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2015 Breakout Player

By Kevin English 8:39am EDT 8/4/15

     

Our 2015 Breakout Player comes a bit out of left field. We asked folks to guess who it was on Twitter. There were over 15 different names thrown out there -- and only a few nailed it.

That's exactly what makes this guy such a great target in drafts. He's truly flying under the radar despite massive upside. And it's understandable. He took an unusual route to a starting gig. He has a serious injury in his past. And he comes from a small school that you probably haven’t heard of.

But none of that will prevent him from busting out in a big way this season.

Our 2015 Breakout Pick is Vikings WR Charles Johnson.

Let’s dig in …


The Early Years

Johnson’s college production came at Grand Valley State, a Division II school in Michigan. If that sounds disheartening, understand that this is a guy who didn’t take up football until the 11th grade. After his senior year, the Kentucky native drew interest from Louisville. Clearly, he flashed major talent at a young age.

Johnson never made it to Louisville because of poor grades. Still, he’d soon garner attention from pro scouts.

Across 2 years (22 games) at GVS, Johnson tallied 128 catches, 2,229 yards and 31 TDs. A 24.2% TD rate is impressive regardless of competition. The same goes for his 17.4 yards per catch.

Johnson’s college career ended with even more encouraging numbers. Take a look at his Pro Day results. Then, see how they stacked up against all 35 WRs at the 2013 Combine. Keep in mind Johnson stands 6’2, and -- at the time -- 215 pounds. 

Johnson certainly compared favorably to the Combine talent. He boasts an excellent combination of size and speed. He packs plenty of explosiveness, too. His SPARQ score, which factors in height, weight and measurables, sits in the 86th percentile among WRs. We’re talking about a high-end prospect.

We’d eventually see those traits surface in the NFL -- but not until last season. Johnson fell to Green Bay in Round 7 (pick 216) of the 2013 draft. After suffering a preseason knee injury, he landed on the practice squad. Cleveland signed him away just a few weeks later only to discover a new injury.

Johnson played through a bum knee (MCL) during his final weeks with the Packers. But the Browns were surprised to learn that he actually had a torn ACL.

How can that possibly happen?

“When a player is signed from another team’s practice squad, a physical isn’t given before the player joins the team,” says Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. “It’s presumed that, if the player is practicing with another team, he’s healthy.”

Makes sense. So where’s the good news?

Of course, Johnson missed the 2013 season rehabbing his injury. He returned the following summer, however, and appeared to excel in training camp. The Browns kept Johnson in the organization, but again, he wound up on the practice squad.

Fortunately, that time in Cleveland was well spent.


An Ally in Norv

Norv Turner’s résumé includes 31 seasons as an NFL coach. Regarded as 1 of the top offensive minds, he’s spent the majority of those years as a HC or OC.

Turner called plays for Cleveland in 2013, the year Johnson nursed his ACL. Team insider Tony Grossi revealed that Turner and his son Scott (currently the Vikings QBs coach) tried to get the Browns to spend a late-round pick on Johnson.

Turner’s feelings didn’t change last year. With the veteran coach as their new OC, the Vikings signed Johnson to their practice squad in September. Two weeks later, he caught his first NFL pass.

Later, we’ll dive into Johnson’s 2014 growth. First, let’s examine why Turner is such an asset for this budding WR.

Below, you’ll see how Turner’s past #1 WRs have fared. There are 24 years to comb through, plus some details worth noting.

  1. Pro Football Reference’s target data doesn’t begin until 1998, so 7 years are omitted.
  2. Most players appeared in 15 or 16 games. For anyone who didn’t play a full season, the numbers reflect a 16-game extrapolation.
  3. To highlight the difference in offensive philosophy over the years, consider this: In 2014, the 5 highest-volume passers combined to average 623 attempts. In 2000, that number stood at 574 -- a difference of 49. And back in 1991, only 1 team attempted more than 563 passes.

