I have never been a scout or a NFL General Manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football. By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better. It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can.
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David Johnson, RB, Northern Iowa - 6'1, 224 - RS Senior
As I get to the end of my initial pass through the top few tiers of running backs (guys we think are Top 100 guys), we arrive at the curious case of David Johnson. There are a number of reasons that make his case curious, but the biggest one is his level of competition. You see, he is in the FCS division (formerly 1-AA), and while there have been many Running Backs who have been great who went to small colleges over the course of the NFL (Walter Payton!), the fact is that it has not happened much in this generation. Since 2000, there is not one single FCS or lower RB in the Top 25 of NFL rushers (by total yardage). The highest are Brian Westbrook (27th), Fred Jackson (37th), and Brandon Jacobs (44th). While any team would enjoy grabbing anyone of those 3, the fact that the Top 26 rushers of this era are all from what we would consider "big schools" tells us that level of college competition must matter on some level.
But, there are exceptions to every rule, so let's talk about David Johnson. He is a big runner, yet might be the best receiver in this group (he was a receiver in high school). Boise State's Jay Ajayi is certainly impressive, but none of the other runners, including the J-Train, have had more than 1 season of 30 receptions. Yet, here is Johnson with 4. He had more than 30 receptions in every season he played in college. That is hard to ponder. Only Zach Zenner of South Dakota State - and also in this draft - can claim to have more yards from scrimmage in the last 4 seasons in all of Division 1 than Johnson's 6,416 yards. And that doesn't even include his return ability. To look at Johnson, we watched his games at Iowa, Southern Illinois, and his home game against North Dakota State.
What I liked: Johnson is a big strong man who is tough to get down and a guy who runs well inside his scheme. He is sturdy and a real workhouse who can do a lot of things well for you. He can easily pass protect with his size and his receiving ability is absolutely top shelf. He has great hands and is able to catch and run in an instant. He also can stop on a dime and has some real jump cuts that are nice. His 40-time at the combine was 4.5, which is more than fast enough at RB, and even more impressive, his 10-yard split of 1.58 was about as quick as you will see. Really, across the board, he tested so well as an athlete that you should not worry too much about his raw tools. And, his game was pretty well developed as a versatile and dependable runner. A very strong player who is not afraid to make it up as he goes a bit. Watching him catch a pass out of the backfield and destroying any LBs that try to man-up against him is a thing of beauty.
What I did not like: The hardest part of looking at a runner at this level is trying to figure out what sort of level of competition he is working with and against. He trucks a few linebackers in these games, but they do not appear to be of NFL quality by any stretch. His quickness and explosiveness in-games does not reflect his amazing times. There are stretches where he just doesn't look like he has any turbo at all in his game. I will admit, though, that the North Dakota State game looked much better than the other two games in this regard. He looks pretty average between the tackles which means he gets what is blocked up, but doesn't seem to get more than that. Again, to translate this to Sundays is next to impossible.
Summary: I am interested in David Johnson playing for my team, but I don't know if I would ever consider him a clear RB1 until proven otherwise. He might grow into it, but I would like a 2-man situation if I am going to select Johnson and make him demonstrate that he can do even more. It is just so difficult to disregard that mountain of evidence that for this particular position, the speed of play is important and the major conferences dominate the successful lists in the last decade on Sundays. That said, he has done so much and tested so well that you disregard his credentials at your own risk. He checks many of the boxes for you to trust that he has some real ability, and with his special teams ability and his receiving, the floor on what he could be is still pretty good at the right price. Sometimes it is best to admit that you aren't sure. I am not sure. I like him and he is talented, but I confess that my level of certainty changes depending on which game I am viewing.