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2020 Detroit Lions training camp preview: Running backs

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The Lions’ RB competition may be the most exciting Detroit has to offer.

NFL: Detroit Lions-Training Camp Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Detroit Lions went absolutely crazy trying to find some running back depth after initially setting their 53-man roster. Immediately, they claimed J.D. McKissic off of waivers. Then the following players jumped on and off the team (including practice squad): Mark Thompson, David Williams, Nick Brossette, Paul Perkins, Wes Hills, and Tra Carson. And that’s just the first two months of the season.

This year, the Lions come into 2020 much more prepared in the backfield. Detroit added two players in the draft and still have a few productive running backs returning from last year.

With arguably a surplus of talent, running back may be the most interesting position to watch at training camp—even if the limited contact makes it hard to evaluate their talent.

Here’s our training camp preview of the Lions’ running backs.

Previously: Quarterbacks

Running backs

Roster locks: D’Andre Swift, Kerryon Johnson
Likely safe: Bo Scarbrough
On the bubble: Ty Johnson, Jason Huntley
Long shots: Wes Hills
Key departures: J.D. McKissic

Who is RB1?

Maybe the designation isn’t all that important as both rookie D’Andre Swift and third-year player Kerryon Johnson are more than likely to split carries in 2020, but it will be interesting to see which player gets the majority of first-team reps in training camp. Johnson seems like the more likely candidate on Day 1, but I could see that change very quickly. You don’t draft a running back that high without being at least a little dissatisfied with your current No. 1 back.

Long term, I don’t think there’s any question about Swift eventually being The Guy in Detroit. However, how quickly will he assume that role? Can he win it in training camp? Will it happen sometime during the 2020 season? Or will Johnson remain the starter for this year?

A lot of these questions will be answered on the field, but I do believe the writing may be on the wall for Johnson.

No one else is safe

While I put Bo Scarbrough in the “likely safe” category, it wouldn’t be a complete shock to see the Lions move on from him after a decent 2019 season. Scarbrough provides a nice physical presence in the backfield, but Swift isn’t a guy that shies away from contact despite his smaller frame—and the same can be said of Johnson. With those two almost guaranteed to get the bulk of carries, the need for a guy like Scarbrough is limited, especially since he brings no special teams value (didn’t play any last year).

Wes Hills is a definite longshot to make the roster after Detroit drafted two running backs this year. As for the other two running backs on the roster...

On the surface, Ty Johnson and Jason Huntley are very similar players potentially fighting for the exact same role on the Lions’ offense. Both are speedy options who could be potentially dangerous receivers coming out of the backfield, and both could contend for the kickoff return role.

However, Jason Huntley is the more accomplished player at all of those roles—granted, they were at New Mexico State (and the Sun Belt Conference) and not Maryland and the Big Ten. Huntley caught 134 passes in college to Johnson’s 29, and he returned five kickoffs for touchdowns to Johnson’s two.

It would appear both are competing for the J.D. McKissic role in the offense, which entails about 30 receptions per season and a very limited role as a rusher. But one thing to consider is that the Lions kept both J.D. McKissic and Ty Johnson on the roster last year. There’s potentially room for Johnson and Huntley, but, admittedly, it would be a pretty crowded room if they decided to keep Johnson, Huntley and Scarbrough—especially if they decided to keep a fullback on the roster. For the majority of last year, the Lions kept five running backs on the roster (including fullback). It would be hard to justify six this year.

(Note: I will be including fullback Nick Bawden in the tight end preview for reasons).

Prediction:

Kerryon Johnson enters training camp as the starter, but he essentially splits first-team reps with D’Andre Swift at a ratio very close to 50-50. Bo Scarbrough makes the roster, as does Jason Huntley. Ty Johnson and Wes Hills are the odd men out—although both are practice squad eligible.