Running back Kerryon Johnson looks to be the future of the Detroit Lions backfield after an impressive, albeit shortened (due to injury), rookie season.
Johnson finished his debut season with a 5.43 yards per carry average, the second highest among all NFL running backs. He produced multiple 100-yard rushing games, and showed he has the skill set to be a true three-down back in this league.
While Johnson is the likely starter heading into next season, Detroit still has to figure out what they’re going to do to fill out the entire backfield.
Veterans Zach Zenner and LeGarrette Blount are unrestricted free agents. Theo Riddick is entering the last year of his contract. The team also signed Mark Thompson and Kerwynn Williams to reserve/future contracts.
Zenner was the most impressive of the backs taking over for Johnson after he missed the last six games of the season due to a knee injury. I think it’s worth seeing how much it would take to re-sign him, but there will likely be other suitors.
Lions head coach Matt Patricia knows he has to have a good foundation in that room behind Johnson.
“The running back position, I’d say, has become so specified in the NFL, from first and second down to third down,” Patricia said earlier this week. “Oftentimes those running backs have become different types of players from that standpoint.
“Certainly for us, based on what we’re looking to get at running back, we want to see if that guy can play on all three downs. That’s going to be the most advantageous for us.”
It’s what they have in Johnson. When they go looking for more players to add to the backfield this offseason, look for them to seek out players who can not only run the football, but catch it out of the backfield and be efficient as pass protectors. That’s what it takes to play running back on all three downs in this league.
“Kerryon is someone we really targeted last year in the draft and really liked and he came through for us in a big way in a lot of different areas,” Patricia said. “He was someone we thought could play on early downs and third downs.
“With Theo Riddick being on the roster also, someone we knew could help us produce on third down, our goal was to try and find a little bit more balance on early downs with a back that could help us.”
View pregame photos from the Detroit Lions' 2018 season.
Johnson did that. The Lions finished the season with at least 1,650 rushing yards, a 4.1 rushing average and 11 touchdowns for the first time since the 1998 season, led by Johnson’s 641 yards and 5.4 average.
Pushing forward into this offseason and next season, as the Lions look to fill out their running back room, look for them to try and add players like Johnson, guys who can play on all three downs and can be a versatile weapon in the offense.
There is a greater cost associated with those players, however, a fact Lions general manager Bob Quinn was quick to point out.
“If a guy is a three-down player and can play on special teams, that guy's cost is here,” Quinn said, raising his hand.
“If the guy is just a first and second down player, then his cost is more at this level,” Quinn said, lowering his hand.
“It’s all cost related and value related, whether it’s the draft board or free agency, so, to get another Kerryon would be great, it’s just a matter of cost.”
The Lions have money to spend in free agency and nine draft picks to work with. Will they use some of those resources on a running back? We'll see.