The hiring of Darrell Bevell has pretty much sealed the deal. Kerryon Johnson is the future of the Detroit Lions.
The team is very clearly committed to running the ball on offense, and after Johnson’s promising rookie year, it’s clear Johnson is going to play a big part in whether this team reaches its potential in 2019 and far, far beyond.
But what exactly is Johnson’s ceiling? Could he potentially turn into a top-10 back? Will be ever become a workhorse back? Let’s take a closer look at Kerryon Johnson.
Expectations before 2018
As the Lions’ second-round pick—and one they moved up to select—expectations were pretty high. Johnson drew plenty of comparisons to All-Pro back Le’Veon Bell, and his career at Auburn was stellar.
However, Lions fans had been through this before. Detroit has a long history of drafting running backs highly and things not working out anywhere close to expectations. Jahvid Best, Kevin Jones, Kevin Smith, Ameer Abdullah, Mikel Leshoure among a few others.
So there was a bit of guarded optimism. With an offensive line that looked very good on paper, there was reason to believe this year could actually be different. Johnson was even drawing some national rookie of the year consideration in the offseason.
Actual role in 2018
2018 stats: 10 games (7 starts): 118 carries, 641 yards (5.4 YPC), 3 TDs; 32 catches, 213 yards, 1 TD
PFF grade: 81.1 (13th among running backs)
After easing Johnson in throughout the first few games, it became abundantly clear the Lions couldn’t afford to take it slowly with Johnson any longer. He was far and away the Lions’ best running back and capable of breaking off a 20-yard run at any point in the game. In fact, he did that six times in his 10 rookie games.
Johnson outperformed even the most lofty of expectations in his rookie year. That 5.4 yards per carry mark is by far the highest from a Lions running back in a single season in the post-Barry Sanders era (minimum 100 carries). The closest anyone came was James Stewart back in 2001, when he rushed for 4.79 YPC. Heck, even Barry Sanders only eclipsed 5.4 YPC twice in his career (6.13 in 1997 and 5.69 in 1994).
And while Johnson’s PFF grade is just good, his value according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric—which measures a player’s value on a per-play basis compared to an average player—was fifth best in the entire league last year.
Of course, there is one big caveat to Johnson’s impressive rookie season: it ended with an injury. If there was one red flag on Johnson’s scouting report, it was the dreaded injury prone label. And, obviously, the 2018 season did nothing to quell those concerns.
Outlook for 2019
Contract status: Signed through 2021 season
The Lions further committed to the running game this offseason by bringing in an offensive coordinator with a long history of successful rushing attacks, overhauling their tight end group with players capable of blocking, and giving Johnson a more efficient complement in C.J. Anderson.
But there are two things holding Johnson back from potentially being a top-five back in this league: his limited usage and his injury history.
On his usage, the Lions have been very upfront that they don’t intend on making him 25-carries-per-game kind of guy.
“Obviously, we just want to win. That’s the most important thing, but you do have to look at big picture,” Patricia said earlier this year. “Great, we could run a couple plays now, but if we wear this guy out, it’s not going to help us in the long run.”
Last year, Johnson averaged 11.8 rushes and 3.2 catches per game. Those figures are almost certainly going to increase simply because of his limited usage early in his rookie season. However, even at his peak last year, even in games the Lions led the majority of the way, Johnson didn’t carry the ball 20 times in a game once.
As for the injury thing, Johnson is using this offseason to make himself bigger and stronger.
“I gotta work on getting stronger, getting better, making sharper cuts, being a smarter player,” Johnson said back in May. “When it comes to the season, we’ll see how I line up.”
All that being said, expectations are very high for Johnson in 2019. If everything goes right this season, he will be in the conversation as a top-10 back in this league, perhaps even higher.
More reasonable expectations would place him around 10-15 in the league, simply because of Detroit’s intended usage of him. Still, there is no reason to believe Johnson will be any less explosive and efficient in 2019.