Every running back entering the NFL is talented running with the football, but what separates the really good backs from the others in this league is how many additional skill sets they bring to the table. Can they catch the ball? Are they good in pass protection? The backs who are good in all three phases are the ones who usually have long careers.
Detroit Lions running back Kerryon Johnson showed a proficiency in all three areas the first 10 weeks of the 2018 season before a knee injury ended his rookie campaign prematurely. In particular, his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, and be a weapon in the passing game, is something he didn’t show a lot of in college at Auburn.
Johnson caught more than 17 passes only one season at Auburn – 24 his junior year – but he hauled in 32 passes in 10 games for the Lions last season. It wasn’t just swing routes out of the backfield, either. Johnson showed a proficiency and understanding of route concepts and an ability to run after the catch.
“At the end of last season you guys asked me a lot of questions about Kerryon,” Lions head coach Matt Patricia said of Johnson at last week’s Annual League Meetings. “Frankly, there are a lot of things I didn’t want to tip anybody off on. We did see some of those things in practice. We did see some of those things on film (in college) where maybe he wasn’t utilized that way ... the same way we could utilize him.
“You definitely could see on film he could catch, you could see some of the things he could do in space. We tried to grow him in that process. We didn’t know where he was going to be. He had so much to learn, coming from college to the pro game. Was he going to be able to get that in two months, four months, six months or two years? You didn’t know before you were able to get him in the building. It’s another thing we were able to build upon.
“Another part of that, too, was in the first year for him I thought he really grew in the blitz pickup, the protection part of it, which is another thing you never saw on film. He’s a big guy, and he really kind of just hung in there and got better.”
Johnson finished the season with a pass blocking efficiency grade of 97.9 out of 100 from Pro Football Focus. He was also second in the NFL with a 5.4 average per rush. Johnson rushed for more than 100 yards twice, breaking Detroit’s streak dating back to 2013 without a 100-yard rusher. Johnson produced six games with 85-or-more yards from scrimmage, tied for the third most among rookies.
The second-round pick last year was good as a rookie, and Patricia, being a defensive-minded coach, knows that teams will come into this season with a better plan for trying to contain him.
“The thing about it, no different from any player going from year one to year two, it’ll be a whole different set of circumstances for him next year,” Patricia said. “Teams definitely will identify him differently.
“Teams will come at him differently, put more pressure on him. Is the passing game, is the running game, is the blitz pickup going to look different? We don’t know. But, what I do know is, he loves the game, he works extremely hard. He wants to win. We know he’s going to get better. We just have to see how he responds to the different looks he gets from other coaches.”
Johnson showed flashes last season. New offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell could be very good for him. Bevell values a balanced approach. His offenses have finished in the top 10 in rushing percentage eight times in his 12 years as an OC. During a four-year stretch between 2012 and 2015 as Seattle’s OC, Bevell’s offense was top 10 in scoring each year and ranked in the top four in rushing each season.
That, however, doesn’t change Patricia’s approach to the value of running back by committee.
“It doesn’t really change with that position. Regardless of Kerryon, it’s a position-specific thing where those guys take a lot of hits,” Patricia said. “They’re in those situations a lot where their bodies are taking a pounding. You want to be conscious of how many plays they’re getting, especially early on in the year.
“Obviously, we just want to win. That’s the most important thing, but you do have to look at big picture. Great, we could run a couple plays now, but if we wear this guy out, it’s not going to help us in the long run.”
Johnson is clearly the No. 1 back in Detroit, but he’s going to get help. The Lions re-signed veteran Zach Zenner, who was very good replacing Johnson the second half of last season when Johnson sat out with a knee injury. Also on the roster is Theo Riddick, who has 573 career touches between rushes and receptions. Kerwynn Williams and Mark Thompson are also on the roster, and the Lions could certainly look to add to the group in this month’s NFL Draft and throughout the later stages of free agency.
Whatever the room ultimately looks like, it’s Johnson who should lead Detroit’s efforts on the ground. He was good as a rookie, but he says there’s more he wants to show off in his game in 2019.
“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 a I like to be accountable and the one way you do that is by finishing.
“I just have to train harder. Obviously, what I did this past offseason wasn’t enough. So, I have to do more.”