" highlight video to the right, Arians predicted that Johnson would be ready to assume "bell cow" responsibilities as the backfield leader by Thanksgiving.

At the point of that mid-September forecast, the one concern Arians harbored was how Johnson would handle too much success too soon.

From the front office's perspective, that's no longer an issue. Beyond the obvious physical gifts, Keim has raved about Johnson as "great young man" who is already "highly thought of" in the organization.

Arians conceded earlier this offseason that the second-year back has "earned the right to be the bell cow" going forward.

What does that mean for Johnson's 2016 prospects?

Considering his near-peerless receiving ability, goal-line prowess and expected workload, it's not unreasonable to roll the dice on Johnson with the No. 1 overall pick in fantasy drafts. His ceiling this season is 2,000 yards from scrimmage and the league lead in touchdowns.

Beyond this season, the sky is the limit.

"You were the back I wanted because I thought you were better than Gurley," "All or Nothing" captured running backs coach Stump Mitchell assuring Johnson in their 2015 exit interview. "The Hall of Fame, you should have a bust when your ass is done playing. And hopefully, if you can stay healthy -- I mean I've coached some good backs -- ain't no question you're a Hall of Fame guy. None whatsoever."

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content