No Detroit Lions player has seen a quicker rise and fall than running back Kerryon Johnson. Drafted just two years ago with the 43rd overall pick, Johnson came into the league with a lot of potential, and he initially lived up to it. Right out of the gate, he put to bed Detroit’s pesky 100-yard game drought. And although he finished the season on injured reserve, his 5.4 yards per carry was the highest for a Lions running back in 21 years (minimum 70 carries).
Flash forward to now, and many believe Johnson could be on his way out after the Lions drafted another running back in the second round. Is it truly over for Johnson in Detroit? Will his role just simply change with the Lions? Or is he still the head honcho until proven otherwise?
Let’s take a look at Kerryon Johnson
Expectations heading into 2019
As mentioned above, Kerryon Johnson’s rookie year was one of the best we’ve seen out of a Lions running back since the Barry Sanders days. Sure, there was concern about his injury history, but considering it had been almost a full year since his leg injury, many believed 2019 would be a breakout season for Johnson, with 1,000 rushing yards not out of the question—especially with a new offensive coordinator that has a history of producing some of the best rushing attacks in the modern era.
With limited competition at the position, Johnson was expected to get the bulk of the carries and figured to be a key component to the team’s success on offense.
Actual role in 2019
2019 stats: 8 games (7 starts): 113 rushes, 403 yards (3.6 YPC), 3 TDs—10 catches, 127 yards, 1 TD
PFF grade: 66.7 (43rd of 63 qualifying RBs)
To call 2019 a disappointment would be a massive understatement for Johnson. Not only was Johnson ineffective early in the year—he averaged just 3.35 yards per attempt in his first six games—but he also suffered another significant injury, finding himself on IR for the second consecutive season.
It wasn’t all bad, though. Johnson was able to return to the lineup, and when the running game was a little more established at the end of the year, he actually looked a little like his old self. In the final two games of the season, Johnson rushed for a total of 95 yards on 21 carries (4.5 YPC). Additionally, it’s easy forget that against the Chiefs earlier in the year, he ran for 125 yards on 26 carries—his second best game, and the most rushing yards by a non-Kerryon Johnson Lions player since Reggie Bush in 2013.
Outlook for 2020
Contract status: Signed through 2021
The drafting of D’Andre Swift with the 35th overall pick changes everything for the Lions’ backfield. Detroit didn’t draft Swift that high to bench him right away, so there’s good reason to believe he’ll step in and immediately become the feature back. Remember, Johnson was drafted under a previous offensive coordinator and running backs coach. This offensive coaching staff now has “their guy” in Swift.
That being said, don’t expect Johnson to disappear off the face of the Earth. Head coach Matt Patricia has consistently said that there are only a handful of backs in today’s NFL that can be that workhorse back who gets 25-30 carries a game, and Swift is not likely to be that guy given his relatively small stature.
Here’s exactly what Patricia said about the running back battle for 2020 on the Rich Eisen Show this week (via the Detroit Free Press):
“For me, we’re going to try to play whoever is going to help us in that particular play, that particular game, whatever it might be,” he said. “If you’re out there for the very first play, or you get out there on the second play, I don’t really understand what the difference is in a starter in that case.
“But, certainly, we’re excited to be able to acquire Swift and get him on our team and seeing what he can do. Sometimes you put two or three running backs out there. We will see what happens.”
In an ideal world, it all comes together in a Mark Ingram/Alvin Kamara type of way like it did with the Saints in 2017. That year, Mark Ingram had 1,124 rushing yards to Kamara’s 728 with both rushing for over 4.8 yards per carry and both playing significant roles in the receiving game as well (416 yards for Ingram, 826 for Kamara).
So make no mistake, Kerryon Johnson will have a role with this team in 2020, and maybe a running mate is just what he needs to stay healthy and effective for an entire season. That being said, Swift will likely be getting significantly more touches this upcoming season, and appears to be Detroit’s plan for the position beyond this year.