As most of you who may read this blog are probably aware, at this time of the year my time is spent day-by-day, week-by-week, analyzing on-field football movement at various training camps around the NFL. Because of this, a number of years back that prompted me to begin writing occasional individual movement analysis breakdowns of players that may stick out to me at respective camps. However, in 2015, things got just a little too hectic in order to sufficiently do that. That all said, with what I saw last week while at Arizona Cardinals training camp, I felt as though it was necessary to renew this old blog series with an analysis of Cardinal RB, David Johnson.
Before going further, I want to remind ya’ll of the reality of these types of evaluations with my previous disclaimer words from the past series: It should be noted that most of the time I would extensively dissect player’s movement during game analysis which would include frame-by-frame breakdown to truly get an idea of what’s happening when he moves. Thus, I am going to likely miss a lot with these very brief evaluations based on my visual analysis of the guy playing live. Obviously, with the extent of detail that I usually go into with analysis of a player’s strengths and weaknesses, if I was doing this in preparation for working with the guy I would take the time to watch an extensive amount of game-film to see him play in multiple situations. This will be a limitation during camp practices as there are only so many plays that you get a chance to see from each guy.
With that being taken into account, let’s carry on. Though just a rookie last year, the former Northern Iowa all-purpose back made a name for himself in his introductory campaign to the League. Well, if last week is any indication about what he has in store for his encore here in 2016 (and likely well beyond this as long as health is on his side), NFL fans (well, I should say Arizona Cardinal fans) should be extremely excited about what’s on the horizon. Let’s just say this: from all of my accounts over a three day period (while also taking into account what I saw from him last year) David Johnson is on the verge of NFL superstardom. Johnson is not only a physical specimen (6’1, 225lb) with speed & power to boot, but he possesses a unique ability to be more diverse in all aspects of the game than many of his RB counterparts. In fact, his capacity to catch the ball out of the backfield stood out on-repeat play after play over the three days I was in Glendale, AZ…so much so, that I would venture the guess that besides the do-it-all Pittsburgh Steeler, Le’Veon Bell, Johnson may already be at the top of the RB-skill totem pole in this regard. On more than one occasion last week, Johnson caught a pass (everything from screens to wheels to seams) and before you knew it was behind the entire defense and on his way to a pretend-TD (these are practice scenarios, remember).
Of course, our page isn’t necessarily about football skills per se, it’s about football movement skills…and this particular blog won’t be any different. So, what is it about David Johnson’s movement skill that allows him to do what he’s able to do right now (the rest of the League is about to see in a few weeks)? More critically, what is still missing in his movement repertoire that needs to be acquired that could make him even better yet? (Because let’s not forget: critically breaking down movement of the game’s best is really what this blog has always been about). Well, let’s explore!
Most of the readers out there are well aware of my obsession with the cutting actions that take place on a football field, namely at the RB position. Just the sheer fact that I have devoted the time a few years back to write entire blog articles on these movement tasks at this position should denote this. To see this, as well as get an idea as to what I mean when I say David Johnson is a highly proficient lunge cutter, go ahead and read these articles:
That lunge cutting ability was on full display during my last day in Glendale. Johnson, with ball in hand, was moving to his right, looking as though his intention was on getting to the outside to hit the sideline; all of a sudden the chaos in front of him started to close him in, and before you knew it he shortened his stride & stance, threw his left foot down hard with an aggressive stab step (remember he was going right), cut at a 45 degree angle, and brought his path back inside and up-field to an open spot at the third level and en route to a what-would-have-been touchdown leaving the crowd roaring at what their RB1 was capable of.
This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary: in various situations over those three days, whether it was in a closed position-specific drill or one that involved more chaos in the open environment, it was apparent that Johnson was most comfortable executing cutting actions through this pattern and into this position whenever possible. Luckily, he seems to be able to perform the lunge cut on both sides equally as well as at multiple stance lengths and depths though I will say more often than not he keeps the stance relatively short (likely due to his naturally higher center of gravity because of his height) and high (though this aspect is surprising given his high motor potential/strength capabilities).
This type of proficiency (where an athlete is able to perform the same movement skill but in different variations depending on what the problem gives) is definitely one aspect that allows DJ31 to be deceivingly agile for his size and gives him more control at effective movement solutions under live fire.
Knowing how often this pattern is going to emerge on-field, if I were personally working with him in the offseason I would attempt to marry his specific strength capabilities to this already proficient movement solution. I would do this not through adding load to a traditional lunge. Instead, I would test it with variability to increase the width of his movement bandwidth…ironically; I would add variability both in open environment type work as well as in any auxiliary work (weight room or plyometrics). On the latter, I would think about the incorporation of SDE (Specialized Development Exercises) such as:
- Isometric Lunge Work (usually short duration Lunge Holds against an immovable object at varying knee flexion angles)
- Eccentric Lunge Work to even further improve the eccentric rate of force absorption when on one leg which would further allow him to put his very apparent concentric explosive power to further use in lunge patterns
- Lunge Jumping in different planes. Many just use lunge jumps vertically whereas I would have him jump horizontally as well as laterally and all angles in between.
It’s important to note that because of where his mastery level is with the use of the pattern, I would test it and make it even more functionally transferable by actually adding variability day to day or even set to set (as opposed to getting more narrow-minded with its execution as many coaches would advocate).
