The good: Detroit looks to have found its running back of the future in Kerryon Johnson. The second-round pick out of Auburn last offseason proved early on this season he could be a three-down back for the Lions. Johnson was well on his way to a 1,000-yard rushing season if not for a knee injury ending his season prematurely.
Still, Johnson rushed for 641 yards on only 118 carries. His 5.4 average per rush the second highest in the NFL behind only Green Bay’s Aaron Jones (5.5).
Johnson also caught 32 passes for another 213 yards, showing he’s a very capable route runner and a threat in the passing game out the backfield. The next step for him will be showing he can be durable and play through a 16-game schedule.
After Johnson went down, Zach Zenner showed he can be a capable runner in that role too. He put the exclamation point on the Lions’ win in Arizona running the ball effectively in the fourth quarter. He also totaled more than 100 all-purpose yards in the finale in Green Bay.
The bad: There wasn’t a whole lot that I’d consider really bad for the Lions at the running back position this season.
Some probably thought veteran LeGarrette Blount would have more of an impact than his 2.7 average yards per rush would show. He took some carries away from the more effective Johnson early in the year, though he did finish with five rushing touchdowns.
Theo Riddick caught 61 passes this year as both a running back and slot receiver, but failed to get into the end zone for the first time in his career. His 6.3 average per reception was the lowest of his career, but his average yards per rush (4.3) was the highest of his career.
Detroit drafted fullback Nick Bawden and lost him during the mandatory minicamp in June to a knee injury. Hopefully he can come back and challenge for the job this offseason.
Key stat: Johnson, Blount and Zenner were the only trio of running backs in the NFL to each finish the season with at least 250 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The last Lions trio to do that was in 1973 (Altie Taylor, Steve Owens & Mel Farr).
Free agents: Blount and Zenner are both unrestricted free agents this offseason.
Zenner was released with an injury settlement in the preseason. He said right about the time he was eligible to return to play, he had some interest from other teams, but liked the familiarity he had with Detroit and decided to re-sign.
It will be interesting to see what the free agent market is like for him after he finished the year on a strong note. Zenner runs tough, he’s smart, he plays special teams and works really hard. There will probably be some interest from other clubs this offseason.
Blount is 32 years old. There’s not as much tread on the tires as there used to be. We’ll see if the Lions elect to sign him back or look for a few new guys to pair alongside Johnson next season.
One of the feel-good stories of the 2018 season was Nick Bellore's move from linebacker to fullback. He made the move in the offseason and was pretty good in that role throughout the course of the season, clearing the way for Johnson and others. He’s also a core special teams performer. Bellore is an unrestricted free agent.
Draft: This isn’t a strong class at the top. There’s no Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott or Saquon Barkley in this class. In fact, there’s not a single running back among the list of the Top 32 players available by ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.
Alabama’s Damien Harris is considered by most to be the best player available at the position. Most analysts list him as a fringe first-round pick.
There are some good backs in this class, including David Montgomery (Iowa State) and Bryce Love (Stanford), it’s just not a class heavy with elite talent at the top.
I wouldn't be surprised if the Lions take another back somewhere in this draft, especially if Zenner doesn’t sign back or they don’t stock their backfield in free agency.
MVP: This is an easy one with Johnson. He looks to be the real deal at the position -- Tough runner, good vision, always seems to fall forward for positive yards, and he can make plays in the passing game. The yards Johnson gained after contact were probably the most impressive part of his game.
Detroit looks to have a good one in Johnson.
Most improved: Credit Zenner for completely transforming his body after injuring his back and bulking up with 10 pounds of muscle. The body transformation was noticeable, and it translated to the field.
Zenner had never averaged more than 3.8 yards per carry in either of his first three seasons in the NFL. That number jumped all the way to 4.8 this year.
Quotable: “Running back is a tough spot, but when you’re able to finish (16) games and give it your all (16) games, I feel like it puts your team in the best position to win,” Johnson said after the season. “That’s what I like to do, I like to win, and I like to be accountable and the one way you do that is by finishing.”