For his first three NFL seasons, running back Chris Johnson was a major part of Jeff Fisher’s Tennessee Titans teams.
The former East Carolina star emerged with 1,228 yards as a rookie and then blew up for 2,006 yards in his second season with the Titans and earned the nickname “CJ2K.” After six straight seasons of more than 1,000 yards rushing, Johnson dropped below that mark last season with lesser use by the New York Jets.
Signed by the Arizona Cardinals last spring as insurance, the 29-year-old Johnson has found a new running groove. He had 110 yards and two touchdowns last week in Arizona’s 47-7 win over San Francisco giving him 219 yards on 52 carries through three games.
That’s good enough for seventh in the NFL, not bad for a player released by Tennessee in 2013 and by the Jets in 2014. The signing by Arizona General Manager Steve Keim is looking better every day.
“I’ve been told and I’ve read as you guys know, that he probably wasn’t in training camp shape when he got there,Fisher said, “but he’s getting there. When ‘CJ’ gets there, he’s going to be a productive player for them.”
An injury to Cardinals’ starter Andre Ellington led to increased playing time, but Johnson may be carving out an even bigger role than expected.
“Steve (Keim) just did a great job of knowing who’s available,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. “We were looking for a guy that would fit what we’re doing. We thought a lot of (practice squad running back) Kerwynn Williams, who had a big game last year. But Chris was available and so we said, ‘Why not?’ It doesn’t cost us anything. Let’s give this guy a shot. He’s a great guy.’
Arians also got a positive scouting report on Johnson from Arizona assistant head coach Tom Moore, an assistant with Tennessee in 2012.
“(He) raved about the type of kid he is,” Arians said. “He’s come in and he’s been fun to coach. He’s now getting in good football shape. He came in too a little out of shape and then pulled a hamstring. But he’s getting in good football shape now, so we have a nice backfield.”
Rams personnel changes
The Isaiah Pead era with the Rams ended Tuesday when the former University of Cincinnati star running back was placed on waivers.
The Rams also activated cornerback Brandon McGee, promoting him from the practice squad to fill Pead’s slot, and signed former New Orleans Saints receiver Nick Toon to the practice squad.
Pead was the 50th overall pick in the 2012 draft, one of three second-round selections that year along with wide receiver Brian Quick (33rd) and cornerback Janoris Jenkins (39th). The Rams also picked up defensive tackle Michael Brockers (first round) that year along with cornerback Trumaine Johnson (third round), receiver Chris Givens (fourth round) and kicker Greg Zuerlein (sixth round).
Even overlooking his fumble in the opener against Seattle, Pead’s days here were likely numbered despite his return from a knee injury that caused him to miss the entire 2014 season. Rookie back Todd Gurley was activated last week against Pittsburgh, Tre Mason is healthy after hamstring problems and veteran back Trey Watts will be eligible to return from a four-game suspension following Sunday’s game in Arizona.
Versatile back Benny Cunningham provides another option.
“Difficult decision,” Fisher said, though Pead played in only 27 games, ran the ball 19 times and caught 14 career passes. “Isaiah did a phenomenal job coming back off the injury. But with Todd (Gurley) now coming up and the potential for some other moves during the week, we just felt it was the best decision for us.”
Toon, 26, is a 6-foot-4, 218-pound receiver and the son of former New York Jets receiver Al Toon. The younger Toon was the Saints’ fourth-round pick in 2012.
Toon had 21 catches for 283 yards with the Saints, who waived him earlier this month with an injury settlement. He suffered a high ankle sprain during training camp.
“We interviewed Nick at the (draft) combine and watched Nick play,” Fisher said. “He had a great career up there and was surprised that he was out there. We worked out a group of receivers last week and just felt Nick was ideal for us to get him on the practice squad and get him in position to learn our offense.
“He did a great job today with the scout team. Smart player. Obviously, great heritage.”
McGee was a fifth-round pick in 2013 who has battled a foot injury that he aggravated during organized team activities (OTA’s) earlier this year. He will play on special teams and provide depth at cornerback.