Johnson landed in Indianapolis with much fanfare last offseason, but the ensuing stint with the Colts went off with a number of hitches. Despite tossing a combined 116 passes in the first three games of the 2015 campaign, Andrew Luck connected with Johnson a measly seven times during that stretch, including a zero-catch effort in Week 3. Luck proceeded to miss the next two contests due to a shoulder injury, but after another blank stat line in Week 4, Johnson became a consistent, albeit mediocre (at best), option in the passing game. Johnson's prospects didn't change much after Luck was knocked out for the season in Week 9 due to a lacerated kidney and a partially torn abdomen, finishing with the fewest receiving yards (503) for any season in which he played at least 13 games. As free agency approached, the Colts released Johnson, who remained on the market until the Titans scooped him up in late July. He'll thus continue his tour of the AFC South, but in his age-35 season he'll be hard-pressed to usurp Kendall Wright and Rishard Matthews in the pecking order at wideout.
Signed to a three-year, $21 million deal this offseason, with $10 million guaranteed, the 34-year-old Johnson should get every opportunity to establish himself as one of Andrew Luck's top targets. Physically, Johnson has long been a prototypical modern NFL size/speed freak — at 6-3, 230, and clocking in at 4.41 at the 2003 NFL Combine, he ranks ninth all-time in receptions and 12th in receiving yards. But Johnson's per-play effectiveness dropped steeply the last two years, from 9.9 YPT in 2012, to 7.8 in 2013 and 6.4 last year (39th among the 41 100-target WR). While it would be tempting to attribute that to playing with journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Texans, Fitzpatrick managed 8.0 YPA (4th, one spot ahead of Peyton Manning), and fellow Texans wideout DeAndre Hopkins averaged 9.5 YPT. Nonetheless, Johnson won't see as many double teams as part of a Colts offense featuring T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief and speedy rookie first-rounder Phillip Dorsett. The question is whether Johnson — even with the contract — has enough left to stay relevant with all the talent around him.
You might not realize it, but Johnson’s caught 221 passes for 3,005 receiving yards the last two seasons. Of course, he’s scored only nine times in that span, something that had long been an issue under Gary Kubiak who insisted on running near pay dirt, even though Johnson’s 6-3, 230-pound frame made him an ideal target for end-zone work. Clocked at 4.4 coming out of college, Johnson, who turns 33 in July, probably isn’t quite as nimble as he used to be, but he’s still plenty fast for his size and managed 20 catches of 20-plus yards, despite a hodgepodge of inept quarterbacks delivering the ball. Kubiak has since moved on, and the Texans hired former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien as his replacement. O’Brien was the architect behind Tom Brady’s career-high 5,235 yards and 36 scores in 2011, the same year Rob Gronkowski set the record for tight end touchdown catches with 17, providing hope Johnson will finally get double-digit TDs for the first time in his likely Hall of Fame career. Of course, even if Johnson’s health and skills cooperate, he'll need to establish a working relationship with new starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Perhaps for that reason (and the team’s dismal 2-14 showing last year), Johnson expressed unhappiness about the direction of the team in May and sat out OTA’s and minicamps. He did, however, report to training camp.
Given all the monster receiving seasons last year, Johnson's career-high 1,598 yards flew slightly under the radar. Part of the reason was the paltry four touchdowns, giving him only six over his last 23 games. But 112 catches and 9.9 YPT (4th) are good indications Johnson (who turns 32 in July) isn't ready for assisted living quite yet.
Johnson's tepid relationship with the end zone has been well documented – how many other Hall-of-Fame-level receivers have never scored in double digits? But that has more to do with the Texans' run-heavy scheme at the goal line than Johnson's skill set. In fact, only seven of Johnson's 164 targets were of the red-zone variety (T-69th) last year, an extreme case even for him. At 6-3, 226 and with excellent hands, Johnson is an ideal target near the goal line – in the unlikely event the Texans ever do change their ways.