You get it. The league is way more pass happy now than it was just 15 years ago. Keep that in mind while you digest these numbers…

Year #1 WR Targets Catches Yards TDs
1991 Michael Irvin n/a 93 1,523 8
1992 Michael Irvin n/a 78 1,396 7
1993 Michael Irvin n/a 88 1,330 7
1994 Henry Ellard n/a 74 1,397 6
1995 Henry Ellard n/a 60 1,072 5
1996 Henry Ellard n/a 52 1,014 2
1997 Leslie Shepherd n/a 42 818 6
1998 Michael Westbrook 109 64 1,071 9
1999 Albert Connell 129 66 1,207 7
2000 James Thrash 74 50 653 2
2001 Curtis Conway 126 71 1,125 6
2002 Chris Chambers 107 55 783 3
2003 Chris Chambers 130 64 963 11
2004 Jerry Porter 136 64 998 9
2005 Randy Moss 124 60 1,005 8
2006 Antonio Bryant 104 46 838 3
2007 Chris Chambers 101 56 888 5
2008 Vincent Jackson 101 59 1,098 7
2009 Vincent Jackson 115 73 1,245 9
2010 Malcom Floyd 112 54 1,043 7
2011 Vincent Jackson 115 60 1,106 9
2012 Malcom Floyd 97 64 930 5
2013 Josh Gordon 182 99 1,881 9
2014 Greg Jennings 92 59 742 6

AVERAGE 115 65 1,089 6.5

Those averages equal 213 PPR points, which would have ranked 22nd among 2014 WRs. They also combine for 16.8 yards per catch. That would have ranked 6th among WRs last season (minimum of 25 receptions).

The deep-ball trend actually extends back to 1987, when Turner coached WRs/TEs for the L.A. Rams. Per Football Perspective, Turner’s had at least 1 WR finish top-10 in YPC in all but 3 seasons dating back to ‘87. Impressive stuff.

Of course, this isn’t an exact science. Johnson obviously isn’t Michael Irvin. But he profiles better than the guys on the lower end of the spectrum, like James Thrash and Leslie Shepherd. Beyond the WR comps, Turner piloted offenses led by some average to below-average QBs, namely: Heath Shuler, Gus Frerotte, Jay Fiedler, Kerry Collins, and a 22-year-old Alex Smith. Teddy Bridgewater seems primed to develop into a better signal-caller than those guys.

The main point of this exercise is to show that there’s an opportunity for Johnson. Across 17 years of target data, Turner’s #1 WR hit the century mark in targets in all but 3 of them. Now, 100 targets isn’t some magical number -- 41 WRs reached that plateau last season. But remember that the data above reflects a transitioning era in NFL history.

We’ll need to evaluate Johnson’s unique situation to get the best picture of his future volume. (More on that below.) First, let’s peek back at his 2014 production.


Johnson Hits the Field … Finally

Johnson’s 1st NFL snap didn’t come until roughly 1.5 years after he was drafted. But the wait was worth it.

Familiarity with Turner’s offense made for a smooth transition. He just needed an opportunity to showcase his impressive size and athleticism. Aided by injured teammates, Johnson got that chance in Week 11.

He broke out against the Bears, posting 6 catches for 87 yards. The following week, he’d score his 1st TD -- and grab 3 balls for 52 yards -- against Green Bay.

Johnson’s playing time showed that he earned Turner’s trust. The 26-year-old handled 95% of Minnesota’s snaps over the final 6 games. A full-time load for someone who latched on in late September sounds crazy. But Johnson capitalized on opportunities and flashed long-term potential.

The short-term was bright, too. On a points per game scale, he finished just inside WR3 range (WR34) over the final 7 weeks. That stretch included a 103-yard, 1-TD outburst vs. the Jets.

Want more positives? Johnson dropped only 1 pass all year, giving him a top-12 drop rate league-wide (3.13%). And among all WRs with 30+ catches -- a sample of 89 players -- his YPC checked in 16th at 15.3. That matched the numbers from Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson.

Most importantly, Johnson showed no ill effects with his ACL. He’ll be roughly 2 years removed from surgery once Week 1 rolls around. And it’s encouraging to see that our partners at Sports Injury Predictor peg Johnson as a “low” risk for injury in 2015.

There were shortcomings to Johnson's 2014. His season-ending line of 31--475 (59 targets) included only 2 scores. Johnson nearly added a 3rd TD but fumbled at the goal line.

Johnson caught just 56.4% of his targets. Early-career struggles in that category -- especially alongside a rookie QB -- aren’t alarming. They’re actually explainable when you dig deeper.

