Commentary

Which Chris Johnson will show up?

Updated: August 10, 2011, 3:16 AM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

How high should you draft Chris Johnson?

32 Questions

When the NFL owners and players shook hands on a new collective bargaining agreement to end the long lockout, fantasy owners were able to breathe a sigh of relief. At last, arguments over money were going to take a backseat to the game itself. Unfortunately, just because there is now labor peace doesn't mean there aren't still a few players out there unhappy with their current contract situations. With the Tennessee Titans, the unhappy party is none other than Chris Johnson.

The star running back is holding out for a new deal, seeking a huge raise over the $800,000 he is due to make this season. Certainly, if we're still waiting for this stalemate to come to some sort of a conclusion as Week 1's kickoff approaches, it will be safe to say a full slate of games is likely out of the question for Johnson in 2011. But let's assume for the sake of argument that eventually (and sooner, rather than later) cooler heads do prevail and that Johnson and general manager Mike Reinfeldt reach some sort of meeting of the minds where both sides agree on exactly how much money CJ2K is worth.

Whatever answer they settle on, the question for fantasy owners thinking about drafting Johnson will still remain: How high of a draft pick is he worth?

Heading into the 2009 season, coming off a strong debut, Johnson was clearly expected to give fantasy owners first-round value, as evidenced by an average draft position (ADP) of 8.0. Those who were savvy enough to bite on the Titans' back were handsomely rewarded -- and then some -- as he rushed for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns, plus an additional 50 catches for another 503 yards and a pair of scores. Not only was he the highest scoring player at any position in fantasy, he also blew Adrian Peterson out of the water, scoring 64 points more than the second-best running back.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Don McPeak/US PresswireChris Johnson was a slight disappointment for fantasy owners in 2010, despite finishing fifth among running backs in fantasy scoring.

Naturally, a performance that good was going to make Chris Johnson a hot commodity on draft day in 2010, and his ADP of 1.4 was not a shock. What was stunning, though, was the back's incredible drop-off in production: only 1,364 yards and 11 scores on the ground, and in the air only one touchdown with barely half as many receiving yards (245) on just six fewer catches than the year before.

The final numbers were certainly disappointing, given the expectations. With only 216 fantasy points (ESPN standard scoring) for the season, we're talking a drop of 7.1 points per game from the year before. Even so, you can't say that Johnson was a complete bust. After all, he did rank fifth overall among running backs. However, it does raise the question as to which Chris Johnson we're more likely to see in 2011: the return of vintage CJ2K or the far less shiny CJ1.3K?

Johnson's worst performances last season certainly can be explained away. He had only 34 yards versus Pittsburgh, the league's best rushing defense, and managed only slightly better -- 59 yards -- against the third-best run-stoppers, the San Diego Chargers. Then there was the embarrassing five yards on seven carries against the Houston Texans.

But what do you expect when third-stringer Rusty Smith is called into action and throws three picks? The Texans' defense was certainly quite willing to focus all of their energies on Johnson, being more than happy to let the inexperienced quarterback beat them if he could. Clearly, he could not.

This year, the revolving door at quarterback between Vince Young and Kerry Collins has been replaced by Matt Hasselbeck, who will proudly sport Titans blue. Certainly, if the brittle veteran gets injured again (he's been able to start 16 games only once over the past five seasons), Johnson will be back in that same boat of having to carry most of the offensive load all by himself, as rookie Jake Locker would be the only non-Rusty Smith option at the helm.

However, most star running backs would face the same hurdles if their star signal-caller were to miss significant time. At least having a 3,000-yard passer under center gives him a fighting chance.

Jeff Fisher may be gone, but the team's new head coach is not likely to make too many changes to the ground game. Mike Munchak has been Tennessee's offensive line coach for 14 years and he has produced a 1,000-yard running back in 11 of those 14 seasons. Adding free-agent tight end Daniel Graham gives the team an extra blocker to keep Hasselbeck from getting abused and open up more holes for Johnson.

While Johnson's holdout might be frustrating to fans, in the end, it might actually end up helping his stats. Not only is he not risking injury while sitting out, but in his absence, Javon Ringer is getting plenty of reps with the first-team offense. The more comfortable the team is in using Ringer, the more likely it will be that they'll allow him to get him action during the regular season, thus keeping Johnson a little bit fresher over the last month of the schedule, just in time for the fantasy playoffs.

Finally, while it is always dangerous to judge a team's strength of schedule based on last season's results, it is interesting to note that the Titans' schedule seems to be tailor-made for Johnson's return to the top of the fantasy leaderboard.

Tennessee has games with Buffalo, Denver, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and its usual two with the Indianapolis Colts. That's six matchups facing teams who ranked in the bottom eight in terms of rushing yards allowed in 2010. Throw in Carolina, Cincinnati and the pair with Jacksonville, and you've got 10 games against the bottom 14.

Not only that, but Johnson's two projected "tough" games -- versus perennial defensive stalwarts Baltimore and Pittsburgh -- will both be over and done with by the time the Titans take their bye in Week 6.

Whether or not Chris Johnson is worth the millions of dollars of guaranteed money is a question only Titans management can answer. But whether or not he's worth taking with one of the top three picks in this year's fantasy drafts? That one, I will happily field for you. Even if he ends up falling just a bit short of a second 2,000-yard season in three years, the answer is still a resounding yes.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" is available for purchase here.You can e-mail him here.