Fortunately, Johnson is still capable of the big play – his 23 catches of 20-plus ranked fourth, and his five catches of 40-plus were tied for ninth. After letting Kevin Walter go, the Texans drafted DeAndre Hopkins with the No. 27 overall pick, a development that might give Johnson more room to operate.
Keep in mind also while Johnson played 16 games in 2012 and has a clean bill of health heading into 2013, he missed 12 games from 2010-2011 and another seven in 2007.
Last year was a lost one for Johnson, who was limited to just 51 targets in seven games with injuries to both hamstrings. To make matters worse, by the time he returned, his quarterback Matt Schaub was also hurt, suffering a Lisfranc fracture in Week 10. Fortunately, both players are expected to be healthy for the start of training camp in July -- though Johnson did require a follow-up arthroscopic procedure in May that caused him to miss some OTAs. There's not much question about Johnson's skill set -- he averaged 9.6 yards per target and had three catches of more than 40 yards on one third of his usual targets. At 6-3. 226, he's not as big or fast as Calvin Johnson, but he's strong, has excellent hands, runs good routes and has more than enough speed to get deep. The one knock on Johnson -- other than durability (he also missed three games with an ankle injury in 2010) -- is his lack of touchdowns. Despite being one of the league's elite receivers for more than half a decade, Johnson has never managed double-digit scores. That's mostly due to Gary Kubiak's run-first tendencies from in close, but it's something that's not likely to change this season. When healthy (and playing with Schaub), Johnson is as good a bet as any receiver to lead the league in catches and yards, but as he doesn't get the easy pitch and catch TDs near the goal line, he's a long shot for big scoring totals.
A balky ankle limited Johnson to just 13 games, but he still finished ninth in fantasy points among wideouts last year and led all pass catchers with 93.5 yards per game. The Texans don't throw to him all that much from in close (eight times from inside the 10 tied him for 23rd, 16 times from the red zone, tied for 26th), so Johnson still hasn't reached double-digit touchdowns in his career. At 6-3, 225 he's certainly capable of catching balls in traffic, but the team preferred to use Arian Foster (56 red-zone carries, 11 targets) when it got close. So long as Gary Kubiak's in charge – and the team re-upped with him in January – don't expect that to change as the Texans preferred to run from in close even in 2009 when they fielded a combination of a fumble-prone Steve Slaton, Ryan Moats and Chris Brown. Nonetheless, Johnson isn't dependent on the easy ones – he's got excellent long speed, as evidenced by his 18 catches of 20-plus (7th) and five catches from 40-plus (tied for 8th) – all in 13 games, some of which he missed portions of or played at considerably less than 100 percent. With Matt Schaub returning as his quarterback, and Johnson's ankle almost certainly healed by the start of training camp, Johnson is once again the safest bet on the receiver board.
Johnson led the league in receiving yards for
the second year in a row and once again
topped 100 catches. But despite his ideal redzone
size (6-3, 225), game-breaking speed and
league-leading 171 targets, double-digit touchdowns
continued to elude him.
When you consider Johnson also finished
second in the league in red-zone targets with
25 and was second in the NFL with nine
catches of 40 yards or more — a number that
would easily lead the league most years — you
would think he’d find pay dirt more often than
Visanthe Shiancoe or Roddy White. But only six
of Johnson’s red-zone targets were from inside
the 10, and only three from inside the five. To
put this in perspective, 15 of Reggie Wayne’s
21 red-zone targets were from inside the 10,
and Johnson’s six inside-the-10 targets put him
behind Miami’s Brian Hartline and former
Bengal Laveranues Coles.
In fact, despite terrible fumbling problems
from their backs near the goal line, and a
4,770-yard passing season from quarterback
Matt Schaub, the Texans only attempted 28
passes from inside the 10 all season, the same
number as the Chiefs’ Matt Cassel threw in 15
This has been an organizational philosophy
for the last two seasons, and while the departure
of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (to
join his father Mike in Washington) could
change things, former Broncos offensive coordinator,
Gary Dennison, was brought in to take
his place, and we doubt Dennison will institute
major changes to Shanahan/Gary Kubiak
system that he was part of in Denver.
