As rookie running back Kerryon Johnson advances through the beginning stages of his career with the Detroit Lions, the tempo picks up but the message for what can improve his game remains constant.
Whether it’s this era of pass-oriented offenses that has made Theo Riddick a key part of the Lions’ attack, or the 1980s when Billy Sims was a transcendent star in a run-first attack, versatility is a vital part of a running back’s skill set.
Johnson was drafted in the second round out of Auburn. What Johnson displayed at Auburn as a productive inside runner against tough SEC competition offers optimism that his addition, and other moves in the offseason, will upgrade the running game.
As the Lions begin the Phase 3 portion of the offseason workouts next week with three OTA practices that allow everything up to 11-on-11 drills but no contact, rookies like Johnson will find that the intensity level increases.
It’s an opportunity to work on adding to the arsenal of weapons. One of those for running backs is catching the ball. Pass protection, often overlooked, is another.
Riddick responded quickly when asked in a recent interview what a back with receiving skills adds to an offense.
“Versatility,” Riddick said. “It’s not like they (defenses) can hone in on one thing. It allows our playbook to continue to diversify.”
Riddick has been a proficient receiver for the Lions. In 2015 he tied Danny Woodhead of the Patriots for the most receptions by a running back with 80 each.
In the last four seasons, Riddick has averaged 55 receptions a year and has 14 receiving touchdowns.
Sims has remained a close observer of the Lions since retiring because of a severe knee injury that ended his career in 1984, his fourth season as a Lion.
The ability to catch passes adds a threat to the offense – and has a personal benefit to the player, Sims said.
“Coming out of the backfield, it’s a major benefit if you can catch passes,” Sims said. “He can dictate a lot. He can get one-on-one against linebackers. To me, it’s another weapon.
“It adds another tool to your tool kit.”
A running back doesn’t absorb as much contact as he does running between the tackles, Sims said.
Sims was recognized as a great running back when the Lions drafted him first overall in 1980 out of Oklahoma. He won the 1978 Heisman Trophy, was the runner up to Southern Cal’s Charles White in 1979 and had rushed for 3,566 yards and 45 touchdowns in his last two seasons.
There was no evidence in college that Sims had any ability as a receiver. He had two career receptions for gains of 35 and 42 yards.
The perception that Sims was not a receiving threat was wiped out by reality in one of the most spectacular regular-season debuts in franchise history. Sims rushed for 153 yards and two touchdowns and caught two passes for 84 yards in an upset road win over the Los Angeles Rams.
It was more of the same for Sims in a Game 2 road win over the Packers – 20 carries for 134 yards and a TD, and two catches for 94 yards with an 87-yard catch and run for another TD.
For the season, Sims set what was then the NFL rookie rushing record of 1,303 yards and added 51 catches for 621 yards, three TDs and an average 12.1 yards per catch.
Sims said in an interview last week that he had no doubt about his ability to catch the ball when he got to the Lions. Oklahoma simply did not have any receiving plays for running backs in its Wishbone Offense.
Johnson was primarily a runner at Auburn, but he had far more exposure to the running game than Sims had at Oklahoma. As a three-year player, Johnson had 55 career receptions for 478 yards and two TDs to go with 510 carries for 2,494 yards and 32 rushing TDs.
As general manager Bob Quinn said after the draft, the Lions’ offense is not set up to rely on one back. It’s more a “running back by committee” approach. Johnson’s comments after the draft indicated a willingness to be part of the group, with no desire to campaign for committee chairman.
“I’m happy to be a piece of anybody’s puzzle,” Johnson said then.