The Detroit Lions lost one of their most valuable offensive weapons earlier this week when running back Kerryon Johnson was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. While there is always potential that he returns late this season, the Lions will need to replace him in the short term.
That means an increased role for the running backs already on the roster in Detroit, including backup J.D. McKissic.
McKissic was brought into Detroit just before the season started. The running back spent the first three years of his career with the Seattle Seahawks after signing with them as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He came to the Lions having played 19 career games, amassing just under 200 rushing yards and 282 receiving yards. He also had a combined three touchdowns.
While he arrived as an afterthought, McKissic has already carved out a role for himself in Detroit. He has played in around a fifth of the team’s offensive snaps through six games—seeing a sharp increase in playing time starting Week 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs. He has largely gotten work as a third down back, filling the gap left by Theo Riddick.
The running back has totaled 109 yards on 15 carries so far this season, for an impressive 7.3 yards per carry. If you remove one long run against the Philadelphia Eagles that number drops all the way down to 4.6—which is still a respectable total. He has also caught seven passes for 73 yards this year.
Now with Johnson out, McKissic could be his team’s top running back for the first time in his career. Does he have what it takes to fill that role?
While McKissic previously featured more as a receiver than runner in Seattle, Detroit has found a way to make him more of a true running back. His greatest asset is definitely his vision coming out of the backfield.
He does a great job setting up his blocks, and he has great patience in the backfield. This play against the Minnesota Vikings is a good example.
Minnesota’s defense was all over this play, and had McKissic stayed on script, this play would have been stuffed in the backfield. He stayed patient, though, worked his way outside and turned it into a 2-yard gain. While that is still technically a failed run, there is only so much a running back can do with run blocking this bad.
While McKissic does have the vision to find holes, he struggles to make the most of them at times. The running back is not very explosive for as small as he is (5-foot-10, 195 pounds), and while he can eventually hit a decent speed, he takes too long to get there.
This play against the Green Bay Packers could have gone for a good gain, but he could not burst off the edge:
The running back takes the hand off here and was supposed to follow his fullback. Green Bay was all over the play, though. McKissic quickly recognized this and bounced the run outside where he had open space. While he did a great job getting outside, he did not get around the corner fast enough and ended up getting tripped up for minimal gain.
Interestingly enough, McKissic may be a better runner that receiver. He is not particularly agile or nimble, which means he does not do much as a route runner, and he really cannot make the first man miss to get yards after the catch. While he can make quick catches in the flat and in open space, he still does not have the speed to truly make the most of those plays.
McKissic clearly has better mental attributes than he does physical, and that shows up when he is tasked with pass blocking as well.
He has great vision and instincts as a blocker and does a great job recognizing the blitz and getting there early. This play against the Chiefs is a good example:
The running back perfectly reads where the blitz is coming from and picks up the middle linebacker coming up the A-gap. He keeps the front of the pocket safe and gives Matthew Stafford time to watch his routes develop from a clean pocket.
McKissic rarely misses a blitz pick up, but his lack of size often hurts him when he gets there. His form is not the best either, as he does not get his pad level low enough often. This is a particularly weird problem to have for a player that is only 5-foot-10.
On this play against the Vikings, he spots the blitz and gets there in time. Unfortunately, he gets run over anyways.
McKissic may not be a great running back, but he has greatly outperformed any expectations as a late preseason addition. He can run between the tackles, he can be an asset in the passing game, and he can even protect Stafford in the pocket at times.
The Lions also like to line him up all over the offense—often placing him split wide at receiver or even at tight end. While his lack of talent as a route runner makes him less effective out there, it does give opposing defenses more to think about.
As interesting as he is, it is hard to see him totally filling Johnson’s role. He does not have any of the big play potential Johnson does, and durability is always a concern when giving an undersized player a lot of carries. With the Lions offensive line currently playing as bad as they are, it’s hard to see him have any regular success as a runner.
Detroit would be smartest to use McKissic as a gadget within the offense instead of a feature back. He can not fill the role of an RB1, and the Lions would be better off bringing in another name. They could send a late-round pick for someone like Kenyan Drake of the Miami Dolphins, or if they do not feel like spending draft capital they could take a look at a free agent like Jay Ajayi.
For now, though, it looks like he will be tasked with filling parts Johnson’s role.