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2020 NFL Draft Watch: 10 running backs for the Detroit Lions

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Kerryon Johnson has been a stud for the Lions when healthy, but with an uncertain RB room in 2020, the team may start looking ahead.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama vs Georgia Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not going to pretend that I had predicted that Kerryon Johnson was going to be the Lions’ second-round pick in 2018. His fit in the offense was clear, and both myself and PFF’s Brett Whitefield predicted that he would be on the Lions roster at some point during the draft.

While I loved Johnson the player at Auburn, his style and durability were concerns that raised the risk higher than an acceptable level for me in the second round. In 2018, he looked exactly like his scouting report: powerful, explosive, and difficult to tackle. He rushed for more than 5.0 yards per carry in six of his 10 games last season. He also ended the season on injured reserve, calling back to those durability concerns.

The Lions went out and got Johnson a running mate in LeGarrette Blount in 2018, but found a superior partner in C.J. Anderson for the current season. That should help lighten the load and keep Johnson fresh, but the team will have to start planning if the durability concerns become more the rule than the exception. Even if Johnson is able to remain healthy, the team should be looking past Anderson for a youthful complement going forward. The 2019 draft class wasn’t very good at running back, but the 2020 class looks to have quite a bit more talent.

D’Andre Swift, Georgia

Many Lions fans were turned off to the shifty, phone booth type of elusive running back after the failures of Reggie Bush and Ameer Abdullah in Detroit and the success relative to that with Kerryon Johnson’s style. The concept of seeing a rusher explode to the line, then stop in place, then dance a short jig before attempting to move laterally at the line was maddening. In the build up to the past couple drafts, any time such a back was mentioned, comments were flooded with “Oh, not this again” and I kind OF get it. Just don’t let you fool yourself into thinking every player who’s shifty and quick is somehow that level of player. You’ve still got prospects with LeSean McCoy potential out there.

D’Andre Swift is one of those guys, a player who can make you miss and explode in whichever direction you aren’t. He can make you think he’s going left, only to go left, after fooling you into thinking you he’s going right. He can also catch passes out of the backfield and showed enough as a route runner to split if needed. With how the NFL is developing offensively, Swift is a nearly perfect prospect to take up the reigns of RB1A/B for an offense looking to keep their play calling dynamic and their opposing defenses guessing.

Travis Etienne, Clemson

One of my fondest football memories was watching highlights of Ed Reed. You’d see the play start, the QB drop back, and then he’d throw. The angle would change on the broadcast and you’d see it in slow motion. The receiver leaping vertically, arms slowly extending. You’d see his eyes on the ball, his hands adjusting to the trajectory in the air. The cornerback, having been beaten, attempting to get his arm up into the path of the ball. Then, despite the slow motion broadcast, Ed Reed bursts into frame at full speed, plucking the ball out of the air like that scene in X-men with Quicksilver or literally any movie about stopping time.

Travis Etienne is a lot like that. His full speed isn’t fair and if the NCAA wasn’t already profiting off of his likeness they would likely be trying to find a way to fine him. When he’s gassed after a long drive, he jogs at speeds that would likely make Al Davis blush. If the Lions are looking for a speed complement to Kerryon Johnson, he’d be it. Even better, Etienne can run in a power scheme as well as zone, because you can gain a lot of ground with just a tiny crease when you’re that fast and explosive.

Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

Another year, another supremely productive running back from Wisconsin. Taylor has been a monster workhorse for the Badgers, posting this absurd statline over two seasons:

27 starts
606 rushes
4,171 yards
6.9 yards per carry
29 touchdowns

I mean, criminetly.

Taylor is a thickly-built rusher who has probably maxed out his frame. His athleticism is adequate, if not overly impressive. Taylor is a decisive, if not dynamic runner who will go where he’s supposed to go, hit who he’s supposed to hit, and get what he’s supposed to get. He’s the fat guy from the old Monty Python sketch in that he’s going to eat everything you’ve got, right down to the smallest of wafer thin mints.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt

One of the traits that made Kerryon Johnson immediately successful in the NFL was his decisiveness at the line. Another was his ability to take advantage of that decisiveness, bursting through the first hole he sees and taking the ball for a good gain. It’s part of why his fit in the Lions offense was so apparent. Those types of traits, the ability to see a hole and hit it like a ton of bricks, are valuable in any offense, but was something lacking in the Lions backfield prior to Johnson’s selection.

Vanderbilt’s Ke’Shawn Vaughn possesses the same type of style and the same kind of aggressiveness as a ball carrier. Athletic enough to burst through any crease and fast enough to take it to the house with any carry, Vaughn would allow the Lions to build on the progress they made in the running game with Kerryon Johnson and seriously threaten any defense on the ground.

Eno Benjamin, Arizona State

As a big proponent for athletic testing, you’d probably expect me to overlook guys who aren’t expected to test very well. Believe it or not, I pay attention to tape, too, and I can tell when a guy has traits that are worth looking into even if he’s lacking in some other areas. Granted, I’m probably going to value them differently, but I’m not ignorant to when a guy looks like he can play.

Eno Benjamin is one such dude. He’s not blazingly fast, nor is he all that explosive. He has an obvious knack for keeping his feet, though, and he seems to understand how to make defenders miss both in space and in traffic. His running style shifts between compact and upright, which might just be his attempt to make up for his lack of speed when he gets into the open field. I think Benjamin is the prime candidate to get all the Kareem Hunt comparisons during the season since he’s not a premier athlete but has very good patience. He’d make a strong addition to a backfield that already has a star and could take on the Robin to Kerryon Johnson’s Batman role immediately.

The Others

J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State

There are a lot of backs in this class that remind me of Ameer Abdullah (the prospect) as a runner, and Dobbins is another one. He looks like a very good athlete, showcasing both explosion and agility along with decent pass catching ability. Worth checking out more in 2019.

Cam Akers, Florida State

Akers stormed onto the scene as the follow up to Dalvin Cook, but his 2018 largely disappointed. If Akers can bounce back in 2019, I expect to start hearing his name talked about earlier than where he is now.

Kylin Hill, Mississippi State

In terms of running angry, Hill has flashes of Kerryon Johnson to his game. In terms of patience, there’s a lot of Dwayne Washington going on (not a compliment). Hill seems like his family has been persecuted by defensive backs and it’s his job to hunt them all down, but whether it’s a lack of agility or simply calling it good after making a hit, he doesn’t break free as much as he seems like he has the opportunity to.

Trey Sermon, Oklahoma

Sermon is another elusive type of back, but less in the Shady McCoy type of vein and more in the Derrick Henry, punch you in the mouth kind of way. He has about as much wiggle as a bulldozer, but he’s also got that kind of power.

Najee Harris, Alabama

Opinions on Harris seem to be all over the map, similar to Damien Harris in 2019. Some see him as a top 5 back, others outside the top 10, but he’s an Alabama back so he’s going to get plenty of work to show if he belongs in 2019.