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Detroit Lions film breakdown: The Lions found a hidden gem in J.D. McKissic

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The late preseason addition became a reliable offensive weapon in 2019.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

J.D. McKissic entered the 2019 NFL season as an afterthought. After playing three years for the Seattle Seahawks, the running back was waived by the team that gave him a chance as an undrafted free agent in 2016.

For many players like McKissic, this spells the end. Even if they do get picked up elsewhere, they rarely do more than bounce around a few rosters and practice squads before eventually fizzling out of the league entirely. Rarely do they end up finding a team that will give them an opportunity by way of regular playing time.

The Lions took a chance on McKissic at the end of August, though. They claimed him off of waivers hoping that he could fill the role of Theo Riddick, their longtime running back that was released during the first week of training camp. While he never proved to be quite the receiver Riddick was, he did do a great job in other capacities

McKissic rushed for 205 yards in 2019 with 5.4 yards per carry—setting career highs in both marks. As a receiver, his 34 receptions tied his career high, as he racked up 233 yards and a touchdown.

2019 proved to be the running back’s best NFL season so far, and one could argue that he was the Lions best tool out of the backfield.

McKissic’s most valuable trait as a runner is his ability to make his body small, get low, and slip into the smallest of holes when attacking defenses at the line of scrimmage. He does not really need much room to operate and can find gaps where they do not exist to create decent gains out of plays that should have earned nothing.

The running back also has great vision coming out of the backfield. He rarely misses holes and has the ability to anticipate when they will open—and when they will be filled. McKissic’s decision-making out of the backfield is nearly perfect, and he rarely, if ever, makes a suboptimal decision.

Once he gets into space, he is great. The running back’s vision and anticipation out of the backfield translates well into the open field. His good decision-making does as well. McKissic does a good job setting up his blocks and pathing himself correctly to weave between defenders, making the most of the space he has. He has great footwork and agility as well, which makes up for a lack of straight-line speed.

McKissic is also valuable when the ball is not in his hands. Just like Riddick, he is a great blocker out of the backfield. The running back is excellent at spotting oncoming rushers and quickly getting into position to block. While he is not big enough to really deliver a huge blow, he can get his pads low and do enough to slow down and throw off the momentum of someone trying to chase down his quarterback.

All of this makes McKissic a great replacement for Riddick, just younger and healthier. He can catch passes out of the backfield, he can block, and he may even be a better runner than his predecessor. He does lack in one spot, though.

Riddick was a great route runner. He gave tons of problems to linebackers who tried to cover him in man and could get open on basically all of the intermediate routes. McKissic is not a very good route runner. While he can slip open on quick out routes or curls right up the middle, McKissic is not a real receiver like Riddick was. When the Lions try to split him out wide, he does not provide much. He does not have the route running to really get open, and it’s not like he has the speed that Ty Johnson has out there either.

Despite his poor route running, McKissic still proved to be the team’s most productive running back. He made the most of his limited opportunities and was reliable when used.

McKissic is set to be a free agent this offseason, as the deal he was on when Detroit claimed him was only for a year. While he is not a prime free agent target for the Lions, Detroit should definitely try to bring back McKissic. He works well within Darrell Bevell’s offense and usually can get whatever is being asked of him done—and done well.