In today’s modern day NFL of split carries, 3rd down backs, and pass-first offenses, finding a complete running back that impacts a game in every way is a rarity. Because of this, the running back position has seemingly been diminished in recent years. In 2013 and 2014, there were no running backs selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, the first time in over 50 years.
Enter Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson, the 86th overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft.
If you were to tell me three years ago that the best running back in the National Football League would be from Clinton, Iowa and I would have told you to bet on it. In just his second year in the league, David Johnson, from the University of Northern Iowa, is proving to be just that – the best overall running back in football.
Through seven games, Johnson leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 1,004, leads the league in rushing touchdowns with eight, is second in the league in rushing with 681 yards, and has 28 catches for 323 yards. He plays with a great deal of patience when running laterally on zone stretch plays. When he sees his hole, he is able to put a foot in the ground and get up field in a hurry. He can make you miss in the open field with agility and acceleration. He’s able to lower his shoulder and pick up tough yards in short yardage situations, and he has the breakaway speed to take it to the house on any play.
Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim called Johnson the best running back he’s ever seen before the season started. Like, ever. He got a lot of flack for that, but so far this season, DJ is carrying that claim on his shoulders. Keim has been with the Cardinals since 1999, and has seen plenty of talented running backs in the desert, ranging from Edgerrin James to former 2,000 yard rusher Chris Johnson.
There aren’t too many every-down running backs in the NFL. Le’Veon Bell, and Ezekiel Elliot are the only two who have the complete ability that Johnson has. All three have the speed to bounce the ball to the outside and get to the edge for a big gain, as well as the power to run between the tackles. In Sunday night’s game, Johnson carried the ball 33 times for 113 yards against the always-physical Seattle defense. While the numbers aren’t eye-popping, the ability to lower your shoulder against the Seahawks vaunted defense and get the tough yards in the NFL cannot be overstated. Seattle doesn’t allow 100 yard rushers very often either.
However, what set’s apart Johnson from both Bell and Elliot is his ability as a receiver.
Some running backs are adept at catching the ball out of the backfield as a check down. Johnson does that, but turns those check downs into chunk plays, and also has the ability to run a legit route tree, as he is often split out as a wide receiver as well.
Johnson is second among all running backs in both catches and receiving yards with 28 and 323 respectively — seven receiving yards behind co-2015 draft mate Tevin Coleman. He also averages a staggering 11.5 yards per reception as a running back.
It makes sense. After all, Johnson was recruited by The University of Northern Iowa to play wide receiver. Overlooked by in-state power Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes, Northern Iowa was one of the few schools who offered him a scholarship. He redshirted his freshman season, and played both defense and wide receiver. Not until a fellow running back was unable to practice did Johnson fill in at the position, and the rest is history. UNI offensive coordinator Chris Klieman called up Johnson’s old high school coach for insight, and they had found their star playmaker.
In the 2014 opener against in-state powerhouse Iowa, Johnson rattled off 203 receiving yards, torching the Hawkeye defense including stars like 2015 Jim Thorpe award winner Desmond King. Iowa simply did not have an answer for Johnson though the air, both on check downs and downfield, and barely escaped with a narrow 31-23 win over the FCS Panthers, thanks to a late interception from the UNI quarterback.
Johnson finished his collegiate career at UNI with 5,856 yards from scrimmage and 63 touchdowns.
His threat as both a runner and receiver has him being compared to Marshall Faulk. Faulk might have had more moves, but Johnson has more power. However, the overall dual threat ability comparison is spot on. Both also have a nose for the end zone. Johnson set a Cardinals rookie record scoring 13 touchdowns last year, one more than Faulk’s 12 touchdowns in his 1993 rookie season.
In just his sophomore campaign, DJ already plays like a seasoned vet — patient, balanced, and with great vision that is unheard of for a player this young. It looks like Johnson’s going to run unlucky defenders over, but routinely speeds past them with acceleration that is on par with anyone in the NFL. Pair these with a quick jump cut and WR caliber hands and you’ve got yourself a superstar.
However, ability is just piece of the puzzle in regards to success at the NFL level. There have been tons of names over the years that have the ability, but either don’t have the mentality or work ethic to combine the two. Johnson has a small town Iowa attitude and work ethic. In college, he spent time working manual labor jobs such as construction and janitorial work, working 40 hours per week on campus during the summers. His first year at Northern Iowa, he had a job removing asbestos from old buildings. Yet he didn’t complain.
His former high school coach, Lee Camp said that Johnson is the type of guy you “trust with your keys and wallet,” praising his ability as a positive person and someone who’s “always smiling.”
He married his college sweetheart in April of this year, and the two are expecting their first child together. While football is front and center that most people see, Johnson has a good head on his shoulders, saying that marriage and family life is bigger than football.
“That’s a true blessing, and I’m so excited to be married and then to start our own family and be a dad,” he said. “I’m a little nervous but we’ll have to see. I might have to read a couple books to be ready for that.”
He has opposing defensive coordinators reading books to try to find ways to slow him down that’s for sure. He has the character, the work ethic, and the superstar ability. We’re one game shy of halfway through the season, and Johnson is on pace 2,295 total yards and 18 touchdowns, which would undoubtedly lead the league, and put him in the ranks of an all-time great season.
A superstar from small-school UNI to the best overall running back in the NFL in just two years. That’s David Johnson.