November 28, 2013. Thanksgiving. As has become NFL tradition, the Detroit Lions are playing. Their opponent on this particular Thanksgiving comes in the form of the Green Bay Packers. As the clock expires, sealing Detroit’s 40-10 victory, the box score indicates Reggie Bush finished the game with 20 carries for 117 yards and one TD.
That would be the last time a Detroit Lion running back would break the century mark in yardage for 1,761 days. The Lions competed in 70 games during that time, the fourth-most consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher and the longest since Washington went 72 games from 1961-1967. Then, this happened…
September 23, 2018. This was the final carry of the game for rookie Kerryon Johnson and the one that pushed his rushing total to 101 yards. The streak of futility was over.
Johnson would go on to post another 100-yard effort before a knee injury shortened his rookie season to only 10 games. Johnson staked his claim as the #1 option in Detroit’s backfield heading into 2019 and, despite the small sample size, has piqued the interest of fantasy owners looking to find a diamond in the Motor City rough. Is there reason to believe Johnson can become more than the RB2 he’s currently being drafted as? Let’s dive in and take a look.
The Anderson Effect
It wasn’t until Detroit’s fourth game of the year, the game following Johnson’s 100-yard effort against New England, that Johnson was officially named the team’s starter ahead of LeGarrette Blount. Despite the starter designation, Johnson still gave way to Blount nearly 50% of the time through the team’s BYE in week six. Following the BYE, Johnson out-touched Blount by a better than 2-to-1 rate (Johnson had 68 carries to Blount’s 31 in weeks 7 through 11). Johnson was also much more effective than Blount, doubling Blount’s yards per carry average (5.4 to 2.7).
Blount’s ineffectiveness combined with Johnson’s success made Blount expendable following the 2018 season. Then, Detroit brought in C.J. Anderson from the Rams as the team’s #2 RB and visions of Anderson’s late-season dominance in 2018 began to cloud the outlook for Johnson once again. Anderson had three games of elite production filling in for Todd Gurley in weeks 16, 17, and the team’s divisional playoff game. Anderson totaled 422 yards and four TDs in those three games before struggling in the AFC Championship game and Super Bowl.
For the season, Anderson averaged 5.48 yards per carry with the Rams (488 yards on 89 carries), just barely better than Johnson’s 5.43 yards per carry (641 yards on 118 carries). However, Anderson enjoyed running behind a much better offensive line than Johnson, as Pro Football Focus ranked the Rams at #6 in 2018 while Detroit landed at #16.
Comparing apples to apples as much as we can, Anderson and Johnson had two games against a common opponent in 2018. Both faced off against the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots. Against Dallas, Johnson had nine carries for 55 yards and one TD while Anderson had 23 carries for 123 yards and two TDs. Against New England, Johnson totaled 101 yards on 16 carries; Anderson struggled to 22 yards on seven carries against them in the Super Bowl. In these two instances, Johnson matched or exceeded Anderson’s production on a per-carry basis.
The arrival of Anderson in Detroit should not be concerning to fantasy owners as a split similar to the one utilized between Johnson and Blount following the 2018 BYE seems more likely than a 50-50 split.
The Riddick Effect
With the proliferation of PPR scoring in fantasy football, running backs who are involved in the passing game are ultra-valuable. Theo Riddick has been a fixture in the Lions passing game since 2014. During that time, Riddick has averaged 72 targets, 56 receptions, 442 receiving yards, and three receiving TDs per season. Those numbers have made Riddick at worst a player worth rostering each of the past five seasons. Certainly Riddick’s presence will harm Johnson’s fantasy stock, right?
Assuming Riddick retained his role as a pass-catching specialist, he would definitely impact Johnson’s numbers. However, the Lions could save $3.66 million against the cap by letting Riddick go. In the two games Riddick missed in 2018, Johnson assumed Riddick’s targets and was as successful, if not more. Johnson caught 32 of his 39 targets on the year (82.1% catch rate) while Riddick caught 61 of 74 targets (82.4% catch rate). Johnson accrued 213 receiving yards for an average of 6.66 yards per reception while Riddick totaled 384 yards for an average of 6.30 yards per reception. Those stats are pretty much equal across the board.
Some evidence of Johnson’s effectiveness in the passing game is shown below. First, we see Johnson take a screen pass for 15 yards, finishing with a mean stiff-arm to Miami’s Kiko Alonso.
Next, we see Johnson going to the ground to make a nice catch for a first down in front of Duron Harmon of the New England Patriots.
As you can see, Johnson is not a liability in the passing game, and some close to the team think Johnson could exceed 60 receptions in 2019.
The Patricia-Bevell Effect
Before the 2018 season, the Detroit Lions GM Bob Quinn tabbed Matt Patricia as the man who would lead the franchise as its head coach. Quinn and Patricia previously spent 12 years together as part of the New England Patriots organization, so the hire makes sense as Detroit is looking to take the next step as a legitimate contender.
Patricia came in with the mindset of improving Detroit’s lackluster rushing offense. Detroit doubled-down with their draft picks under Patricia in 2018 and 2019 as the running game was top of mind for the team in both drafts. In 2018, in addition to Johnson in the second round, Detroit selected C Frank Ragnow out of Arkansas with their first pick. Ragnow was inconsistent in 2018 when asked to move out of his natural center position to left guard, but Ragnow has been taking the majority of snaps at center in OTAs which should lead to improvement.