The bottom line — Johnson’s floor is higher
than that of any receiver on the board, but he’s
not likely to turn in a season for the ages until
the Texans reward him with more easy scores
from in close.
Of some concern at press time is that
Johnson hired a new agent to re-negotiate his
current below-market contract. While Johnson
skipped the team’s first three days of organized
activities in May, he’s been with the team since
while negotiations are ongoing. So far this
doesn’t look like a particularly acrimonious
situation, but there is some small chance of a
holdout if the Texans don’t meet his terms.
While Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson tied for the league-lead in touchdowns last year, Johnson had the other two legs of the receiving triple crown, receptions and yardage, to himself – and the yardage one wasn’t even close.
The second most heavily targeted receiver in the league last year (170), Johnson was also highly efficient, bringing in 68 percent of those throws (5th among 100-target WRs). And Johnson was the only one of the top five to average more than 13.5 yards per catch. In other words, Johnson’s efficiency isn’t merely due to catching dinks and dunks a la Wes Welker.
That said, Johnson’s 13.7 yards per catch, while respectable, is on the disappointing side, given his considerable physical skills. At 6-3, 219, and with excellent deep speed, Johnson should be more of a game-breaker, but the Texans don’t look to him down the field all that often (just four of his 115 catches went for 40 yards or more). In fact, his teammate Kevin Walter also caught four for 40-plus – but on just 95 targets.
Moreover, Johnson isn’t used that heavily from in close. While he was second in the league with 28 red-zone looks, he converted only six of those into scores because many of those were thrown short of the end zone. And when it came to inside-the-10 looks, Johnson was tied for ninth along with Isaac Bruce, Muhsin Muhammad and his teammate, Walter, among others. And Johnson’s three goal-line targets tied him for 25th. (Walter had four). This pattern of Johnson’s use by the Texans is nothing new. In 2007, even prorating the nine games he played into a full 16, he wouldn’t have cracked the top-20 in red-zone targets.
On the bright side, Johnson put any concerns about his 2007 knee injury behind him, the gaudy yardage and reception numbers were compiled without the benefit of his starting quarterback, Matt Schaub, for five games and the Texans’ attack should benefit from three seasons of continuity and a versatile young running back in Steve Slaton. As such, Johnson should again be one of the top sources of catches and yards. But until the Texans look to him deeper down the field or throw to him more around the goal line, you shouldn’t expect double-digit touchdowns.
Freed from the tyranny of having a signalcaller
who couldn't feel pressure or get rid of the
ball, Johnson played with two quarterbacks who
took a combined 22 sacks on the year - sixth best
in the league, and one fewer than Peyton Manning.
Unfortunately, Johnson missed seven games
after spraining his MCL and PCL, but in the nine
he played, some of which presumably at less than
100 percent, he averaged 14.2 yards per catch
and a whopping 9.9 yards per target, good for
fourth among receivers with 80 targets or more.
If you were to prorate Johnson's nine-game stats
over a full season, he'd have had 107 catches for
1,513 yards and 14 touchdowns.
At 6-3, 219, Johnson has great size, excellent
deep speed and good hands. He's not afraid to
catch the ball in traffic, and he has the strength
to break tackles and do damage after the catch.
Johnson is also perfectly suited for red-zone
work but saw just 10 looks there in his nine
games last season, converting four for scores.
Even on a prorated basis, Johnson was not in the
top-10 in targets from inside the 20 and only saw
42 targets in that area the last three seasons. Unless that changes, his touchdown upside could be
limited, despite the gaudy nine-game numbers he
posted last season.
Be aware also that Johnson aggravated his
knee injury in late May and at press time was
slated to miss the rest of the team's offseason
workouts. He's expected to be 100 percent
healthy for the start of training camp, but that the knee he hurt last season was still bothering him in May adds some element of risk.
