Now that Chris Johnson’s six-season tenure in Tennessee has reached its end, we turn to the matter of where he lands next.
Johnson, whom we’ve placed 34th in our free agent rankings, is the best running back to hit the market this offseason. In fact, Johnson may be the most talented veteran runner to become available in some time.
Few backs as skilled as Johnson enter free agency with seemingly a good deal left in the tank. While Johnson has more than 2,000 regular season touches to his credit — not an insignificant amount for a back who’s entering his seventh NFL campaign — he has accumulated that workload because he’s stayed healthy. Overall, Johnson has played in 95-of-96 regular season games in his career. In the lone game he missed, the Titans had clinched homefield advantage and rested starters. (Johnson did have minor knee surgery this offseason.)
Is it telling that the Titans were willing to move on from Johnson? Perhaps. Per NFLPA records, he was due $8 million in salary in 2014 and 2015 and $7 million in 2016. Clearly, the Titans had qualms with his production at that price.
However, could Johnson prove a value signing for a club? Absolutely. It all comes down to his next deal, as well as Johnson’s production in 2014 and beyond relative to what the signing team is currently getting out of its running backs.
And make no mistake: whomever signs Johnson will get a back who can still play. He possesses very good speed and acceleration and quickly gobbles up ground. He is not particularly physical, though he can play with power at times.
So who would be a good fit for Johnson? We’ve identified 19 potential suitors. Some have tailback needs, while others have a shown a willingness to think outside the box. The clubs below have varying amounts of money to spend, too, which figures a primary consideration in where Johnson lands if there’s a robust market for the former Pro Bowl back.
Teams are listed in order of need and separated by conference. Those with a clear need at running back are bolded:
Jets — Here’s an offense that needs playmakers.
Browns — Yes, they added Ben Tate, but they still need more help at tailback.
Patriots — They are a back short after losing LeGarrette Blount.
Ravens — Wouldn’t he be fun to watch in Gary Kubiak’s offense?
Broncos — Look, they’re all-in for 2014.
Colts — They know Johnson well, and they are willing to spend for veteran talent.
Bills — Per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Bills contemplated a move for Johnson.
Dolphins — The Dolphins were another club reportedly connected to Johnson trade talks before his release, per Schefter.
Giants — The Giants got little out of their running backs a season ago.
Falcons — Steven Jackson comes off a disappointing season, and Jacquizz Rodgers has one year left on his deal. However, the Falcons don’t appear to be in the running for Johnson.
Cardinals — He would add a veteran presence to a young backfield.
49ers — Because they’re linked to every big-name free agent, it seems. Also, Frank Gore is in the last year of his deal.
Rams — He would be reunited with Jeff Fisher, who made it a team goal to get Johnson 2,000 yards five years ago.
Cowboys — DeMarco Murray enters the final year of his contract. A Johnson-Murray backfield would be fun to watch.
Buccaneers — Since the hiring of coach Lovie Smith and G.M. Jason Licht, the club has benched quarterback Mike Glennon, overhauled the offensive line and traded wideout Mike Williams.
Bears — Yes, the Bears are in good shape at running back, but the stealth Jared Allen signing shows Chicago means business when it comes to closing a deal.
Seahawks — Because they’re the Seahawks.
Eagles — They clearly don’t need another back, but they did lose some game-breaking ability when they released DeSean Jackson.
Saints — A real long shot, yes, but the versatile Johnson could flourish in Sean Payton’s offense.