The Detroit Lions’ future at running back took a big shift during April’s NFL Draft. Prior to that, the Lions looked like they had a modest, but promising stable of backs. Kerryon Johnson has looked good when healthy, Bo Scarbrough finally provided some efficiency as a change-of-pace back, and Ty Johnson showed flashes of being the speedy receiver type that can also provide on special teams during his modest rookie year.
But the additions of D’Andre Swift and Jason Huntley have set the Lions up for a potential overhaul in the backfield, and one of the most impacted players is Ty Johnson. Let’s take a closer look at Johnson’s rookie season and how his future looks currently.
Expectations heading into 2019
As a sixth-round draft pick, Johnson wasn’t expected to contribute all that much. Though he was a candidate to win the kick return job, the Lions already had a speedy, receiving back in J.D. McKissic (after he was added) and it was clear Kerryon Johnson and C.J. Anderson would be RB1 and RB2 when the season began.
That being said, there was still a significant amount of hope given Johnson’s speed that he could contribute something—in some way—right away.
Actual role in 2019
2019 stats: 16 games (1 starts): 63 rushes, 273 yards (4.3 YPC); 24 catches, 109 yards, 3 kick returns, 58 yards (19.3 yards per return)
PFF grade: 51.2 (61st out of 61)
With Kerryon Johnson’s early injury, Ty Johnson was able to find a consistent and steady role as a tailback with around 5-10 touches per game. Early on, he wasn’t all that efficient with the ball in his hands. His 4.5 yards per catch was not very good, and although his year average of yards per carry is perfectly acceptable (4.3), that number is largely skewed by a 40-yard run in the season finale. Prior to that run, he was averaging just 3.75 yards per carry.
That being said, Johnson provided a lot of versatility throughout the year, and his contributions were still somewhat solid for a sixth-round pick. He got the experience necessary for growth and left 2019 on a high note. Still, it’s hard to ignore that PFF ranking of dead last among qualifying running backs.
Outlook for 2020
Contract status: Signed through 2022
As a sixth-round pick, Johnson is signed for another three years with a miniscule cap hit. Only in his final season does that cap hit exceed $1 million—and just barely. So in terms of a financial burden, there simply isn’t any with Johnson.
However, there is a serious question now whether Johnson has any tangible role on offense anymore after the drafting of Jason Huntley. Huntley brings all the speed elements that Johnson has, plus extraordinary explosion numbers as well.
Additionally, Huntley’s ability as a receiver is much more proven than that of Johnson—who many claimed was simply underutilized as a pass catcher in college. Check the stats:
Ty Johnson receiving stats:
2015: 2 catches, 30 yards
2016: 16 catches, 206 yards, 1 TD
2017: 5 catches, 60 yards, 1 TD
2018: 6 catches, 22 yards
TOTAL: 29 catches, 318 yards, 2 TDs
Jason Huntley’s receiving stats:
2016: 8 catches, 35 yards
2017: 39 catches, 363 yards, 2 TDs
2018: 47 catches, 529 yards, 3 TDs
2019: 40 catches, 192 yards, 2 TDs
TOTAL: 134 catches, 1,119 yards, 7 TDs
Huntley, too, brings some buzz in the kick return game. He returned five kickoffs for touchdowns at New Mexico State and had the highest kickoff return average among independent schools in 2018 (27.2—coincidentally the same average as Ty Johnson that year).
That all being said, Huntley and Johnson aren’t exactly the same type of player. The biggest difference between the two is size. Johnson has two inches and nearly 20 pounds on him. At his size, it’s hard to see Huntley being an effective between-the-tackles rusher for the Lions, while Johnson has that in his wheelhouse.
But don’t get it twisted, these two are very likely to be fighting for the same roster spot. Lions general manager Bob Quinn basically admitted that on draft night.
“He is going to be in competition with Ty Johnson,” Quinn said. “Ty Johnson was a sixth-round pick last year, so Ty knows. Ty’s a smart guy. Ty knows he has to come in and learn it every year. We’re excited about Ty Johnson and hopefully the progress he makes from Year 1 to Year 2. We’re going to put Jason right in there with him.”
So the Lions will face a tough decision come August. Do they go with Ty Johnson—the player with one year of experience, the speed for gadget plays and the size for running between the tackles. Or do they go with Huntley, someone who potentially has even more speed and the proven efficiency as a receiver, but likely lacks the build and strength to pound the rock?
Johnson has versatility and experience on his side, but the fact that Detroit even drafted Huntley should make him wary. There’s always a chance the Lions decide to keep both on the roster—especially if they decide not to use a roster spot on a pure fullback in Nick Bawden—but Johnson is very much on notice right now.