Scouting Report: David Johnson, RB, Northern Iowa
A back you need to know about
David Johnson may not be a big topic of conversation right now. That’s part of the deal when you play your college ball at the University of Northern Iowa. UNI is the alma mater of Rotobahn’s very own Coach Turner, who was a position coach for the Panthers back in the 70s when Stan Sheriff was the running the program. Sherif's Panthers won the DII national title back when UNI was still called State College of Iowa. Rotobahn knows a little bit about Cedar Falls and UNI football. Trust us, they are more than capable of producing NFL talent. Kurt Warner and Bryce Paup are the obvious examples, but there are others.
When it comes to Johnson’s game, I strongly suggest that you keep an open mind the way you did when we told you about guys like Jerick McKinnon and John Brown last year. There’s plenty of talent at smaller schools, you just need to trust your eyes and dig a little to find it. We think David Johnson is one of those guys.
Going into the combine, some folks had concerns that Johnson’s speed on film was deceptive based on level of competition. He erased those concerns with a 4.50 score in the forty. That’s plenty impressive for a man his size, but what really jumped off the page was his three cone performance. Johnson’s athleticism on film was more than backed up by his performance in Indianapolis.
- Height - 6’1”
- Weight - 224
- Hand - 9 5/8”
- 40 - 4.50
- 3-Cone - 6.82
- Bench Press - 25
- Vertical Jump - 41.5”
- Broad Jump - 127” (10.6 feet)
- 20 YD Shuttle - 4.27
Those are some very impressive numbers for a 224 pound back. If you are having visions of Christine Michael or Knile Davis, I can’t blame you. Johnson’s potential is tantalizing when you look at all the positives. NFL teams are going to be salivating when they look at his numbers—both on the field and from the combine.
So, what’s the rub you ask? I’m not sure there is one, but there are a few areas of concern. The big one that I see is pass protection. Johnson’s been a primary weapon throughout his college career and he’s got some work to do in pass protection as a result. This was the case with Tre Mason and many other backs over the years. It’s not so much a negative grade as it is an incomplete. If Johnson will have any culture shock as an NFL rookie, it will likely be in this area. The reason it’s so important for him is because Johnson has so much upside as a receiver out of the backfield. To fully capitalize on that, he must be able to protect when asked to. On film, he tends to commit too early—setting his feet and becoming stationary. This is not a hard thing to fix, but fix it he must.
Johnson works hard on his routes and puts in extra time with the receivers after practice as he said at the combine. “Oh yeah, that’s something I work on a lot. One-on-one routes we would do every day in practice. After practice, I always tried to work on my routes with the receivers.” Johnson played both receiver and running back in high school and was actually recruited to play receiver at UNI. Johnson only had two offers from college programs, UNI and Illinois State. He attributes this to a late growth spurt. “I was tall and lanky. I was 190 with clothes on. I wasn’t the biggest back coming out. I was able to catch. And with me playing receiver in high school, a lot of teams were projecting me to play receiver.”
When asked why there were so many MVC running backs at the combine, Johnson talked up his conference. “It’s probably the toughest conference in the FCS. It’s probably the hardest. There’s three running backs along with the other guys who have a good chance of making it to the pros. Playing there, I felt like I was in a D-1 program. Every team we played in our conference was good. I feel like all the teams in our conference probably could have made it to the playoffs. It was definitely a challenge.”
- Size - Johnson is a prototypically sized big back at six feet tall and 224 pounds.
- Speed - Johnson has long speed when you watch his film. You see it from scrimmage and as a kick returner, and it was confirmed with a 4.50 performance at the combine.
- Feet - You don’t see many big backs with better feet than David Johnson. You can see it in his advanced route ability and in the open field. You also see plenty of examples on interior runs, but I’d like to see him be decisive on a more consistent basis.
- Hands - You really don’t see many big backs with Johnson’s receiving ability. I really can’t stress this enough. He’s special in this regard.
- Routes - As I mentioned, Johnson is an advanced route runner for a running back. He's got receiver's feet getting in and out of breaks. This is a special trait that will get the NFL's attention.
- Big play ability - In most any situation and from anywhere on the field, Johnson is a threat to score. Just watch his highlight reel.
- Physical runner - Despite being upright at times and running with a thin base at times, Johnson is a very physical runner. He defends his body well with the stiff arm and can tear free with a variety of spin moves. He may be a bit unconventional at times, but we feel he's being undersold as an inside runner.
- Pass blocking - He’s not a flop here but he needs to improve if he is to fully capitalize on his broad skill set at the next level.
- Durability - Johnson held up to very heavy usage in four years at UNI. This can be seen as both a good thing and as a risk factor, because age and mileage are both key variables when it comes to the length of a given back's career. Still, to date, this kid has been up to the task and free of major injuries.
- Production - Johnson’s collegiate numbers are very impressive and the 49 career rushing scores is a big number with 17 of them coming in 2014.
Use this link to view Johnson’s 2014 game against Iowa at Draft Breakdown with available links to games against both Southern Illinois and a 2013 contest against North Dakota State.
Here’s a look at Johnson’s 2014 carries against North Dakota State. NDSU is a perennial power and a high quality opponent.
Give Johnson’s highlight reel a look. You’ll see plenty of NFL caliber play and the big play capability that makes Johnson special.
I’ve read a more than a couple of people compare Johnson to Charles Sims, and there are some similarities, but I think you are selling Johnson short if you see him as just a bigger version of Sims. He’s better than Sims in a few key areas. He’s stronger and more agile despite being ten pounds heavier. That said, the big thing I see with Johnson that I always wanted to see from Sims, is an ability to defend his body and to disengage from would-be tacklers. Johnson employs a solid stiff-arm and he’s got a decent spin move to disengage. These are two key traits that Sims lacked on film. Sims relies on elusiveness almost exclusively, but Johnson gives defenders much more to worry about. I think this is a crucial difference. If I’m an NFL GM with Sims and Johnson on the board, I’d take Johnson without batting an eye.
Johnson would be a perfect fit as a lead back for a pass-first team. The Saints, Patriots and the Colts are good examples of teams that could thrive with Johnson in the backfield. This player, fully developed, could be a dominant force in the right situation.
Now for the fun part … fantasy value. Johnson’s fantasy appeal may not be immediate though I would not rule it out. His appeal lies in his diversity. Johnson has the potential to be an every down player. That’s good for volume of touches, but the key element is his receiving skills. Johnson, once he’s comfortable in an offense, could be the total package from a fantasy standpoint. He could be a back who runs 200 plus times and catches 70 balls. He’s also physical enough to be a goal line runner while giving his offense great flexibility to create mismatches. In essence, you always have that third or fourth receiver on the field. This can put strain on a defense in terms of matching up.
I’ll firm up Johnson’s fantasy value after the draft, but he has as much upside as any of the other running backs in this class. I love his potential in long term leagues with PPR scoring. Don’t be surprised if he’s a first rounder in a lot of rookie drafts.
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