With the running back position becoming increasingly devalued in today’s pass-happy league, several veteran difference-makers remain on the free-agent market. The recent signing of Sony Michel by the Miami Dolphins proves NFL franchises are still combing through the list of available ball carriers in search of improvement via low-cost, short-term contracts. Free-agent running back David Johnson remains one of the more intriguing players available capable of outperforming the likely financial means of his next contract.
A Pro Bowler in 2016, Johnson has spent the previous two seasons in a muddied Houston Texans backfield following a befuddling trade that sent Johnson to Houston (alongside some draft picks) in exchange for DeAndre Hopkins. Johnson’s two-year stint in Houston appropriately launched in 2020, as the former Northern Iowa standout accounted for 1,005 total yards of offense and eight touchdowns while serving as a dual-threat back. Johnson averaged a career-high 4.7 yards per carry in 2020. Johnson unfortunately failed to capture that same magic under a new coaching staff in 2021 while largely falling by the wayside.
Advancing age and a lengthy injury history mean Johnson is best suited to continue playing in a two or three-back system. We’ve identified three franchises that could benefit from signing Johnson before training camp begins.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
The Buccaneers don’t appear to have a clear-cut need at running back on the surface, but there are several reasons why Tampa could potentially make for the ideal landing spot for Johnson’s services. Leonard Fournette returns to carry the bulk of the workload in Tampa’s backfield, but question marks are present beyond Fournette’s reliability. Patience is likely running out on Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who general manager Jason Licht unwisely drafted with a third-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. Vaughn is hardly guaranteed a roster spot as the Bucs head toward training camp.
The Buccaneers drafted the exciting Rachaad White out of Arizona State with a top-100 selection, but it’s always difficult to predict what role a first-year player will take up, especially when dealing with a complex system like the one Tampa runs. The soon-to-be-31-year-old Giovani Bernard currently remains on Tampa’s roster, but a long list of injuries has hampered Bernard’s current-day effectiveness. Bernard will compete for a final roster spot, but the Buccaneers haven’t made any assurances. Johnson would be an excellent fit in a Tampa offense that loves targeting their running backs in the passing game. Tom Brady would relish an opportunity to play alongside Johnson, who has 273 career receptions to his name.
There are several strong connections worth exploring here. Johnson spent the first five seasons of his professional career (2015-19) as a member of the Arizona Cardinals. Former Buccaneers head coach and current senior consultant Bruce Arians served as Jonhson’s head coach in Arizona for three of those seasons (2015-17), including Johnson’s career-best campaign in 2016 that saw Johnson account for a staggering 2,118 total yards of offense and 20 touchdowns. Furthermore, current Buccaneers assistant head coach and run game coordinator Harold Goodwin spent those same three seasons (2015-17) as Johnson’s offensive coordinator in Arizona. Current Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich also served on Arizona’s staff throughout a portion of Johnson’s tenure. No staff in the league is more familiar with Johnson’s abilities than the one residing in Tampa.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
The Saints recently showed interest in Michel by hosting the former Georgia ball-carrier on an official visit. Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis failed to convince Michel to join his program, but it did signal Loomis’ intentions to add more competing talent to his running back room. After missing out on Michel, Loomis and the Saints would be wise to shift their attention to Johnson, who qualifies as an excellent backup for Alvin Kamara given his similar abilities to serve as a dual-threat option coming out of the backfield.
Mark Ingram II remains a leader in the clubhouse and a popular figure in New Orleans overall, but Ingram will turn 33 years of age in December and was rather ineffective as a ball-carrier last season. Ingram averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in seven regular-season appearances with the Saints. Adding quality insurance in the form of Johnson after Kamara appeared in a career-low 13 regular-season contests in 2021 due to a mid-season knee injury would make sense for a Saints squad that prefers to field an efficient rushing attack.
Tony Jones Jr. remains in the mix as well, but the former undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame failed to take advantage of his opportunities in relief of Kamara and Ingram throughout 2021. Furthermore, the Saints did not draft a running back in the 2022 NFL Draft. The recent signings of Tyrann Mathieu and Jarvis Landry cement New Orleans’ willingness to add veterans via shrewd contracts. Johnson would provide some much-needed depth in New Orleans.
The Atlanta Falcons struggled mightily while attempting to establish the run throughout the 2021 campaign. Arthur Smith’s Falcons averaged a less-than-desired 85.4 rushing yards per game in 17 regular-season contests. Furthermore, Falcons General Manager Terry Fontenot recently released veteran running back Mike Davis, who totaled 503 rushing yards on 138 carries last season. Davis finished just 15 carries short of equaling Cordarrelle Patterson‘s team-leading 153 carries. A bunch of carries just became available in Atlanta, and Patterson is more of a versatile weapon than he is a traditional every-down back.
Fontenot and Smith have surprisingly done little to address the concerning situation at running back. Fontenot signed 30-year-old running back Damien Williams to a one-year contract, but Williams is well-removed from his best statistical season in 2019 as a member of the Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs. The Falcons later drafted former BYU running back Tyler Allgeier with a fifth-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, but Allgeier’s rather pedestrian athletic profile (Allgeier ran a 4.60 at the NFL Scouting Combine) means he likely lacks the juice to develop into a dynamic threat with the ball in his hands.
Johnson would immediately contend for a sizable role in Atlanta’s backfield.