NFL Analysis: Can Titans Afford to Pay Chris Johnson Big Money?

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Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson is not demanding a new contract as vocally as he did last offseason, but Jim Wyatt of the Nashville Tennessean reports the 25-year-old Johnson “wants a new deal, and he won’t show up for training camp without one.”

Johnson has not commented this year in regards to on the amount money he wants his new contract to be worth, but said last year he wanted $30-40 million in guaranteed money. On the most recent episode of NFL Red Zone Report, co-host Jayson Braddock and I disagreed about whether the Titans should give Johnson the money he wants or not. In my mind, it is imperative the Titans give Johnson a contract that pleases him.

Without a doubt, Johnson has far outplayed his current contract. Despite facing eight-man fronts for most of the season, Johnson amassed 1,300 rushing yards in the follow-up campaign to the season in which he became the sixth player to ever rush for 2,000 yards in one season and set the NFL’s single-season record for all-purpose yards from scrimmage. Johnson is set to earn a total of $4.6 million in 2011, and $3.46 million in 2012. Those numbers are fair market value for a middle-of-the-road running back, but nowhere near the level of compensation Johnson’s performance dictates. 

The NFL is turning into more and more of a passing-based game, and the value of running backs is decreasing, but Johnson’s value to the Titans has only increased this offseason. With Vince Young on the way out, and Kerry Collins looking less and less likely to return to the Titans, the Titans’ options at quarterback will either be Jake Locker, Rusty Smith or one of the plethora of overrated quarterbacks who will be available once the lockout ends.

With such a bleak outlook at quarterback, the Titans will desperately need Johnson’s presence to help take pressure off their passing game. Additionally, the Titans’ next-best player, receiver Kenny Britt, is likely to face league- or team-imposed discipline after a rash of off-field incidents, which makes Johnson’s presence in both the running and passing games even more vital.

The Titans are at a point where they must either sign Johnson to a new deal he considers fair or trade him to someone who will give him the money he wants. Although the Titans are unlikely to contend for a playoff spot in 2011, they will be contending for the top pick in the draft if Johnson is not on the team.

The Titans have committed to Jake Locker as their quarterback of the future. Far too often, highly drafted quarterbacks fail not due to any fault of their own, but due to a lack of surrounding talent. Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco are all prime examples of how an elite running game can drastically accelerate a young quarterback’s development. Meanwhile, Matt Leinart is an example of what happens to a highly drafted quarterback who doesn’t get any help from his running game. To develop Locker into a franchise quarterback, the Titans must make surrounding Locker with as strong a running game as possible their top priority.

Depending on how well the Titans rebuild, it could be any number of years before they are legitimate playoff threats again. Even if it takes five or more years to rebuild and Johnson is well past his prime by the time the Titans are Super Bowl contenders, he is worth every penny of money he wants, because his presence will help Locker develop into the player the Titans have drafted him to become.  Without an elite running back, Locker’s road to NFL success will be rockier. Johnson is the most crucial player in the Titans’ quest to get back to the playoffs, and the Titans absolutely must pay him accordingly.

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