In March, the Detroit Lions signed veteran running back LeGarrette Blount, who scored 18 rushing touchdowns with the New England Patriots in 2016. Blount scored just two rushing touchdowns with the Philadelphia Eagles last season.
The Lions also drafted a back who scored 18 rushing touchdowns in 2017, but his is a lesser-known name. The sixth running back taken in the 2018 draft, Auburn's Kerryon Johnson lasted until the 43rd overall pick despite 2017's 1,391-yard rushing season in which he also caught 24 passes for 194 yards and two more touchdowns. It was Johnson's first season as Auburn's main man in the backfield, and he led the SEC in rushing yards and was second in rushing touchdowns despite missing two games because of injury.
The Lions, headed up by new coach Matt Patricia and fourth-year offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, have a desperate need to do something about their rushing offense. Last season, the team ranked 31st in rushing attempts with 363 and dead last in the NFL in rushing yards with 1,221. Over the last five seasons, Detroit's 7,080 total rushing yards aren't just the league's worst mark, but it's 425 fewer yards than the 31st-ranked team, the New York Giants. And the last Lions back to go over 100 yards in a game was Reggie Bush...in the 2013 season.
The Lions' issues with running the ball have become an albatross around the franchise's neck, and it's something general manager Bob Quinn has to fix in conjunction with his coaching staff.
Patricia is familiar with Blount from their time together with the Patriots—Patricia was New England's defensive coordinator from 2012 through 2017—but Blount isn't the dynamic force he once was. And with the established corps of backs in the Motor City providing less than impressive results, it would seem that Johnson is the one with the opportunity to succeed far beyond the league's expectations.
Johnson has a patient, upright running style, and he can turn on the jets when he gets past the line of scrimmage. He's not the best power back—too often there were instances against better collegiate defenses when he got bottled up while trying to run the ball down the opposition's throat—but he's a versatile and valuable player.
Perhaps most encouraging for Johnson's future prospects is that his NFL coaches and general manager seem to understand what he does best. Johnson can run between the tackles—nobody gets that many rushing touchdowns in the SEC without running inside—but he's best and most explosive as an outside runner and receiver.
"He's a guy that they run inside the tackles primarily in that offense," Quinn told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press in April. "If you know [Auburn head coach] Gus Malzahn's offense, they basically run between the guards. So, I think this guy's very versatile that he can run inside, but I think we'll probably use him more to run outside as well."
Running backs coach David Walker has already classified Johnson as a three-down player, which puts him ahead of the pack when it comes to first-year backs. Many rookies come into the league deficient in one area or another, but Walker's belief syncs up with the tape.
"He showed he can play in all situations, which was important for us," Walker told Birkett. "Very productive in a very good league. So you see the physical qualities, the flexibility in terms of how you can use a guy like that, and then you have a chance to meet him and see how smart and driven he is. He's kind of the type of player that fits with our program because he's smart, he showed he's productive and then he has flexibility in terms of first, second, third downs."
Johnson played against a ton of great run defenses during his time in the SEC, but the game that stood out was his 2017 performance against Alabama in an upset win for the Tigers. Johnson gained 104 yards and scored a touchdown on 30 carries, but the most impressive part of his performance in this game may have been his blocking. On play after play, he squared up and kept pass-rushers at bay on interior blitzes and took on defenders to the outside as well.
On this play, with 11:59 left in the third quarter, Alabama defensive back Ronnie Harrison (No. 15) is standing at linebacker depth with five men at the line of scrimmage.
Harrison makes a tell of his intentions to blitz pre-snap as he leans toward the line, and just before the snap, he takes off for a gap he hopes will open up between the right guard and right tackle.
Johnson sees this and makes a perfect move across the backfield to take Harrison out of the play. He squares up to Harrison and counters Harrison's speed with his own power to blast the safety out of the play entirely.
As Harrison hits the ground, the block allows quarterback Jarrett Stidham (No. 8) to step up in the pocket and make the throw to receiver Will Hastings (No. 33) for a 20-yard completion. This was a 3rd-and-3 play with Alabama up 14-10, and if Harrison doesn't make that block, the landscape of this game could have changed entirely.
While Johnson isn't a bruiser inside, he's surprisingly quick and decisive to get yards between the tackles when the blocking sets up right. And when he's in the open field, good things tend to happen. This 15-yard run with 8:52 left in the first quarter is a perfect example.
Auburn is lined up in an offset Pistol formation with fullback Chandler Cox (No. 27) as an H-back to the strong side.
At the snap, Cox is looking to block the primary open defender to the weak side as Johnson goes that way. He does a great job of facing up on Harrison, giving Johnson the lane he needs.
Johnson then blasts into the open field, using his lateral agility to pick out where he thinks the openings will be at the second level.
He's caught by three Alabama defenders about 12 yards downfield and uses his power to gain the extra yards on the play.
Johnson had another 15-yard run in this game—at the start of the fourth quarter—and this is a great example of how he's able to bounce outside from inside the tackles, using his speed and agility to make things happen after contact.
Johnson gets a blocked-up gap to the left side and beats defensive back Levi Wallace (No. 39) to the hole.
At the second level, he's nearly tackled by linebacker Rashaan Evans (No. 32), but he manages a spin move which propels him forward and takes him past linebacker Dylan Moses (No. 18), who's expecting him to turn back inside.
Johnson then peels farther outside, assisted by excellent downfield blocking, allowing him to gain several more yards before stepping out of bounds.
Along with Blount, the Lions have Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick in their halfback rotation. Abdullah has been a relatively disappointing change-of-pace back, and Riddick has proved to be a more effective receiver than a rusher. If this team is ever going to maximize quarterback Matthew Stafford's potential, it's going to have to do a better job of putting a consistent ground game on the field.
And based on his collegiate work, Johnson appears to be the best vessel for making that happen. The only thing that might stand in his way is a slightly worrisome injury history that dates back to high school—at Auburn, he missed time with everything from hamstring to ribs to shoulder to ankle issues, and he suffered shoulder, knee and thumb injuries at Madison Academy in Alabama.
But if he can stay healthy, Johnson has everything required to succeed. The Lions have an outstanding quarterback in Stafford. They have three great receivers in Marvin Jones, Golden Tate and Kenny Golladay. They have a revamped offensive line fortified by first-round center Frank Ragnow.
Few rookie running backs come into better—or less competitive—situations than Kerryon Johnson in 2018, and it's time for him to make the most of that.