Chris Johnson, one of just seven NFL players ever to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, was released by the Tennessee Titans on Friday, a cap-saving move that has analysts and fans wondering where the 29-year-old former All Pro running back will end up next season.
Despite rushing for over 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons, in recent years Johnson has looked a mere shell of the player NFL fans saw during 2009 campaign in which he rushed for 2,006 yards and was named Offensive Player of the Year. After holding out of Titans training camp in 2011, Johnson negotiated a four-year, $54 million contract with the Titans, but his productivity has declined, and last year Johnson was held to a career-low 3.9 yards per carry. Ultimately, the $8 million paycheck Tennessee owed Johnson for the 2014 season was deemed too hefty, for both the Titans and teams they attempted to trade him to.
In announcing his release, Titans GM Ruston Webster praised Johnson for his time in Nashville.
"As an organization, we want to thank Chris for his contributions to the Titans," Webster said, according to ESPN.com. "Chris produced many memorable moments, broke franchise records and was durable over his six-year career with our team. We have had an open dialogue with Chris' agent, Joel Segal, over the last few weeks, and we appreciate the patience and professionalism they have shown throughout this process.
"We made an effort to trade Chris but were unable to do so. We wish Chris the best and thank him for the six seasons he spent with us."
The question now turns to what team will sign the speedy RB, and for how much. According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, the Jets, Bills, Dolphins, and Falcons were among the teams that discussed a potential trade with the Titans, so they’ve all obviously expressed interest. Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweeted on Sunday that the Jets were remaining quiet in the DeSean Jackson sweepstakes perhaps in the hopes of signing Johnson, and they appear to be the early front-runners. SI.com also lists the Giants, Cowboys, Bears, Cardinals, Rams, and Jaguars as potential landing spots.
And then there’s the Denver Broncos. With the window of opportunity closing as Peyton Manning winds down his career, the team has shown a willingness to sign veterans like Shaun Phillips and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to one-year deals, which those players then flipped into long-term contracts with other teams this offseason. Although Denver does not have the salary cap money to give Johnson a big payday, a one-year, incentive-laden deal to replace the recently-departed Knowshon Moreno could work out well for both sides.
We’ll see. Although running backs are increasingly viewed as replaceable parts in many offensive systems, Johnson’s speed and elusiveness are unique, and a knee injury that may have affected his numbers in 2013 has been cleaned up this offseason. Although it’s not likely that Johnson will top the 2,000 yard mark again, he could still be a productive role player, even star, if he lands with the right team.