A free agent for the first time in his six-year career, running back Chris Johnson isn’t short of potential suitors.
Rather than keep the speedy back they drafted 24th overall in 2008, the Tennessee Titans instead released Johnson after shopping him around the league to no avail. According to The Tennessean, the team also let Johnson go to save $6 million salary cap space, and because new head coach Kevin Whisenhunt wouldn’t have exclusively used Johnson as the sole option in the backfield. Team officials also questioned the three-time Pro Bowler’s work ethic, though he never missed a start due to injury and rarely missed a practice.
Now he’s on the open market, with the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins all considered potential landing spots for Johnson.
The Jets are reportedly interested in Johnson, but only if he doesn’t eat too much into their $30 million worth of salary cap space, according to the New York Daily News. Johnson’s old contract with the Titans called for three more years of base salaries at or near $8 million a season, evidently a deal no teams wanted to add to their books.
Johnson was in New York on Tuesday, but he did not have a visit scheduled with the Jets. Rather he was “traveling for personal reasons," according to the Daily News. No top Jets officials could have greeted Johnson anyway with general manager John Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan attending LSU’s Pro Day on Wednesday in preparation for next month’s draft.
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The Jets are particularly intrigued at the prospect of splitting carries between Johnson, best known for his breakaway speed and elusiveness, and hard-charging running back Chris Ivory.
Johnson could be especially helpful in New York’s passing game, which ranked second to last in the NFL last season. While rushing for more than 1,000 yards in each of his six seasons, Johnson has also averaged 45 catches and 333 receiving yards a year.
The Bills and the Dolphins are seen as suitors, but more so due to their original interest in trading for Johnson.
According to ESPN, Miami and Buffalo were two of the four teams that had reached out to Tennessee in regards to Johnson, and both came close to pulling the trigger on a deal.
Both teams also would have asked Johnson to re-structure his contract, a stipulation he reportedly agreed to with the Titans in order to facilitate a trade.
However, the Dolphins essentially pulled themselves out of the running before Johnson hit the open market, coming to terms on a one-year, $3 million deal with former Denver running back Knowshon Moreno late last month.
Miami owned the No. 26-ranked rushing attack last season and Moreno could help after posting his first 1,000-yard rushing season with the Broncos, but he’s not viewed as the same class of running back as Johnson. Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas were the Dolphins' primary backs last season, combining for 1,115 yards and six touchdowns, but their production was severely hampered by a poor offensive line.
The Dolphins addition of left tackle Branden Albert and guard Shelley Smith via free agency should improve the offensive line, and upgrading to a running back like Johnson could take some pressure off quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Miami also has $16 million in cap space to use on Johnson, but he’ll have to take a pay cut.
The Bills boasted the second-best rushing attack in the NFL last season, with C.J. Spiller and veteran Fred Jackson combining for 1,823 yards and 11 touchdowns. Second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel also rushed for 186 yards and two scores before knee injuries ended his first season prematurely.
Jackson played in all 16 games last season, but injuries forced him to miss 12 total games in the previous two years. If Jackson went down again, Johnson could fill the hole with seemingly no drop off in production.
Buffalo also has roughly $12 million in salary cap space, after spending the bulk of their free agent budget on four-year deals with cornerback Corey Graham and guard Chris Williams.