Since padlocks were removed from team facilities earlier this month, typical preseason stories involving devastating injuries, depth-chart shakeups and standout performances have dominated the headlines. But amongst all the interesting lines, one has captivated Fantasyland with bated breath, sparking the obvious question:
How the hell should I approach Chris Johnson?
For weeks, the league's most explosive rusher has demanded that Titans brass add a few zeros next to his bargain base salary. His argument is valid. Slated to make just $800K this season, he is nowhere near the cash equivalent of Adrian Peterson ($10.7 million) or, heck, even pokey-bound Cedric Benson ($3 million). Considering the average shelf life for an NFL running back is around 3-5 years, his justification for wanting more green is understandable. However, his stance to be the league's highest paid player isn't.
The divide between the two camps remains Grand Canyon-wide, about $10 million or roughly one Kardashian wedding. Last week, after meeting with team officials in Nashville, Johnson stated he was not seeing "eye to eye" with Bud Adams and company.
But Tuesday morning offered fantasy owners a glimmer of hope. Yahoo! gumshoe Jason Cole unveiled via Twitter that Johnson and the Titans were expected to return to the bargaining table later in the day. Still, don't bank on a deal. It's doubtful they will exchange loving looks, though any talk is good talk.
So, back to the original question: What's a fantasy owner to do?
Gut feeling says the dispute will bleed into the regular season, possibly keeping Captain Quick in fetters for a game or three. Still, despite his potential absence, Johnson is worth every penny assuming he falls into the late first round or early second, as he did last week in the Friends and Family draft (12th overall). Yes, the Titans O-line crumbled a bit last season. And Matt Hasselbeck is only a slight upgrade over Kerry Collins and Vince Young, but Johnson is an extraordinarily skilled back with the friendliest schedule among RBs, including fantasy playoff matchups against presumed run softies New Orleans, Indianapolis and Jacksonville.
Still, for those willing to gamble on CJ2K, it's imperative to nab his backup in the later rounds. Rookie Jamie Harper, who's scored in every Titans preseason game and averaged a stout 4.6 yards per carry, would appear to have a leg up on injured veteran Javon Ringer. On Monday, however, Titans head honcho Mike Munchak said Ringer is still the team's contingency plan if Johnson isn't available Week 1 at Jacksonville. From the Tennessean:
How much will it hurt Ringer to miss the bulk of the preseason?
"If he's a rookie, I'd say maybe quite a bit," Munchak said. "But the fact he's been here and knows our system and it hasn't changed that much ? as far as the blocking schemes, and that's probably the biggest part for the running backs in this league, to have a good feel for the pick-ups.
"I think we're fine with him. If he's healthy, he'll be able to contribute to us in a big way this season."
It's very possible, likely in fact, that a full-blown RBBC could be implemented if Johnson doesn't strike an eleventh-hour deal. In that scenario, Ringer would be the early-down option, with Harper deployed on third downs and, possibly, at the goal line. At 5-foot-11, 233 pounds, the Clemson product certainly possesses the bulk and leverage necessary for short-yardage duty. If you needed an upside flex play Week 1, he would be a quality option. Though Jacksonville revamped its defense via free agency, adding linebackers Clint Session and Paul Posluszny, the unit has a mountain to climb to get back to a respectable level. Last year, the Jags ranked fourth in points allowed to RBs.
As fanatics in this postlockout era know, procrastination reigns supreme when dollars are in play. For now, Johnson supporters hope the chicken wings they've sacrificed at the altar of the fantasy gods will help broker a deal.
(UPDATE: Jason La Canfora of the NFL Network received a positive vibe out of Tuesday's meeting of the minds. The reporter believes a "breakthrough" could be coming shortly.)
Gamers, where did Johnson fall in your draft? After he finished ninth in per-game output among RBs last year, do you feel he's a top-five lock in 2011, assuming he's in uniform Week 1? Which backup has more upside: Ringer or Harper? Discuss.
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