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5 Questions: Could Lions’ 6th-round pick RB Ty Johnson make a rookie impact?

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Getting to know the Lions’ new running back with some help from Maryland blog Testudo Times.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

What are the Lions doing at running back in 2019? It’s a position the Lions needed some help at once the offseason started and LeGarrette Blount hit free agency. But it seemed the Lions had fixed that problem when they went out and signed C.J. Anderson to backup Kerryon Johnson.

With Johnson, Anderson, Zach Zenner and Theo Riddick already on board, the last thing I expected was for the Lions to go out and draft a running back. But that’s exactly what they did when they took Maryland’s Ty Johnson in the sixth round of the NFL Draft.

At first glance, it’s easy to say that Johnson has a real uphill battle to make this roster. The aforementioned Anderson just signed and the Lions made sure to go out and re-sign Zach Zenner as well. There’s been some questions on whether or not Theo Riddick still fits in with what the Lions want to do anymore, but as we continue the approach to training camp, it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere.

A lot of talk has Johnson possibly taking the job as the new kick returner in 2019. He certainly flashed a lot of skill at that spot in college, and he has greasy fast speed that’ll wow you. But so does All-Pro return man Jamal Agnew.

So what can the Lions get from Johnson that makes him stand out? We decided I needed to grab some crab cakes and talk our Maryland expert Thomas Kendziora of Testudo Times. Here’s what he had to say.

POD: What are your overall thoughts on Johnson’s time at Maryland?

TT: “The past four years at Maryland have been hectic on and off the field. Randy Edsall was fired during Johnson’s freshman season, and the DJ Durkin tenure ended in a tragic mess at the start of his senior year. But Johnson was a constant. He came in as a three-star recruit from an area that doesn’t produce many FBS prospects and finished his Maryland career third all-time in all-purpose yards behind longtime NFL players Torrey Smith and LaMont Jordan. While he only had one 1,000-yard rushing season, Johnson was always a threat to break a big run or big return. He was also the veteran leader of a talented running back group, which has really come into its own of late and will be led by Anthony McFarland this coming season.”

POD: What are his strengths?

TT: “Speed. And then speed again. And if I didn’t mention it before, speed.

Johnson doesn’t have an official 40-yard dash time since he didn’t receive a combine invite, but his pro day run appeared to fall somewhere in between 4.3 and 4.4, which still makes him faster than any running back at the combine. That speed made Johnson a home-run hitter out of the backfield and in the return game. I still remember the game against Purdue in 2016 where he tallied 204 yards on seven carries. That’s 29.1 yards per carry, and Johnson averaged 9.1 a pop that season and 7.7 for his career. And he’s had kick returns of 100 and 98 yards at Ohio State and Michigan, respectively. On days when Maryland seemed to leave its offense at the hotel, Johnson in space was a threat against anyone.”

POD: What are his weaknesses?

TT: “The flip side of being a home-run hitter is having boom-or-bust tendencies, and Johnson had more of that at Maryland then you’d like to see. He’d alternate 150-yard outbursts with 30-yard performances, struggling to find space against some of the Big Ten’s premier defenses. While Johnson was great when he got outside, he didn’t seem physical enough between the tackles. If that’s something that can be gained in the pros, though, Johnson has the size (5’10, 208 pounds) and strength (27 reps on bench press) to suggest he can do just that.”

POD: Theo Riddick handles the Lions passes out of the backfield at this point. But he’s dropped off over the past couple years. Is this a role Johnson could fill in Detroit?

TT: “Johnson was never much of a factor in Maryland’s passing game, but I think that’s more about the scheme, quarterbacks and other receivers on the roster. He and his coaches were always confident in his pass-catching abilities, and it can certainly be a way for the Lions to get him in space. Johnson and Riddick have different games, so it’s hard to say for sure how that shakes out, but I think the rookie is more of a receiver than the stats (just 11 catches and one receiving TD in his last two seasons) would imply.”

POD: What kind of impact could he make in Detroit?

TT: “I still think Johnson’s biggest NFL impact will be on special teams, at least right away. He can step in and be a threatening kick returner from day one, and his explosiveness out of the backfield makes him an intriguing option in any system. Detroit still has Kerryon Johnson, C.J. Anderson and Riddick, so Johnson probably won’t be needed as an impact running back right away. But the Lions taking him in the sixth round, higher than I think anyone expected him to go, clearly shows that they believe in his potential. After following him for the last four years, I think he’s someone worth believing in.”