In 2019, Detroit’s first-round pick was TE T.J. Hockenson out of Iowa. In Hockenson, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah called him the best blocking TE he’s ever evaluated. Pro Football Focus didn’t rank Hockenson at #1 but did put him in the top-five of run-blocking TEs. (Side note: Detroit also drafted the #3 guy on that list, Isaac Nauta in the seventh round).
Despite seeing a considerable improvement in nearly every aspect of the running game, the Lions elected not to renew the contract of OC Jim Bob Cooter. In his place, the Lions brought Darrell Bevell back into the NFL after being let go as Seattle’s OC following the 2017 season and finding no suitors in 2018. Bevell brings with him a history of transforming the running games of each team he’s coached. The following table shows where Bevell’s team finished in the NFL in each category with him as OC. For example, in 2005 Minnesota finished 28th in rushing attempts in the NFL.
|Year||Tm||Role||Rush Att||Rush Yds||Rush TD||Rush yds/att||Pass Att||Pass Yds||Pass TD|
In Bevell’s first season in Minnesota, succeeding Steve Loney as OC, the Vikings moved up 11 spots in rushing attempts (381 attempts to 442), 11 spots in rushing yards (1,467 yards to 1,820), four spots in rushing TDs (10 TDs to 12), and five spots in yards per attempt (3.9 YPA to 4.1). More of the same happened when Bevell went to Seattle, replacing Jeremy Bates as OC. The Seahawks jumped 14 spots in rushing attempts (385 attempts to 444), 10 spots in rushing yards (1,424 yards to 1,756), two spots in rushing TDs (13 TDs to 15), and four spots in yards per attempt (3.7 YPA to 4.0). Now let’s look at where the Lions have ranked the last four years.
|Year||Tm||Role||Rush Att||Rush Yds||Rush TD||Rush yds/att||Pass Att||Pass Yds||Pass TD|
Bevell doesn’t mince words when it comes to his offensive philosophy.
“It’s no secret where I’ve been, we’ve been able to run the football and we’ve been able to run it at a high level,” he said. “We’ve had great running backs with Adrian Petersons, Chester Taylors, Ahman Greens, Marshawn Lynch. So many great running backs, and that’s something I believe in wholeheartedly, but it just doesn’t mean that you need to be balanced with run and pass. We’re going to run the football, we’re going to run it really well, but we want to make sure that we’re doing all different kinds of things and accentuating what our players do well.”
Patricia and Bevell believe in establishing an effective running game to open up the passing attack. Both have Super Bowl victories under their belts, proving the effectiveness of the strategy. Ironically, Bevell would potentially have one more Super Bowl ring and Patricia would have one less if Bevell had just run the ball.
The Johnson Effect
The biggest factor as to whether or not Johnson can be a successful RB in 2019 is Johnson himself. Let’s look at some quick facts from Johnson’s 2018 season.
- Detroit traded pick #51 and pick #117 to the New England Patriots to select Johnson at #43 overall in the 2018 draft
- Johnson was tied for second with Phillip Lindsay with 5.4 yards per carry (Aaron Jones had 5.5) last season
- Johnson faced an eight-man box 23.7% of the time and averaged 4.9 yards per carry
- Johnson faced a seven-man box 41.5% of the time and averaged 4.3 yards per carry
- Johnson faced a six-man box 44.9% of the time and averaged 7.1 yards per carry
- Johnson was 20th in the NFL with eight runs of 15 yards or more
- Johnson might be considered injury-prone as he missed time at Auburn in 2016 (one game, ankle) and 2017 (two games, hamstring) along with the knee injury that cost him the final six games of his rookie NFL season
- Johnson is classified as “high risk” according to Sports Injury Predictor
Now, here are some examples of Johnson’s speed, vision, and elusiveness.
First, we see Johnson accelerating around the left end and simply sprinting past Dont’a Hightower who appeared to have an angle to bring him down.
Next is Johnson’s longest run of the season–a 71-yard scamper off the right guard in which he explodes through the hole and races past the secondary. Johnson’s long speed was a question coming out of college, and you can see why as he is caught from behind by S Reshad Jones, saving a TD for Miami.
Here, Johnson uses his burst to get through the line, runs through the arm tackle of Harmon, then puts a nasty juke on CB Jonathan Jones–sending him to the turf.
In this clip, DE Adrian Clayborn appears to have Johnson dead-to-rights for a big loss, but Johnson makes a quick cut to avoid Clayborn and nearly powers his way into the end zone.
Finally, Johnson shows the patience and vision to find a hole when the play, designed to go off the left tackle, is defended beautifully by Miami. Johnson turns what would have been almost nothing into a four-yard gain.
Kerryon Johnson is currently being selected in the late-third or early-fourth round as the 18th-20th RB off the board. Given the small sample size, the addition of C.J. Anderson, and the continued presence of Theo Riddick, the risk is baked into Johnson’s price and he is being selected at an appropriate ADP. Johnson does provide enough upside, however, to move into the RB1 ranks by the end of the season, and he could be viewed as a value pick as we look back on 2019 fantasy drafts following the season.
Graphic by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)