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Is Kerryon Johnson already a top-10 running back?

Let’s dive deep into the statistics from his rookie season.

Carolina Panthers v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Kerryon Johnson’s rookie season was undeniably impressive. The Detroit Lions’ 2018 second-round pick almost immediately put to bed Detroit’s awful 100-yard rusher drought, and did it again a few weeks later. His 5.43 yards per carry is the 19th highest average for a rookie in NFL history. Recently, only Alvin Kamara (6.07), Thomas Rawls (5.65) and Andre Ellington (5.53) have bested him.

Johnson’s rookie year was cut short due to an injury, eliminating him from rookie of the year consideration—though it would’ve been hard to convince voters to stray from Saquon Barkley anyways.

But entering his second year, where does Johnson stand among his cohorts? Former NFL running back and NFL.com contributor Maurice Jones-Drew ranked each team’s starting running back, and he put Johnson 12th in the NFL. Not too shabby for a Lions running back.

This begs the question: Can Kerryon Johnson be considered a potential top-10 back right now? Let’s take a closer look.

Stats

Let’s try to look at this objectively as possible. Here’s how Johnson ranked in traditional stats for the 2018 season:

Rushing yards: 641 (30th)
Rushing yards/game: 64.1 (18th)
Yards per carry: 5.4 (second—minimum 6.25 attempts/game)
Rushing TDs: 3 (t-44th)
Receiving yards: 213 (33rd)

Using standard statistics, it would be hard to make the case that Johnson is a top-10 back. Even after cutting out cumulative stats like rushing/receiving yards and touchdowns which unfairly hurt Johnson due to his low usage and shortened season, Johnson only ranks 18th in rushing yards per game.

The best case for Johnson comes from his averages on a per play basis. His 5.4 yards per carry was second in the NFL. The case for the former Auburn Tiger becomes clearer when we consider more advanced stats.

Football Outsiders has a pair of statistics that put a little more context into performances than traditional statistics. They take into account down, distance, score, and time remaining, among other factors. DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement), one of their signature stats, measures a players’ overall value as compared to an average players’ performance. DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) is a similar statistic, but measures a player’s value on a per-play average.

So where did Johnson rank in Football Outsiders’ signature stats last year?

DYAR: 14th
DVOA: 5th

Now we’re talking. If you value these statistics more than the traditional set, you could easily make the argument that Johnson is a top-10 back. His lack of usage, it could be argued, is the only reason he isn’t in the conversation yet.

Usage

Let’s talk about just how infrequently Johnson was used in 2018. Obviously, missing the final six games of the season will cause a player’s overall snap count for the year to drop pretty low relative to starters playing in every game. Johnson finished the season with only 346 offensive snaps to his name, which puts him 42nd among NFL running backs. In fact, he finished second on his team, behind Theo Riddick’s 415 snaps (31st in the league).

Even when Johnson was on the field, he didn’t have the ball nearly as much as his running back counterparts across the league. Per lineups.com, Kerryon Johnson only saw a total of 150 touches, or 15.0 touches per game. That ranks him 22nd among NFL backs. For comparison’s sake, Ezekiel Elliott led the league with 25.4 touches per game, while Saquon Barkley finished with 22.0 touches per game.

Will that change going forward? Obviously, the Lions eased Johnson into the league. He averaged a lot more touches in his final five games (17.4) than his first five games (12.6). But there’s reason to believe the Lions will continue to hold Johnson’s workload back in 2019.

Take head coach Matt Patricia at his word. Here’s what he had to say about Johnson and the running back position back in March at the owner’s meetings (per the Detroit Free Press):

“Regardless of Kerryon, I think it’s a position-specific thing where those guys, they take a lot of hits. They’re in those situations a lot where their bodies are taking some pounding so you want to be conscious of how many plays they’re getting, especially early on in the year. And obviously, we just want to win. That’s the most important thing. But you do have to look at big picture and say, ‘OK, great, we could win a couple now, but if we wear this guy out and he doesn’t help us in the long run then what’s the trade off?’”

Because the Lions invested in a backup running back in C.J. Anderson, it’s quite possible that Kerryon Johnson never quite reaches the statistical potential of a top-10 running back.

Who would he replace in the top 10?

It’s impossible to have the top-10 debate without bringing up the other running backs across the league. Here’s a look at the 11 running backs Jones-Drew ranked ahead of Johnson and their statistics for the 2018 season.

  1. Saquon Barkley - 1,307 rushing yards (5.0 YPC); 91 catches, 721 yards
  2. Alvin Kamara - 883 rushing yards (4.6 YPC); 81 catches, 709 yards
  3. Le’Veon Bell* - 1,291 rushing yards (4.0 YPC); 85 catches, 655 yards
  4. Ezekiel Elliott - 1,434 rushing yards (4.7 YPC); 77 catches, 567 yards
  5. Christian McCaffrey - 1,098 rushing yards (5.0 YPC); 107 catches, 867 yards
  6. Todd Gurley - 1,251 rushing yards (4.9 YPC); 59 catches, 580 yards
  7. Melvin Gordon - 885 rushing yards (5.1 YPC); 50 catches, 490 yards
  8. Joe Mixon - 1,168 rushing yards (4.9 YPC); 43 catches 296 yards
  9. Nick Chubb - 996 rushing yard (5.2 YPC); 20 catches, 149 yards
  10. Dalvin Cook - 615 rushing yards (4.6 YPC); 40 catches, 305 yards
  11. Sony Michel - 931 rushing yards (4.5 YPC); 7 catches, 50 yards
  12. Kerryon Johnson - 641 rushing yards (5.4 YPC); 32 catches, 213 yards

*Used 2017 stats for Le’Veon Bell, since he sat out 2018

It’s pretty hard to make the argument for Johnson surpassing any of the backs ranked one through nine. It does seem like Le’Veon Bell is ranked a little too high due to reputation more so than his current value, but otherwise, it’s a solid list.

However, it wouldn’t be ridiculous to have Johnson jump two spots into the 10 spot. Dalvin Cook, too, dealt with a shortened season in 2018, playing in only 11 games. However, Johnson surpassed him in both rushing yards and yards per carry. You could certainly argue the Lions had a better offensive line in front of him, but is that worth almost a full yard per carry?

As for Sony Michel, it’s tough to say. Michel is certainly benefitting from the exposure of being on a Patriots team that not only gives him the spotlight, but the opportunity to run the ball quite a bit. Michel’s 16.1 rushing attempts per game ranked 11th in the league. However, Michel isn’t much of a threat in the passing game, and he, too, averaged nearly an entire yard less than Johnson per carry.

Overall

I think a good case could be made that Johnson is already a top-10 running back. However, I don’t think he’ll ever really be in the conversation among the elite backs in the league. That’s not due to lack of talent; it’s clear Kerryon has all of the necessary skills to make it in this league.

Detroit’s usage of running backs will continue to hold Johnson back statistically. Logically, it makes some sense. Detroit’s objective is to win, not to build up individual statistics. After all, the one concern there is with Johnson is his durability. To save him from injury, it makes sense to limit him to 15-20 touches per game rather than 25-30—at least until he can prove himself able to take on a full 16-game season.

So even though Johnson has already shown the capability of a top-10 back, don’t expect to hear his name among them for some time.

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