The most exciting move the Detroit Lions made in the 2018 NFL draft was when they traded up in the second round to land Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson. He was a star in the college football world, and a key piece of an Auburn team that played in the SEC Championship.
As a rookie, Johnson was met with the impossible task of turning around a miserable Lions running game. A running game which had not produced a 100-yard rusher in four years.
Somehow, someway, the rookie was up for the challenge.
He eclipsed the 100-yard mark not once but twice in 2018. Johnson carried the team in their signature victory against the New England Patriots early in the year. He gave the offense a spark while quarterback Matthew Stafford struggled throughout the year, and the offense became stagnant when he went down with an injury late in the season.
Johnson finished the season with 641 yards and three touchdowns in the 10 games he played. His 5.4 yards per attempts was only a tenth of a yard off of league-leader Aaron Jones’ pace.
The running back was most efficient on runs to the outside. His acceleration once he gets the ball in his hands, combined with his long speed and ability to maintain his speed, allow him to fly to the edge.
He is hard to contain on outside zone runs and can earn chunk yardage.
On this play, Johnson took a toss play to the left edge. The Chicago Bears’ defense did a great job storming into the backfield to blow the play up. The running back’s burst and vision getting to the edge allow him to beat the defense and turn this play for a good gain.
Johnson also has great vision and instincts in the backfield. He is a smart runner that expertly reads defenses between the tackles. The running back is shifty and unpredictable, and defenders have trouble getting a hold of him in the backfield.
The running back’s vision and patience allows him to spring decent runs out of nothing.
This run was initially supposed to go towards the left side A gap, but the Dolphins’ defense did a great job holding steady upfront. Johnson pauses and almost comes to a complete stop for a moment. Once a gap opens to his right, he quickly hits it for a decent gain.
This play against the Patriots should have been for loss, but Johnson’s shiftiness and quick thinking nearly got him to the end zone:
Johnson takes the hand off out of the backfield and Patriots defensive tackle Adrian Clayborn is in the backfield in an instant. Clayborn should have a had a tackle for loss, but Johnson is able to quickly spot him and sidestep him to avoid going down. He then dekes around another Patriots defensive lineman before lowering his shoulder and crashing through a few others at the second level.
One criticism Johnson faced coming out of college was his lack of long speed. His play last year managed to mostly quiet those criticisms as he pieced together a few long runs in his first year with the Lions—and torching defenses downfield in the process.
This play against the Dolphins is a good example:
Per NFL Next Gen Stats, this was one of the fastest runs of the first half of the 2018 NFL season.
His combination of football IQ, speed, and agility make him a demon for defenses in the open field, but he does have one pretty big flaw.
A lot of Johnson’s instincts, vision, and decision-making skills that he shows behind the tackles disappear downfield. When he is in the open field, he often dances around instead of just sprinting as far as possible.
The run blocking on this play was perfect, and opened up a huge alley for the running back off of the left edge. Tight end Luke Willson gets outside to seal the inside running lane for Johnson at the second level, but the running back cuts the run back outside. He has the speed and burst to exploit the alleyway he had and beat linebacker Kiko Alonso for a huge gain—possibly even for a touchdown. Instead he chooses to cut it back and does not maximize this run.
Johnson also struggled in pass protection at times. He has issues properly setting his feet, squaring his body, and engaging the pass rusher. The running back got run over by defenders too often.
He is also a poor route runner. Johnson can catch quick dump off passes out of the backfield, but does not give the Lions the matchup problem that running backs like Theo Riddick, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara do when they are on the field.
The biggest fault in the running back’s game may be his inability to stay healthy. Johnson played through injuries during much of his college career at Auburn. He had a few lingering issues early on in his rookie year before his debut season ended prematurely in Week 11 against the Carolina Panthers.
Johnson looks like an absolute star at the moment, and it is clear that Detroit currently has one of the best running backs in the league. Durability will always be an issue, though.
The Lions have found themselves an elite talent, but for how long will they have him around?