According to Pro Football Focus, 22% of Johnson’s looks were deemed “off target.” Only 4 WRs saw a greater percentage of off-target throws.

That might concern some, but we think the issue will be remedied by a full offseason with Bridgewater. The young QB showed plenty of accurate traits last year, finishing with the 3rd best completion percentage (taking away spikes, throwaways and drops). The Louisville product showed well on deep balls, too, connecting on 46.3% of his passes traveling 20+ yards downfield. That placed him a solid 8th among the 27 QBs who chucked at least 40 deep balls.

Johnson’s deep-ball numbers weren’t elite, but note the small sample size. He reeled in only 2 of 13 targets. Both went for TDs. In total, 23.6% of his targets came on deep balls -- a top-20 mark.

That speaks to a player with high weekly upside, though Johnson’s route tree should expand this season. He’s worked with personal trainer Rischad Whitfield -- dubbed the “Footwork King” -- whose clients include route-running masters DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown. Johnson also added 10 pounds and now tips the scales at 225 pounds.

It certainly looks like he’s prepping for a major role.

Just consider the fact that Turner called Johnson "far and away” the Vikings best WR in February. That was before the team shipped a 5th-round pick for Mike Wallace. Still, it’s a telling statement for a team that at the time had both Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings.

Turner continued to praise his young WR this summer.

“He's got great work ethic, and he's a big, strong guy, Turner said. “He's a 218-pound receiver (now 225) that can run. He's got everything you need to be a productive player in this league."

So, does that productivity include a fantasy-friendly season?


2015 Surroundings

Ideally, the Vikings would enter September primed for an all-out aerial attack. That’s just not realistic, and it’s important to note.

This bunch finished 21st in passing share last season -- without Adrian Peterson. A rookie QB helped keep the emphasis on the ground. A.P. will obviously be the focal point this year. Any increase in pass volume is likely to be minimal. (We have Bridgewater projected for 20 more passes than his 16-game pace from 2014, which better play pace could produce even with a continued running lean.)

The key for Johnson is becoming the #1 option, and in the process, earning most of the 92 targets from a departed Jennings. Minnesota RBs probably won’t see another 118 targets. Johnson’s further aided by a lack of growth from Patterson, who saw 67 looks last year and remains buried on the depth chart.

What about Kyle Rudolph? He’s an enticing red-zone option at 6’6, 265 pounds. But we can’t trust the lumbering TE to remain healthy. He’s started only 16 games over the past 2 seasons due to groin and foot injuries.

We saw Turner call plays for Antonio Gates’ Hall of Fame career. Turner even massaged a career year from Jordan Cameron in Cleveland. Rudolph just doesn’t share their high-end athleticism.

Without question, Wallace provides Johnson’s biggest competition for targets. At 29, he’s obviously more accomplished than Johnson. The former Steeler and Dolphin owns 375 catches, 5,834 yards and 47 TDs for his career.

Johnson holds the familiarity edge, though. He spent most of Bridgewater's rookie season in Minnesota and has played under Turner for the past 2 seasons.

Johnson's also expected to play the "X" receiver role, which has traditionally been the #1 wideout in Turner's offense. That was Josh Gordon's spot, for example, in Cleveland under Turner in 2013.

Wallace has been at his best when focused on being a deep threat. His 2 best per-game fantasy scoring averages came in his 2nd and 3rd seasons back in Pittsburgh. Wallace has only topped 119 targets once in his career and drew 102 and 114 in those aforementioned Steelers seasons.


Cheap price, big upside

A reasonable ADP makes the case for Johnson even stronger. Since July 1, he’s the #34 WR on both My Fantasy League and Fantasy Football Calculator. That’s sweet value for a player we have projected to approach the top-25 across formats.

We see upside beyond that. As Norv Turner described, Johnson’s the complete package. With plus size, speed and explosion, this late bloomer carries the football acumen to become a serious weapon for your fantasy squad. An accurate, ascending Teddy Bridgewater only adds to Johnson’s appeal.

We wish that we had more tape to evaluate this kid. He played just 451 snaps last year -- 88th among WRs. But avoiding a player simply because he hasn’t “done it before” is just the type of approach that keeps you from winning your league. So invest in this discounted asset and reap the rewards.


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