Tuesday December 8th, 2015

The Cardinals are just a few wins away from locking up a first-round bye in the playoffs and well on their way to a wire-to-wire NFC West title, thanks largely to Carson Palmer and a solid, if not spectacular, defense. The story of their backfield this season has been a bit more interesting, if you enjoy multiple characters and unexpected plot twists. As the fantasy season builds to its close over the next three weeks, the one Arizona running back who has been healthy all year, but has appeared largely as a bit player, will emerge as this backfield’s true hero.

Fact: David Johnson has an RB1 ceiling for the fantasy playoffs.

Before we reach the story’s apex, however, we must first remember how it all began. Way back in April, it appeared Andre Ellington would get at least one more chance to prove he could be the team’s workhorse back. Despite rushing for just 660 yards on 201 carries and missing four games due to injury in 2014, Ellington sat atop the Cardinals’ depth chart at running back entering the draft. His stature suggested he was being miscast as the leader of a backfield who was asked to run the ball inside the hashes just as frequently as he had the ball out in space, and his performance in 2014 seemed to confirm that belief.

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It was entirely possible they’d find another back in the draft, but were they really willing to invest the resources necessary to secure one’s services who could actually challenge Ellington right away?

The answer to that question was yes. Arizona used a third-round selection (No. 86) to grab David Johnson out of Northern Iowa.

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That wasn’t the end of the preseason additions, however. When Johnson suffered an injury during training camp, the Cardinals went out and signed Chris Johnson off the street. The move was seen as supplementing the back end of the depth chart, and no one expected Johnson to ultimately take over as the starter and lead the team in rushing. 

When Ellington unsurprisingly suffered an injury in the first game of the season, it was the veteran Johnson, and not the rookie, who garnered the Week 2 start. Johnson ran for just 72 yards on 20 carries that game, but he piled up 110 rushing yards, 40 receiving yards and two touchdowns the next week. At that point, the job was his. The rookie Johnson was relegated to a short-yardage role and Ellington resurfaced to change the pace, as well as play the occasional passing down, but the veteran Johnson had breathed new life into his career at age 30.

But the season took one more turn in Week 12 when Chris Johnson suffered a fractured tibia, ending his season.

Ellington left the same game with turf toe, an injury that could keep him out at least another week or two. That meant the starting gig, as well as nearly all the work in the backfield, fell to David Johnson in the final week of the fantasy regular season. Those owners who either stashed him months ago or were lucky enough to win his services via the waiver wire welcomed a new RB1 to their rosters at the most important part of the season.

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Unlike the 5'9", 199-pound Ellington, Johnson, at 6'1" and 224 pounds, is more than capable of handling 20-plus touches per game. He got 24 in the first start of his career, and there’s little doubt that the Arizona front office patted itself on the back for nabbing Johnson in the third round seven months ago. Last week, he ran for 99 yards on 22 carries and caught two passes for 21 yards and a touchdown in Arizona’s 27–3 win over St. Louis. He had just two carries in the fourth quarter with the game well in hand, so it could have been an even bigger game if the Cardinals needed his services all afternoon. It also further drives home the point that the Northern Iowa product can shoulder a huge workload. That he had 20 carries and two receptions in three quarters is rather impressive for a guy who had no more than 10 touches in any other game this season.

It shouldn’t come as a shock that Johnson ran the ball so effectively in his first start. The rookie might just have the freshest legs of any legitimate starting running back, and he gets to do his work behind one of the best run-blocking groups in the league. The following run, featuring a beautiful block by Larry Fitzgerald to spring Johnson, is indicative of the execution that will carry Johnson to RB1 status through the fantasy playoffs.

Everyone up front takes care of his responsibility, and then Johnson turns what would be a good gain into a great one with that jump cut. That’s textbook.

What was a bit of a surprise, however, was Johnson’s success in the passing game, specifically the instincts he showed on his 10-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter. The Cardinals come out in an empty set, with three receivers to the right and two more, including Johnson, bunched and stacked to the left. Johnson is the first receiver in the stack, with fellow rookie J.J. Nelson trailing him.

Johnson lets Nelson fire off the line first, occupying the attention of all three defensive backs in the area. When it becomes clear the Rams are in a zone, Johnson simply sits down between the outside and slot cornerbacks, making himself available to Palmer. The quarterback fires a strike to Johnson, and when Janoris Jenkins tries to jump the pass but fails to break it up, all he has to do is catch the pass and fall backwards into the end zone.

Those are remarkable instincts for a running back who has rarely lined up as a receiver going back to his college days, but Johnson makes it seem like he’s been doing it his whole life.

Arizona’s next three games are against the Vikings, Eagles and Packers. Green Bay is the only one of those teams in the top half of the league in rush defense DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, and the Packers barely make that cut at 15th. The Cardinals’ offense lives on Palmer’s right arm, but they’ve been getting significant contributions from the run game all year. The rookie Johnson will be the one to see that through to the end of the season. He could also find himself on a ton of fantasy playoff championship rosters three weeks from now.

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