KC Joyner calls CJ #1 Fantasy RB

In this pretty well-reasoned In$ider piece, Joyner makes the case that CJ is the best fantasy RB in 2012. I doubt he's right, but I sure hope so. He takes a nuanced analytical approach that we don't see too much of from these national guys who usually toss off the same boilerplate narrative. He builds out the story of CJ's declining production by pointing back to Dinger's system, with all those counter plays (built on the threat of Vince's bootlegging) that Palmer ripped out until the end of last season. The article does a nice job of spreading the responsibility around instead of slinging blame and then goes on to demonstrate that everyone appears to have learned their lesson.

Jumpity Jumpity Jump.

One of the biggest questions for every fantasy football owner this year is how much value should be placed on Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson. Will he be closer to the level of play that earned him the moniker "CJ2K," or more like the early 2011 season running back fantasy owners mocked with the moniker "CJ0K"?

Many of those owners are understandably displaying a bit of trepidation in banking on a player who cost their team victories last season. That hesitance could cause Johnson's stock to drop in some draft rooms, leaving him available as late as the end of the first round in a 10-team league.

The truth of the matter is that Johnson is worthy of being drafted at any spot in a draft other than the very first pick (which should be reserved for Aaron Rodgers).

To understand why Johnson is so valuable, let's look at the factors that caused him to falter early last year.

It all started with the rushing offense installed by new offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. Palmer has had some rushing play-calling success in his NFL career (his 1998 Jacksonville Jaguars squad had top-10 rankings in a number of important ground game categories) but Palmer's scheme early last year didn't make much use of the counter element.

This is important because Mike Heimerdinger, Johnson's former offensive coordinator (who passed away in September after a nearly year-long battle with a rare form of cancer), was a master at finding ways to use counter elements. Heimerdinger even went so far as to place counter fakes into plays where counter fakes are almost never used (something that was detailed in this 2010 Insider article).

The end of that article summed up the Johnson-Heimerdinger combination by noting that because Johnson is such an elite athlete, he almost certainly would be a success even in the most basic play-calling system in the league. But his pairing with Heimerdinger was a lot like Earl Campbell working with Bum Phillips. Phillips knew how to best use Campbell, and that was a key to Campbell becoming an all-time great.

The lockout gave Palmer little time to work with Johnson or the Titans' run blockers last season, which led to play calling that wasn't counter-oriented, especially during the first three weeks of the season.

The change in playcalling was compounded by very poor run blocking, as the Titans gave their ball carriers a good blocking situation (which is very loosely defined as not allowing the defense to do anything to disrupt a rush attempt) only 29 percent of the time in those three contests. That is an incredibly low mark, as the season-ending league worst mark in that category is usually just under 40 percent.

When those two factors were combined, Johnson didn't react well at all. He seemed to run with less enthusiasm, and frankly looked at times as if he wasn't happy about having to run behind a standard blocking scheme. As a result, he tallied four, six and seven fantasy points in those first three weeks.

Things started to improve Week 4 against Cleveland, as Palmer began using some of the Heimerdinger counter plays, but the poor run blocking was still an issue through the halfway point of the season. This led to Johnson posting a midseason 6.0-yard mark in the good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric that gauges how productive a ball carrier is when given good blocking. In past years, Johnson had always rated in the 8- to 9-yard range in that metric (a total that typically ranks at or near the top of the league).

By about Week 10, the Titans had fully integrated Heimerdinger's counter elements back into the offense and the team's run blocking was much improved (they had a 43.3 percent good blocking rate over the final eight games of the year).

As noted in my draft guide, Johnson ran with additional energy after these changes (he was finally back to the offense he liked) and it led to his posting a 9.2 GBYPA in Weeks 10-17. This also led to a huge increase in fantasy productivity, as Johnson went from racking up 57 points in the first eight games of the year to notching 100 points in the the last eight games.

That late-season surge could be enough on its own to lead to the idea that Johnson can get back to something close to his 2009 CJ2K form, but there is another factor that makes this even more likely: Johnson's offseason mental approach seemingly has gone through a change for the better.

This was detailed in a June article that said, among other things, that Johnson has added eight to nine pounds of muscle to his frame and has made improvements to his diet. There is also a report that Johnson has been running harder in offseason workouts and is taking an expanded leadership role on the team.

Johnson is a gifted back who is determined to get his elite reputation back, and this year he'll be running in an offensive system that once again is going to be tailored to his skill set. The only negatives for him are a tough schedule (my draft guide rates the Titans as facing the third-toughest set of run defenses) and the possibility that the Titans will throw the ball more this season. However, the addition of guard Steve Hutchinson helps offset the former and Johnson's pass-catching abilities (194 receptions in four NFL seasons) offsets the latter.

When the positive factors listed above are combined with the fact that every top-flight fantasy running back prospect has at least one significant question mark, it means that Johnson should have a big season. He is the best fantasy football running back prospect in 2012.

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