The Buffalo Bills will likely look to add another running back this offseason through either free agency or the 2015 NFL Draft. Former first-round pick C.J. Spiller will be an unrestricted free agent and the dynamic, yet inconsistent back doesn’t seem to be the best fit in Greg Roman’s power offense. With next season possibly being Fred Jackson’s last, the Bills would be wise to address the position. The wide receiver position dominated the 2014 NFL Draft, with quality talent lasting as far as the fourth-round, and the 2015 running back class appears to have that same quality depth.
New offensive coordinator Greg Roman believes in establishing a powerful rushing attack that relies mostly on powers, traps, counters and the inside zone. The Bills will need running backs that can win between the tackles with vision and physicality, but they’ll also have to possess the speed and patience to run the outside-zone or stretch concepts Roman can turn to.
FCS draft prospects have an incredibly tough road to the NFL, as they need to have ridiculous statistics to even begin to garner any interest. They have to dominate their competition on a consistent basis, before proving that they possess NFL athleticism if they earn an invitation to the combine.
David Johnson checked all the boxes, putting up video game-like numbers at Northern Iowa (6,419 all-purpose yards and 53 touchdowns in 49 games (36 starts), but he legitimized himself as a draft prospect at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, posting a 4.5-second 40, 4.27 short shuttle, 6.82 three-cone, 41.5” vertical and a 10’9” broad jump at 6’2” and 224 pounds.
Johnson is a fantastic athlete with a freakish combination of size, speed, explosiveness and power that allowed him to wreak havoc on opposing defenses from a variety of positions. His athleticism is put on full display in the following clip against Iowa.
Running a wheel route, Johnson shows his fluid speed downfield before adjusting his body in a 180-degree jump to make the catch. After securing the ball, Johnson seamlessly turns down field and picks up a big chunk of yards.
Here, Johnson takes what would result in a loss of yardage for most running backs and turns it into an 80+ yard touchdown. Running the inside zone, Johnson takes the handoff and immediately has a defender in his face. He takes a cut to his right, making the man miss, before jumping back and exploding through a narrow gap. From there, he out runs the defenders, making one miss and accelerates to the endzone.
Johnson is a strong, powerful runner that makes the most of his 6’2” 225-pound frame, breaking arm tackles with ease and consistently falling forward upon impact. One of the more underrated aspects of Johnson’s game is his ability to pick up two-to-three yards when there’s nothing there. That trait is shown in the following clip, as he’s nearly brought down for a loss by the Iowa defender as soon as he received the handoff.
Johnson cuts to his left, breaking an arm tackle before fighting forward for a gain of six. This is the type of play that allows a running back to enjoy sustained success in the league.
Johnson’s legs are always moving and he’s tough to bring down on first contact. A physical runner, he’s able to break tackles on a regular basis, seemingly getting stronger as the game wears on.
Northern Iowa’s offense was based out of a lot of zone concepts that allowed Johnson to flourish as a one-cut runner due to his excellent vision and instincts. He’s a decisive back that will work laterally before showing off a nifty jump cut and exploding through a gap. He can cover a lot of ground in his cuts with little wasted movement, which was a big reason why he was able to be successful.
Here, Johnson is running the draw to the left, but his gap is occupied. He’s able to jump to the right and find daylight for a gain of about eight yards.
In order to stay on the field as a three-down running back, you need to be effective in the passing game. As a former wide receiver, Johnson displays an understanding of various route concepts and shows the ability to get open, whether from the slot or coming out of the backfield.
He’s got reliable hands and big play ability in the passing game, as noted by his 141 career receptions for 1,737 yards and 14 touchdowns.
In pass protection, Johnson is strong enough to anchor against a blitzing defender and intelligent enough to know when to release from his block. He’s reliable and rarely whiffs on a block, which will make him an attractive option to NFL franchises.
How He Fits the Bills
David Johnson is a big, physical running back with explosive speed and the ability to be a factor in the passing game. Coming from the FCS, it’s logical to question how he’ll adjust to the speed of the game in the NFL, but from a skill-set standpoint, Johnson has the desirable traits of an every-down back at the next level.
His instincts, vision and one-cut ability make him an excellent fit for Greg Roman’s power run scheme.
Projection: Third Round
Comparison: A more physical Matt Forte