Friday, April 4, 2014

Where will former Titan, Chris Johnson land? Jets and Broncos among Candidates

New York Jets, Denver Broncos among possible landing spots for Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson averaged 3.9 yards per carry in 2013, the lowest output of his six-year NFL career. (Al Tielemans/SI)

Chris Johnson’s time with the +Tennessee Titans ended on Friday. What does that mean for the running back formerly known as “CJ2K”?

The 28-year-old Johnson has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in every one of his six NFL seasons, and he had that breakthrough 2,006-yard 2009 season that earned him both his nickname and the AP Offensive Player of the Year honor.

Johnson may be hoping to land another starting job somewhere. His better hope may lie in finding a steady RB-by-committee situation, with the door open for him to take over the No. 1 job if he performs well. Here are a few teams that might be interested:

+New York Jets: Multiple reports have touched on the Jets’ potential interest in Johnson. The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport even surmised that the Jets were passing on DeSean Jackson because “perhaps they’re allotting money for Chris Johnson.”

Here, as with just about every spot on this list, Johnson would have to accept and settle into a tandem role in the backfield. The lead dog for the moment is Chris Ivory, who led the team with 833 yards rushing last season. In theory, Johnson would serve as an upgrade over Bilal Powell (176 carries for 697 yards in 2013) as the speed option alongside Ivory. Powell also served as the Jets’ pass-catching back, with 36 reception to just two for Ivory. Johnson has averaged 45.3 catches over his six +NFL seasons.

+New York Giants: The Giants are another team that reportedly inquired about Johnson once he hit the trade block. (+Dallas Cowboys, up next on our list of possible destinations, also tested the waters.) The Giants already have signed ex- +Oakland Raiders, Rashad Jennings this offseason, so the addition of another veteran back might indicate that they’re not expecting David Wilson (neck) to be ready for the start of 2014. The balance between Jennings and Johnson would be similar to that of Ivory and Johnson.

+Dallas Cowboys: Again the question, would Johnson accept a secondary role? With the Cowboys he would be behind DeMarco Murray, who topped 1,100 yards on the ground last season. Of course, Murray only played 14 games and has yet to make it through a full season, a stark contrast from the extremely durable Johnson.

In that context, Johnson would fit as a sturdy safety net plus as an improvement over the Joseph Randle/Lance Dunbar/Phillip Tanner cluster behind Murray. That said, Johnson has never carried the ball fewer than 250 times in a season and has not finished below the 1K-yardage mark. He likely would not challenge either of those numbers running behind Murray on the depth chart.

+Chicago Bears: Random shot in the dark here, offered up mainly because the Bears have tried mostly in vain to limit Matt Forte’s wear and tear. Michael Bush certainly did not solve the problem, even as a goal-line back, and he’s now off the roster.

Johnson is a completely different runner than Bush, a power back Chicago preferred to turn to on the goal line and in short yardage. Johnson’s more similar to Forte, a shifty, versatile runner/pass-catcher. The need may not be there for the Bears, and Johnson likely wants a more promising situation, but Johnson’s skillset might pair nicely with Marc Trestman’s offense.

+Arizona Cardinals: Rashard Mendenhall’s retirement stripped the Cardinals of their leading rusher from 2013, though Mendenhall hardly set the world ablaze with his 3.2 yards-per-carry average. Two 2013 draft picks remain: Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor. The former has earned the right to be a No. 1 guy, even with head coach Bruce Arians insisting he’ll continue to limit the back’s touches.

The match here is a debatable one, at best. Arizona would love to find someone who can shoulder some carries on early downs or in short-yardage (hence the signing of free agent Jonathan Dwyer). Johnson definitely can pick up some slack, but he has not done much in the way of grinding out yards recently.

+Denver Broncos: Clearly, the Broncos are all-in for this season. So why not add a potential game-breaker at a relatively thin position? The franchise prepared for Knowshon Moreno’s exit by drafting Montee Ball last year, and he’ll bump up to the top RB spot for 2014.

But while the stable is not exactly bare behind Ball, with Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson on the roster, Johnson would provide a boost. The heavy attention on Peyton Manning and the passing game could provide him the opposite of his situation in Tennessee, where teams stacked the box in hopes of forcing Jake Locker to the air. A spread offense that allows Johnson to work sideline-to-sideline might be just the ticket to revive his game.

+St. Louis Rams: The Rams already have an overloaded RB group in Zac Stacy, Daryl Richardson, Benny Cunningham and Isaiah Pead. There simply may not be additional room for Johnson. The clear connect-the-dots tie here is that head coach Jeff Fisher drafted Johnson during his time with the Titans.

• +Jacksonville Jaguars: Gus Bradley and Co. seem to have a pretty clear vision for their rebuilding project, and Johnson may not fit it. If he does, though, this stands out as one of the few spots where Johnson could have a legitimate chance at the No. 1 job heading into the season.

Jacksonville signed ex- +Minnesota Vikings RB Toby Gerhart, who has been impressive in spurts during his short career but has been stuck behind Adrian Peterson. In other words, the jury is out on if he can handle the starting job for a full season. Gerhart currently stands as the de facto replacement for Maurice Jones-Drew, who’s now in Oakland. Johnson’s style would complement the hard-nosed Gerhart well.