Super Bowl? That's no longer a fantasy
David Johnson does not play fantasy football, but he hears about that world—and his place in it—incessantly. He can't shop at the mall or fill his gas tank without "owners" droning on about how he won them a league last season. "It's every day," Johnson says. "But it's not annoying. I like being recognized."
Johnson's rookie year indeed played out like a fantasy: He became the fourth player in NFL history to gain at least 500 rushing yards, 400 receiving yards and 500 kick-return yards while scoring 13 TDs. Named a starter on Dec. 6, he totaled 599 yards of offense in that month alone. And in 2016? "I expect him to be a 2,000-yard-overall guy," says Stump Mitchell, his position coach.
Johnson, a triplet, possesses the skills of three different players: the speed to bounce outside (4.4 in the 40), the power to run inside (squat of 500 pounds) and the athleticism to beat safeties in coverage (41.5-inch vertical and 51-inch box jump). He is, Mitchell says, like a stronger version of Matt Forte or Marshall Faulk.
If the 6'1", 224-pound Johnson resembles a receiver as much as a back, that's because at Clinton (Iowa) High he weighed 180 pounds and played both positions. Northern Iowa courted him as a flex athlete—the major programs nearby wanted him to walk on—but he gained 45 pounds upon arriving in Cedar Falls. Running back it was.
In reality, the Cardinals were close to sleeping on Johnson too; they wanted Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah in the third round of last year's draft, but the Lions snagged him one round before. Mitchell pushed for Johnson—he swears he liked him more than Todd Gurley—and not just because of Johnson's sick combine numbers and school records. In one game at Northern Iowa, Johnson played fullback, blowing up the noseguard with a block. "There was cheering in the draft room," says Harold Goodwin, Arizona's offensive coordinator, of the moment Johnson became the choice.
In 2012, the year before coach Bruce Arians arrived, the Cardinals went 5--11 and ranked last in total yards. In '15, under Arians, they went 13--3 and finished first, losing in the NFC title game. Johnson fit perfectly into an attack loaded with talent: QB Carson Palmer; receivers Larry Fitzgerald,John Brown and Michael Floyd; running backs Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington. David Johnson was exactly what Arians had been looking for: a runner who could catch but was still explosive.
Johnson started last season third on the depth chart, dealing with a left hamstring injury, and he caught only one pass in the opener against the Saints—which he took 55 yards for a TD. In Week 2, against the Bears, he returned the opening kickoff for another score (108 yards, a franchise record) and added a rushing TD. From Week 13 on, no player averaged more than Johnson's 131.7 yards from scrimmage.
Mitchell, not prone to hyperbole, now tells Johnson he possesses Hall of Fame--caliber talent. "If he stays healthy, he'll put up numbers no one else has," Mitchell says. "He can rush for 1,000 yards and gain 1,000 receiving yards in the same season."
Arizona's 489 points in 2015 broke the franchise record. Every player who caught a pass from Palmer or scored a TD is back, making 500 a realistic goal. In anticipation of an increased role, Johnson changed his diet during the off-season, cutting out his favorites (pizza rolls, hot dogs, Big Macs). He also married his college girlfriend, Meghan Brock, and they are expecting their first child. The projected due date—the last week in January—could be problematic, given that Johnson & Co. hope to be preparing for Super Bowl LI then. That's the only fantasy that matters.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
At 32, Larry Fitzgerald has lost speed and quickness. But here's what people forget: A receiver sets the pace; the cornerback must react to him. And so a wideout with polished mechanics, an understanding of spacing and coverages, plus a capacity for adjusting to and snagging balls in midair can thrive at almost any age. Indeed, Fitzgerald caught a career-high 109 passes last season, his 12th in the NFL. But Fitz's contributions extend beyond numbers. Before coach Arians's arrival in 2013, Fitzgerald was a pure outside receiver, often stationed on the weak side, where he'd have extra field to work with. Arians moved him to the Z receiver, aligning him closer to the formation or even in the slot, which meant he had to play a critical role in run blocking. That's not an easy change for a longtime star wideout to embrace—but Fitzgerald has done that, not only by making more catches but also by becoming integral to the rushing attack as a blocker.
Si's 2016 Prediction: 11--5
2015 Record: 13--3
SEPT. 11 vs.NE [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 18 vs.TB [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 atBUF [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 2 vs.LA [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 6 atSF [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 17 vs.NYJ [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 23 vs.SEA
OCT. 30 atCAR
NOV. 13 vs.SF [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 20 atMIN
NOV. 27 atATL [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 4 vs.WAS [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 11 atMIA
DEC. 18 vs.NO
DEC. 24 atSEA
JAN. 1 atLA [PREDICTED WINNER]
= PREDICTED WINNER