Free Agent Stock Watch: Chris Johnson

It’s now been more than five weeks since free agency opened, and most of the noteworthy free agents have long since come off the board. For players that entered the free agent pool late, like Chris Johnson, who was released earlier in April by the Titans, that means there are fewer potential suitors with roster holes and cap space.

That’s not the only factor working against the former Titan as he navigates the free agent waters. The increasing devaluation of the running back position will also limit Johnson’s potential earnings on his next contract. This offseason, no free agent back received more than the $3.5MM the Jaguars and Chargers committed to Toby Gerhart and Donald Brown, respectively. Other notable running backs on the market included Ben Tate ($3.1MM guaranteed), Knowshon Moreno ($3MM), Rashad Jennings ($2.5MM), and Maurice Jones-Drew ($1.2MM).

While those modest contracts are bad news for Johnson, it’s also fair to point out that none of the players listed above possessed Johnson’s combination of upside and previous track record. Jones-Drew certainly has a nice resumé, for instance, but he has struggled with health and performance over the last two seasons and only has three 1,000-yard seasons. Similarly, Tate brings a nice combination of age and upside to the table, but he has never proven he can be a full-time back, while Johnson has accumulated more than 1,000 rushing yards in each of his six NFL seasons.

Adrian Peterson, asked by Mark Carig of the Star Tribune about the declining cost of running backs, offered his thoughts on the matter: “Unfortunately for the guys who were in free agency this year didn’t have incredible numbers or incredible seasons to be able to get the type of [money] they wanted in free agency. I feel like that’s it. I feel like me and a couple of other guys are going to keep it alive as far as running backs being able to come out and keep the running back position at a top level.”

Peterson’s comments suggest that he believes the right running backs will still be able to land big deals in free agency, but that this year’s class just didn’t have any of those top-tier options. If he’s right, the question is whether or not Johnson qualifies as one of those top options. Given the factors in play on both sides of the equation, it’s not hard to see why the former 2,000-yard rusher would be seeking more guaranteed money than his fellow free agent running backs, and it’s not hard to see why there won’t be many clubs left willing to pony up that sort of money. The 28-year-old was expected to be snapped up quickly once he was cut by the Titans, but so far, the rumor mill hasn’t been overly busy, which suggests a disconnect between the way Johnson and NFL teams weigh his value.

Still, Johnson is drawing interest from at least a handful of clubs, and he visited one – the Jets – to start this week. As Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News writes, the veteran running back left the meeting without a contract and doesn’t have any other visits lined up yet.

“I’m just taking it one day at a time, taking my time, and whatever decision I make it’ll be the best decision,” Johnson said yesterday, adding that the Jets were an attractive option and that New York is a “fun city.”

According to Mehta, there are at least three teams in the mix for Johnson. The East Carolina product is recovering from a torn meniscus, and even though he got to 1,000 yards in 2013, those yards were hard to come by — he graded out as the league’s 42nd-best running back out of 55 qualified players last season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). As such, a one-year deal to rebuild his value may be in Johnson’s best interests. That would allow him to prove his health and hit the open market again in a year, when he can talk to teams before April.

So what would a one-year contract for Johnson look like? Hakeem Nicks‘ one-year pact with the Colts might provide a blueprint. Nicks received a little more than $2MM in guaranteed money on a deal with a base value of about $4MM. However, the receiver can also earn another $1.5MM if he reaches various incentives related to total receptions, touchdowns, and a Pro Bowl spot. An incentive-laden deal for Johnson, which would reward him for a big 2014, could be beneficial for both the player and team.

As for Johnson’s future team, the Jets look to me like the favorites for now, but I wonder if there might be a better situation for the running back to improve his stock. New York’s offense will be incorporating several new pieces, including Michael Vick and Eric Decker, so there could be some growing pains while the club works out the kinks. I think Johnson would find a better fit splitting carries as a home-run threat on a bona-fide contender. However, based on the rumors we’ve heard so far, it doesn’t sound like many of those clubs are interested in the former first-round pick. Teams like the Bills, Falcons, Giants, and Cowboys have been mentioned as potential landing spots, but if I had to make a guess, I’d say the Jets reach an agreement with Johnson in the coming days.

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