When we talked about which rookie running backs would make the greatest fantasy impact heading into last season, the first name we heard was Darren McFadden. One name that didn't figure prominently into fantasy rank lists was East Carolina speedster Chris Johnson.
After all, Johnson was joining a Titans backfield that already had a young, 1,000-yard rusher in LenDale White.
But things changed quickly in Tennessee, as the team lost Vince Young to an injured knee in Week 1. Even when he was healthy enough to return, coach Jeff Fisher stuck with veteran grey beard Kerry Collins as his No. 1 quarterback. With the far less mobile Collins at the helm, there were more opportunities for Johnson to showcase his skills.
He went on to finish the season with 43 receptions, 1,488 scrimmage yards and 10 total touchdowns.
Those numbers were good enough to finish 12th in fantasy points among running backs on NFL.com and third among rookie runners behind Matt Forte and Steve Slaton. That's not bad for someone who was still on the board in the middle rounds of most seasonal drafts.
Despite his regular-season acheievments, Johnson's most impressive performance might have come in the playoffs when he recorded 100 scrimmage yards, 6.5 yards per carry and one touchdown against the Ravens. What made those numbers so incredible is that they came against a defense that finished the season ranked second against the run.
Oh, and Johnson missed the entire second half with an injured ankle.
The question now is whether Johnson will build on his rookie success or endure the dreaded sophomore slump. Well, all signs point to the former.
Fisher and coordinator Mike Heimerdinger have admitted that Johnson could have been utilized in a more prominent role in 2008, but both coaches thought it would be better to limit him somewhat in his first pro season. Now with one year under his belt, Johnson will be unleashed.
The offensive coaches want to create mismatches and get Johnson in open space, where he can use his speed and elusiveness to make plays and keep defenses on their heels. Speaking of his speed, Johnson could actually be even faster when he opens his second season.
Rather than participate in the Titans' offseason conditioning program, Johnson worked out with speed and performance specialist Tom Shaw in Florida. Shaw helps rookies prepare for the NFL Scouting Combine and has worked with each of the last six players to win the Super Bowl MVP, including Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes.
The training includes pushing golf carts to increase leg strength and drive and working on side-to-side movements to improve lateral movement and elusiveness. All of these workouts are meant to make an already dangerous running back an even greater threat between the white lines.
While Johnson will continue to lose work to White in short-yardage and goal-line sets, there's little doubt that his overall number of opportunities in both the running and passing games will increase in 2009. That should mean better numbers and more value for owners.
He'll be a top-10 fantasy pick in standard leagues and could sneak into the top five in leagues that reward points for receptions.