Running back was a bit of a mess for the Detroit Lions in 2019. Between injuries, sudden releases and a flurry of mid-season signings, the Lions struggled to find a winning combination of tailbacks to lead Detroit’s rushing attack.
But there was one constant in the lineup, and he wasn’t even part of the team’s offseason plans last year. J.D. McKissic was added right before the season began, and he was the only Lions running back to play all 16 games last year.
Now he potentially faces free agency, leaving the Lions with an interesting decision on their hands. Should they keep McKissic around for another year? Let’s take a closer look.
Previously in this series:
- Miles Killebrew (click here)
- Rashaan Melvin (click here)
- Jeff Driskel (click here)
- Tavon Wilson (click here)
- A’Shawn Robinson (click here)
- Sam Martin (click here)
- Mike Daniels (click here)
- Danny Amendola (click here)
- Graham Glasgow (click here)
- Kenny Wiggins (click here)
- Jermaine Kearse (click here)
- Don Muhlbach (click here)
Expectations before 2019
McKissic did not spend any of the offseason with the Detroit Lions. He was acquired via the waiver wire the day after roster cutdowns.
Although the connection with new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was obvious, it didn’t really seem like McKissic would have a very significant role after he was acquired. Detroit already had Kerryon Johnson, C.J. Anderson and rookie Ty Johnson to give the running game a pretty well-rounded look.
Though grabbing McKissic could have certainly been a sign that they weren’t quite ready for fifth-round pick Ty Johnson to take a major role, not a ton was expected of the former Seahawks running back regardless.
Actual Role in 2019
2019 stats: 16 games played (3 starts): 38 carries, 205 yards (5.4 YPC), 34 catches, 233 yards, 1 TD
PFF Grade: 72.4 (32nd of 133)
McKissic, indeed, did get the nod over Johnson as the team’s third-string back. However, things were thrown for a loop in Week 3 when the Lions surprisingly cut C.J. Anderson from the team and acquired Paul Perkins from waivers. This, along with the injury to Kerryon Johnson, triggered a chain of roster moves regarding running backs. Perkins, Tra Carson, Wes Hills, and Bo Scarbrough went on and off the roster, but McKissic remained throughout.
As noted by our own Mansur Shaheen last week in his film review, McKissic displayed sound vision throughout the year, resulting in an impressive 5.4 yards per carry. Though his usage was sparse throughout the season—he had more than 10 touches in just one game in 2019—he seemed to make the most of it.
Lions fans were likely spoiled by Theo Riddick over the past few years, so McKissic’s impact may not have seemed as noticeable, especially in the passing game, but McKissic was a steady contributor in the Lions’ backfield.
What should the Lions do with him?
Contract Status: Restricted Free Agent
The case for re-signing:
Before we get into McKissic, here’s a reminder on how restricted free agency works. The Lions can place three different tenders on the young running back, each of which amounts to a one-year deal:
- First-round tender: $4.7 million (estimated by Over The Cap)
- Second-round tender: $3.3 million
- Original-round tender: $2.1 million
If the Lions decide to place one of these tenders on McKissic, the running back can either sign it or continue to look for a better deal in free agency. Other teams can give McKissic an “offer sheet,” and the Lions have an opportunity to match those contract terms. However, if the Lions decide that offer sheet is too rich for their blood, they will get a draft pick from McKissic’s new team in accordance to the tender placed on him (first, second or original-round). In the case of McKissic, he went undrafted, so the Lions would not get any compensation if they choose to use the original-round tender.
Although it wouldn’t result in any compensation, placing an original-round tender would make a lot of sense for Detroit. It’s a bit of a pay raise for the young (26) running back, but it’s not a long-term commitment to him. Additionally, it gives them the option to match any offers McKissic may receive from someone else.
$2.1 million may seem like a lot for an RB3, but with the Lions only spending $1.8 million in cap space for Kerryon Johnson and $585,000 on Bo Scarbrough, the Lions can afford to spend a little extra to secure McKissic on the roster. And for comparison’s sake, Riddick’s cap hit was $2.4 million and $4.1 million in 2017 and 2018, respectively. $2.1 million isn’t all that much.
The case against re-signing:
McKissic’s talent level is likely replacement level. Restricted free agent tenders are likely a little more expensive than he’s worth, and the Lions started to get some good production out of rookie Ty Johnson at the end of the year. McKissic was essentially phased out of the offense, and Johnson thrived in his increased role.
- McKissic: 85 offensive snaps—18 rushes, 65 yards (3.6 YPC); 21 catches, 118 yards
- Johnson: 140 offensive snaps—24 rushes, 136 yards (5.7 YPC); 12 catches, 54 yards
I could really go either way on this one. I think McKissic is both good depth and healthy competition for Ty Johnson this offseason, but it may be a little too much to pay him one of the tender amounts. Still, that money is not guaranteed, so the Lions could give McKissic a late-round tender, and if he loses the camp battle, it’s no-harm, no-foul.
In the end, while many believe Ty Johnson will take on McKissic’s role in 2020, it’s important to remember that a young player’s trajectory is not always up. Year 1 to Year 2 is a crucial transition for any NFL player, and if it doesn’t work out for Johnson, McKissic would make a nice backup plan.
What should the Lions do with J.D. McKissic?
This poll is closed
Offer 1st-round RFA tender (~$4.7M)
Offer 2nd-round RFA tender (~$3.3M)
Offer original-round RFA tender (~$2.1M)
Just re-sign him
Let him hit free agency