For a receiver of Johnson’s ability to average 11.1 yards per catch and seven yards per target shows just how poor the Houston passing game was last season – (6.3 YPA, 25th, 43 sacks 23rd). He was essentially the AFC’s version of Mike Furrey, bringing in a ton of catches, but not doing all that much with them.
Now if you’re Troy Brown, Bobby Engram or Furrey, there’s nothing wrong with leading the NFL in receptions and bringing in nearly 1,150 yards. But if you’re Johnson, a 6-2, 221-pound deep threat in the prime of his career, three pass plays of 40-plus yards and five touchdowns on 164 targets (second) isn’t enough.
To remedy that, the Texans parted ways with the only quarterback they’ve ever really known in David Carr and traded for Atlanta’s Matt Schaub. Schaub has shown the ability to throw downfield while filing in for Michael Vick, but Schaub will be under more pressure in Houston and playing behind a far worse offensive line.
On the bright side, Schaub can’t but be an improvement over Carr this season, Johnson is likely to be among the league leaders in targets and receptions once again and Johnson has the size to excel in the red zone, should the Texans look his way there more often (16 targets, 4 TD in 2006).
At 6-2, 221, and with excellent speed, strength, toughness and body control, Johnson has all the measurables. Unfortunately, he’s never been able to put it all together for a 16-game season. A large part of the problem has been the woeful performance of Houston’s offensive line – quarterback David Carr has been sacked a whopping 208 times in the last four years – which has prevented the Texans from throwing down field successfully. Johnson’s per-play production a year ago was abysmal. His 6.04 yards per target was the third worst among receivers with 100 or more. Johnson did battle a calf injury, which cost him four games, and an ankle injury in Week 17 effectively cost him a fifth. While in most cases, being the only game in town is actually good for a receiver’s production, the Texans had so few passing-attack options the last two seasons that Eric Moulds’s addition as a legitimate No. 2 target should help Johnson get free. Houston drafted two tackles in the third round and signed some veteran line help, but this group has as long way to go even to approach league average. Until that happens, temper your expectations.
Blessed with great size and good speed, Johnson looked like the second coming of Terrell Owens at times last season. At other times, though, he seemed to disappear. Some of Johnson’s inconsistency was undoubtedly due to a poor offensive line, which gave quarterback David Carr little time to throw, and perhaps some it was due to Houston lacking a viable second option in the passing game. Whatever the causes, Johnson only caught 56 percent of the passes thrown to him, and his second half numbers – 34 catches, 449 yards and two touchdowns – look more like eight games from Amani Toomer than anything we’ve seen from Owens.
With his size (6-2, 221 pounds), strength and athletic ability, Johnson should be an effective red-zone target, but he was thrown to just 13 times inside the 20, scoring four times. While that rate isn’t bad, the sample size isn’t particularly meaningful except as an indication that the Texans like to run near the goal line, which hurts the fantasy prospects of their receivers. Johnson is also a good route runner, has a great burst and changes directions fluidly – in other words, he has all the measurables to be a top NFL receiver. But it remains to be seen whether management, the coaching staff and his teammates will put him in a situation to take full advantage of his talents.
Big enough to overpower defensive backs and fast enough to run by them, Johnson is a talent that excites. He was targeted 119 times last year with a 56 percent success rate. The Texans offense was crippled when David Carr was sidelined or rendered ineffective due to injury. But the pieces are in place for the Texans to move into the upper half of the league’s units. Johnson did struggle with his hands at times (dropping 10 passes) and was forced to adjust to wearing contacts for the first time. The Texans did a poor job of exploiting Johnson’s size in the red zone, completing just two passes to him inside the 20 all season (though both went for TDs). Expect that to change dramatically in ’04.
David Carr now has a star receiver to work with over the next few years. Johnson is a physical receiver in the David Boston mold, though he can also get deep - he averaged 21 yards a catch in his final year at Miami.