It immediately became obvious in the aftermath of the DeAndre Hopkins trade that head coach Bill O’Brien, general manager Bill O’Brien, and head of interviews Jack Easterby put a high value on Cardinals running back David Johnson. The trade felt lopsided instantly. It was obviously an incredibly divisive transaction, to the point where the Texans refused to really acknowledge that it happened socially by burying it in a transactions post. (You still won’t see a single bit of the official team Twitter that acknowledges that this trade happened directly.)
So it was already obvious that O’Brien coveted Johnson, and then we get into this quote:
Now, I’m aware it’s established fan mentality to talk up the new guy, and I certainly think David Johnson both belongs on an NFL roster and has shown flashes of being a superstar running back in the past. However, it is worth noting that there are a lot of things that are fundamentally weird about making him the centerpiece of a trade involving DeAndre Hopkins. I think the Johnson return has sort of gotten lost in the wash of the trade because of the inherent emotional hot-button that the trade instantly became.
One of them, which I touched on at the time of the trade, is that David Johnson is not a very good zone runner. In fact, he was noticeably less great at it than Carlos Hyde was last year. In 2018 and 2019, Johnson averaged 3.9 and 3.8 yards per carry, respectively, on zone runs. Hyde averaged 4.4 yards per carry on zone runs in 2019. Johnson’s zone running, memorably in my eyes, was a big reason why Matt Waldman was a little lower on him than most at the time he was drafted.
But that’s really just scratching the surface of why I think Johnson is an odd fit for the Texans. Here are several other reasons:
David Johnson’s biggest calling card over Carlos Hyde is first- and second-down versatility … but Bill O’Brien rarely incorporates running back passes
Of Deshaun Watson’s 495 passing attempts last year, Sports Info Solutions noted 71 of them were targets for Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson. 52 of them happened on first and second-down, and of those, exactly three of them happened with less than five yards to go. The Texans ran just six running back screens all season. A vast majority of the running back targets don’t come from the flow of the offense, but from Deshaun Watson checking it down.
Watson targeted running backs (Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue, Tyler Ervin, and D’Onta Foreman) just 66 times in 2018, exactly three times on first or second down and more than five yards to go. The Texans threw running back screens … six times all season.
In Watson’s rookie season — the one where O’Brien married his concepts to what Watson was using at Clemson and the offense was dominant until Watson got hurt — Watson targeted running backs 35 times in seven games, but averaged 8.8 yards per pass. Still, there were only three screens, and only three of them came with less than five yards to go on first or second down.
As I noted when the Texans acquired Duke Johnson, the only time in the Bill O’Brien era where he’s emphasized a running back in the passing game all on his own was in his initial season with Arian Foster, and once Foster got hurt, that was over.
The fact that we have such a rich and robust NFL history from O’Brien to pull from really denigrates any argument that Johnson’s first and second-down utility matters. We saw what happened last year when the Texans had a dynamic receiving back on the roster that they invested a high pick in — they refused to use him. We have a large collection of seasons with extremely similar stat lines. It’s possible that Tim Kelly’s coordination will be different than O’Brien’s, but we have no evidence that it will be or that Kelly will always call all plays. Kelly has literally not spoken publicly since being named head playcaller, and his interview sessions last year were watching-paint-dry dull. We all know who the Napoleon is here.
Speaking of Duke Johnson…
Why, exactly, is Duke Johnson going to be sharing time with David Johnson?
My major criticism of this trade the second it happened was that, while David Johnson’s receiving talent makes him a viable running back, the Texans just traded a third-round pick for a player like this last offseason. Duke Johnson and David Johnson are both top-of-the-line receiving backs.
But, uh, here’s another question: What reason is there for David Johnson to be considered a better player than Duke Johnson at this point in their respective careers?
David Johnson has logged a few more touches — though less than you’d think given how often Duke Johnson was targeted — but has a much lower yards per carry, a lower yards per target number, and about the only major statistical thing you can say he’s been better at than Duke is that he’s fumbled less per attempt. Duke Johnson is also younger than David is.
I think speaking purely from a scouting standpoint, David Johnson is maybe a hair better than Duke Johnson as a downfield receiver. They each have issues running zone — there was a reason that I thought Hyde deserved more of the early-down carries last season — but I think Duke Johnson looks more spry and has more explosion at this point. The numbers also back this up:
2016 happened, but 2016 happened a long time ago. David Johnson has had multiple major injuries since it happened. 2016 Texans starting quarterback Brock Osweiler has already retired.
If Johnson were being brought on as a complementary player — a throw-in in this trade — I think he clearly has the ability to be a part of a good NFL offense. But the context of what the Texans already had in Duke Johnson makes what he does well less important than it does for almost any other team.
Johnson’s declining explosion and his injury history likely go hand-in-hand
In 2016, Johnson broke more tackles per SIS than any back in the NFL. In the short sample of 2017 snaps we had before he dislocated his wrist, we see the same standard of tackle-breaking. But in 2018 and 2019, Johnson hasn’t been the same player. He played through ankle and back injuries in 2019, and looked so bad that he was essentially a healthy scratch for most of the second half of the season. He dealt with a quad injury in 2018 and also spent time on the injury report with that back, which reportedly has “locked up on him” at times.
The reaction to injuries are funny from an objective standpoint because so much of the messaging about them comes down to the messaging the team gives out. It’s objectively a good thing that Johnson’s legs have mostly been unscathed in the NFL. It’s possible to spin his lack of carries the last couple seasons as something that has kept the tread off his tires if you have an agenda that carries you that way. Meanwhile, Jadeveon Clowney was looked at as a major injury risk for a long-term deal … yet he’s played a hell of a lot more than David Johnson has the last three years.
Medical science and the back are not exactly best friends. I don’t think the Texans should be slaughtered for taking on a player that’s an injury risk — I generally think injury risks should be taken more often by NFL teams, but I usually think that because the player generally is more affordable due to the injury. That is … not exactly what happened here.
Running backs just aren’t worth that much money anymore
In taking David Johnson’s contract, the Texans opportunity-cost themselves chances to sign Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley to deals well below Johnson’s salary. In other words, even if the Texans were dead-set on acquiring a good running back, there were cheaper options available.
The reported two-year, $10 million offer that Carlos Hyde had on the table that he turned down was something that was always likely to be accepted by Hyde in the long-term, but Bill O’Brien couldn’t wait. In 2020, only the Rams and Jets will be committing more dollars to running back cap space than the Texans. Moreover, 20 of the 32 NFL teams are committed to less than $10 million total on running backs. Johnson’s cap charge alone is $11.15 million.
You combine this with the fact that Johnson, again, doesn’t really appear to offer anything new to the Texans without a time hole to 2016, and it stacks up in a way that just doesn’t make any apparent sense on the field. Certainly, having a dynamic pass-catching back is good. Having versatility is good. But given the context of how O’Brien uses his running backs, this is the football equivalent of spending $30 on new stainless steel measuring cups when you already paid $25 for some plastic ones last year.
Is Johnson still a useful NFL player? Yes. But the Occam’s Razor explanation of why the Texans traded for him is hard to unwind unless you accept at face value that they believe in their personality evaluations more than they believe in anything else.
These Houston Texans value their read of your character more than they value their read of your talent. They have to believe that Johnson’s character will lead him past his injuries to a bounceback season the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2016 for this acquisition to make any sense.
There is little evidence from the last three years to show any reasonable confidence in that.
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