Acceleration to Mid-range Linear Speed
Before we briefly address this idea, let me preface it all with this: year-by-year, I spend more time at Minnesota Vikings training camp than at any other team. This means I see the world-class example of linear speed at the RB position (enter Adrian Peterson) on-repeat for the last nine years that I have been doing this (note: this is not to say that Adrian’s technical execution/movement signature in linear speed is flawless but his performance outcomes in these situations speak for themselves). Yet, what I saw from David Johnson last week still stood out to me. And keep in mind that the Cardinals also have another very speedy Johnson, Chris Johnson, on their roster that I would see running the very same plays with the 2’s right after David Johnson. Yes, we are talking about the same Chris Johnson that once ran for 2,000 yards in a season as a Titan and who also still holds the NFL combine record for the fastest 40 yard ever recorded.
Now, I am not saying that David Johnson would beat AD28 or Chris Johnson in a non-organic, predetermined footrace (I don’t think he would), but let’s not make any mistake about it: David Johnson is fast in a straight line especially when taking into account his size and other physical qualities and, more importantly, when on a football field under the circumstances that are commonly presented to a NFL RB. This supreme acceleration ability should really come as no surprise given his very apparent explosive power capabilities (which was displayed during his Combine performance on jump activities back in 2015).
The Existence of a Diverse Agility Movement Skill-set
Where the lunge cut from above is a vital staple for DJ, he seems to be a little over-reliant on it for my liking. I know, I know…mastering one representation (i.e. style) of a given movement skill when playing at the highest level of qualification (i.e. the NFL) is hard enough. In fact, it was Bruce Lee who said that he fears more the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times than the one who has practiced 10,000 kicks. But I digress…
I also strongly feel as though what truly defines the most masterful movers on a football field are those who can be presented with a diverse range of movement problems, and they have ownership of equally efficient and effective movement solutions to match that potential diversity of the problem. Liken this to a movement toolbox if you will…someone can be a master with a hammer (i.e. be real good at lunge cutting) but this craftsmanship will only mean so much if presented with a screw instead of a nail (i.e. the athlete needs to perform from a wider base of support and lower center of gravity from a bilateral stance).
Johnson’s limitation with other cutting actions could come from any number of areas:
1). The biomechanical inability to get to the respective positions or through those patterns which are contained in those other movement strategies…meaning, he lacks the strength qualities (highly unlikely when you watch this guy!) or mobility/stability to even get into the other positions.
2). Lack of movement skill acquisition with those other patterns…meaning, he’s worked on them & developed them to a certain degree but under chaos the self-organizing human movement system will not allow them to emerge because it perceives the lunge cut to be more solidified.
3). Improper perception-action/information-movement coupling…meaning, he’s looking at, or feeling for, the wrong the thing at the wrong time when certain stimuli in the movement problem are presented.
Overall, it could also be that while playing at Northern Iowa he was always so much better and more physically dominant than his opponents that he never actually had to develop a more well-rounded movement repertoire. In fact, I see this is as a danger for many high-performing collegiate RBs regardless of the actual level of qualification of college football (D1, D1AA, D2, D3, etc) they played and developed in.
That all said, if we go back and watch some highlights from last year we do see other movement strategies/solutions emerge occasionally. Check out this short video from last year:
Here you can see that he will occasionally execute a bilateral speed cut or crossover cut, but really only if the constraints presented by the problem are presented perfectly for him to do so. When they (those other cuts) do occur, they are much less authentic and naturally emergent…not to mention potentially less optimal and efficient. Now, if you follow any of my work you will know that I am the first to say that what is deemed the optimal movement solution for one athlete is NOT what is optimal for another especially if it is not authentic or solidified enough to emerge under chaos…thus, we shouldn’t force certain movement solutions to given problems. However, I still believe that this needs to be remedied in order for him to take his movement craft to the next level.
In order for this improvement to occur and his movement toolbox to become well-rounded, there are a couple different areas I would start with to offset the corresponding potential shortcomings from above:
1). Improve the biomechanics. Start performing a simple sway drill to get the athlete aware of loading over the support leg, their BOS & their COG and the manipulation of it, the edges of their feet, the biomechanical angles and the basic sensory perceptual data from it. Include variability rep to rep (change the BOS width and COG height) to get him comfortable with the movement context present in these positions.
2). Improve the intention. Require him to utilize other variations of cutting patterns during individual position work where applicable. This prescription should take him from slow to fast, closed to open, simple to complex. Here now, where the new biomechanical position focus from point 1 left off, now he can start to utilize this pattern and their corresponding positions in space and in response to varying stimuli and a changing environment. This of course may only be able to happen so much at this time of the year that it is right now (as it would depend on a whole lot of variables).
3). Improve the attention. Determine where he is looking and when he is looking at it (i.e. visual gaze properties) as well as what he is feeling & internalizing as he performs. This will improve his sensory-perceptual understanding on the movement problem and could potentially open up the opportunities for the use of other movement solutions. In order to make these other patterns functionally applicable to occur on field, we need to link them (the actions) to the necessary perception required in the organic environment.
Though David Johnson isn’t the prototypical masterfully moving RB and he still has room for growth (newsflash: EVERY player in the NFL has gaps in their movement skills that they need to improve upon), I do believe he is absolutely on the verge of greatness. Knowing the Arizona Cardinals S&C Staff (I believe they are currently the very best among the 32 in the League), I believe they will set him on a path towards further performance preparation. I am excited for David Johnson and the potential he has to become one of the very best in the game for years to come.