Hoisting heavy metal over his head while performing an Olympic hang clean, Texans veteran running back David Johnson pumps out another set as he builds power and explosiveness.
Johnson controls the weight with perfect form, concentrating as he squeezes his muscles at the top of the motion.
During a workout session with trainer and performance therapy specialist Billy Voltaire and several teammates at Kinitro Fitness, the former Arizona Cardinals All-Pro selection is in constant motion. Johnson, 29, has maintained his fitness and mobility at 6-foot-1, 224 pounds.
One year after a controversial trade to the Texans in exchange for All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and finishing with 1,005 all-purpose yards and eight total touchdowns, Johnson is determined to have a much more productive season after being limited to a dozen games and six starts last season.
“'I'm feeling great,” said Johnson, who overcame a concussion last season that sent him to injured reserve and missing another game on the COVID-19 reserve list as a close contact. “I'm ready to go. I'm excited for the season. I think it will be a good season for us. I think it will be a good season for me. I'm ready to bounce back."
When the Texans hired former New England Patriots executive Nick Caserio as their new general manager, he had plenty of decisions to make. Among them: whether to retain Johnson.
As Caserio learned more about Johnson’s character and work ethic and strong desire to remain with the Texans, he made it a priority to keep him and negotiated a restructured contract with a maximum value of $6 million with Johnson’s agents at Sportsstars Inc., Brian Mackler and Jonathan Perzley.
Now, Johnson’s contract includes a $3 million signing bonus and a fully guaranteed $1.25 million base salary, $4.25 million guaranteed at signing and a salary-cap figure of $4.82 million. Johnson can make an additional $750,000 in roster bonuses for being active every game, at a rate of $46,875 per game.
Johnson can make an additional $2 million in not likely to be earned incentives that include reaching statistical milestones, the playoffs and individual awards, including NFL Most Valuable Player and NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
Johnson was originally due a $7.95 million base salary with $2.1 million guaranteed from his three-year, $39 million contract acquired in a trade from the Arizona Cardinals.
“Most definitely, I wanted to come back here,” Johnson said. “We love the community here. We love the organization and what they did for me and my family, everything they did to get everything situated with the doctors, schooling. It was a pretty easy choice for me. It was just figuring out the contractual part of it and it worked out good."
It was a major adjustment for Johnson last season, changing teams in the middle of the pandemic and moving to a new city.
“Honestly, I've been telling people the football part of being traded is easy,” Johnsons said. “I've had different coaches, so learning offenses and systems and the environment is pretty easy. The toughest part is the family part, having to find new doctors, new living situation, having to get used to the city, commuting from different areas and having to do that with kids. Me and my wife, Meghan, she's done a great job of trying to get (son) DJ and (daughter) Londyn more involved into the community as much as possible in the middle of the pandemic. That was definitely the toughest part: getting my family over here.
“It’s definitely it's more towards a normal year. Last year was an odd year all-around with the trade, moving during the middle of the pandemic, the first few games no fans other than the Kansas City game. It was rough. Now, we're getting into more of a normal schedule. We're starting on time and having a full camp. Guys are starting to train together a little bit more. It's feeling good."
The Texans intend to heavily utilize Johnson in tandem with running backs Phillip Lindsay and Mark Ingram after he rushed for 691 yards and six touchdowns and caught 33 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns last season. Johnson generated at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the fourth time in his career.
"He's been a very good player, that's why he's still here," new Texans coach David Culley said. "He's very good at not only just running the football, but also catching the football out of the backfield.”
Johnson averaged 4.7 yards per carry last season for the NFL’s 31st-ranked rushing offense.
Toward the end of last season, Johnson increased his production with a season-high 128 rushing yards and a score on 12 carries in a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and 84 yards on 14 carries in a season-ending loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly wants the Texans to have a lot better balance after rushing for just 1,466 yards and 4.3 per carry on just 344 running plays last season.
“I'm very excited about that he wants to run the ball,” Johnson said. “Especially as a running back and with the dudes we have on the line, I'm excited. I think it's going to be really good for us. We're rotating and we're going to have a lot more fresh bodies in the running back room and pounding the rock and being able to help out the offense."
Although there are several returning players like Johnson, this is a dramatically overhauled roster. Caserio has brought in roughly 50 new players heading into training camp. After a 4-12 season and embattled Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson making a standing trade request while facing 22 civil lawsuits, most win projections for the Texans have been low.
Johnson is optimistic about the Texans’ outlook despite the gloomy predictions.
“They don't know what's going on inside a football organization and a locker room,” Johnson said. “They just see the roster changing and a lot of people have a lot of doubts. Being around these guys, Tyrod Taylor is a great leader for us a great quarterback. Mark Ingram, Phillip Lindsay and the guys we already brought back in the running back group, it's going to make it a really good position for us and a really good group.
“All those naysayers, they don't know. They don't know what we're talking about, what we're going through. They don't know what we're doing as a unit to try to get our camaraderie right and trying to get everybody on the same page. With the new veterans, I think it's going to help out."
Johnson emphasized that the players are forming a strong bond with new coach David Culley, a first-time head coach who’s a former Baltimore Ravens assistant head coach, receivers coach and passing game coordinator. A former assistant coach under Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, Culley, 65, is known around the NFL for his positive, relatable personality.
“My biggest thing I like about him is that he's really big on communication,” Johnson said. “He's going to let us know everything, every detail inside and out of the football operations and what he expects out of us and what he demands out of us. I think the biggest thing is I have the ability to go and talk to him.
“He's not too standoffish. He always asks me about my family and how everything is going. He’s a great players coach and he really expects a lot out of us. I think it's going to be good for us this season."
Johnson has been working out diligently with Voltaire this offseason alongside teammates, including new starting center Justin Britt, offensive guard Justin McCray and long snapper Jon Weeks.
“Billy is a great trainer,” Johnson said. “He’s done it in the league, so I know I can trust in him to have the right training regimen for me. He’s done a great job. I trained a little bit with him last year, so I knew what he had in store for us. Man, he doesn’t sugarcoat anything.
“He lets me know when I need to go down in weight or up in weight. It's all built towards football. A lot of these trainers, it’s just about lifting heavy weight or doing things that look cool on video whereas with Billy it’s all geared toward our position and football movement. It’s been a great offseason for me.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.