Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What Dreams May Come: Chris Johnson

In order to prepare for the NFL draft (and survive the unbearably long offseason), we've decided to check in on this year's draft class from time to time and discuss some of the potential future characters of the League that stand out for some reason or another. Today, ECU running back, Chris Johnson.

It’s tough to get excited about running backs from small programs. This is partially because as much as pundits like to trumpet how the position is the easiest transition from college to the pros, it’s also the one that places a player’s flaws in the most glaring light. For example, Keyshawn Johnson wasn’t really fast enough to be a great wide receiver in the pros, but his size and knack for making catches over the middle combined with his draft status to pass him off as an elite player, even though the numbers indicate otherwise. Reggie Bush, on the other hand, came into the league with nagging doubts about his ability to run the north-south line, and because a running back can only go so many different directions he was immediately hamstrung. The problem this raises with backs who work their magic in relative obscurity is that we don’t get a chance to see their flaws in an honest light. Against faster or stronger competition, some failing that might otherwise be apparent could easily emerge. For that reason, there’s generally a requirement of spectacle for small program backs to gain notoriety in draft circles.

Which brings us to the interesting case of Chris Johnson. This recently removed from the Reggie Bush fiasco, the case against him is easy to make: He’s undersized, and he’s achieved only similar success to what Bush was able to achieve against vastly superior competition. I get that, I really do. What I don’t get is how Darren McFadden is able to erase all doubts with a blistering 40 yard dash, and Chris Johnson isn’t able to raise so much as an eyebrow. The man ran the 40 in 4.24 seconds, almost a full tenth of a second faster than the significantly more highly touted McFadden. Obviously, speed on a track means only so much as it relates to football, so when I saw that number, I was impressed, but generally skeptical as to how it translated to Johnson’s game. Then I dug up some video on the kid, and everything changed…



That number doesn’t just suggest a quality to his style; for Johnson, speed IS style.. McFadden makes people miss in amazing ways through a blend of quickness, speed, and smart running. With Johnson, vision is only necessary to the point where he finds a path that lets him hit his second gear; after that, his speed and the momentum it creates take over, and reason is left far in Johnson’s wake. Some may see that as a flaw in and of itself, as it makes Johnson’s game one dimensional in at least one respect. I choose to view it as a well focused game. Johnson is like the Ivy League college applicant of running backs; sure, he’s got a diverse palette of skills (he shows a knack for seeing holes open in the line, and has been an adequate pass catcher, which suggests he could be even scarier down the road), but he’s getting to the next level because he’s really, really, REALLY good at one thing in particular. For the nerd college applicant, that thing might be being a national debate champion; for Chris Johnson, that thing is best exemplified at the 36 second mark of the above video, where Johnson accelerates, then hits a second gear that will give you goosebumps. There are plays where McFadden (who isn’t the perfect comparison due to the caliber of players he faced, but is remarkably similar in terms of physicality) gets caught, but nobody is even keeping up with Johnson.

That remarkable singularity of purpose will either make or break Johnson come the Draft. Still, I think some team is going to wind up pleasantly surprised in the third round to find they’ve stumbled on the fastest back available, and one that can work the middle of the field to boot. True, there is that nagging lack of ideal size, but watch the video a few times and pay attention to the way Johnson’s speed turns contact into an affair that looks equally painful for larger defenders, like a torpedo of muscle. Furthermore, in a draft filled with talents that look to fill needs or develop into well rounded threats, a trend that owes quite a bit to the search for the fulfillment of what Reggie Bush promised us in the influential 2006 NFL Draft, Johnson is a beautiful relic that could remind us all that there’s no need to be afraid of that kind of singularity. Indeed, if Johnson pans out and is able to translate speed that I’m not sure defender in the League can match into offensive utility, we may finally see teams venture into the realm of risking big on unique abilities as opposed to safe versatility. That alone makes Johnson significant in the Draft, and should give fans a reason to be glued to the television when day two starts and teams finally start to get funky with their selections.

(Welcome Deadspin readers! Feel free to check out the rest of the site, as well as our continuing draft coverage.)

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

All those defenders had legit pursuit angles, this is real speed.

The Fan's Attic said...

Yeah, but I bet a lot of those defenders didn't have NFL speed.

Anonymous said...

I would think Pocket Hercules informs people of what small fast as hell backs can do at the pro-level.

Anonymous said...

maybe the next Willie Parker?

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of Dave Meggett, except faster.

CrabblerK3 said...

Brings some clarity as to why BSU lost their bowl game. I had no idea who Johnson was before the combine. Now I'm hoping he falls to the third round (unlikely, I know, but don't ruin this for me).