Detroit Lions: Kerryon Johnson can be an every-down player

Kerryon Johnson #21 of the Auburn Tigers carries the ball during the fourth quarter against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 25, 2017 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kerryon Johnson #21 of the Auburn Tigers carries the ball during the fourth quarter against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 25, 2017 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Kerryon Johnson was a big-time playmaker in his first season as the lead back in 2017. The Detroit Lions expect him to do the same in their backfield.

Kerryon Johnson came into Auburn with a lot of potential. In high school, he was Alabama’s Mr. Football and he led his team to 3 state championships. In his first year on campus at Auburn, he played in 12 games and logged 52 carries.

In his sophomore season, he was thrust into a feature role splitting carries with converted fullback Kamryn Pettway. With Pettway’s unexpected breakout in 2016, Johnson was the second-leading rusher on the team. At no time in his career though, has he shown a shortage of promise.

In 2017 however, with injuries to Pettway throughout the season, Johnson was the guy. He exploded on his way to becoming the SEC Offensive Player of the Year and the second round pick of the Detroit Lions.

Is it a surprise to anybody that the Lions think their second-round pick has the potential of an every-down player? After running for almost 1,400 yards in 2017, it shouldn’t be. The Lions’ running backs coach, David Walker, said as much to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:

"“He’s a guy that’s a three-down player,” running backs coach David Walker said this week. “(At Auburn he) showed he can play on first, second and third down. He showed he can play in all situations, which was important for us. Very productive in a very good league. So you see the physical qualities, the flexibility in terms of how you can use a guy like that, and then you have a chance to meet him and see how smart and driven he is. He’s kind of the type of player that fits with our program because he’s smart, he showed he’s productive and then he has flexibility in terms of first, second, third downs.”"

Let’s take a look at some to tape to see what prompted this comment.

Kerryon Johnson on tape

Running the ball

One of the first things I noticed in the three games I watched was his versatility. On inside runs, he’s a patient runner that explodes through the hole. On outside runs, he shows good burst around the corner. Because of his patience and vision in the backfield, there have been a lot of LeVeon Bell comparisons.

In the 2017 Iron Bowl, Johnson used a lot of quick lateral cuts to avoid tacklers. On many plays, he looked wrapped up and kept his legs churning to grind out a couple of extra yards.

Catching the ball

Auburn is not known for featuring their running backs in the passing game, as a result, he wasn’t asked to catch the ball much out of the backfield. When he was, it was on screen plays and check downs. Yet, when he did catch the ball, he looked very fluid doing it.

Pass Blocking

First and foremost, Johnson is a good pass blocker. He isn’t afraid to hit guys and he understood Auburn’s blocking schemes. On one play against Alabama, he picked up a corner blitzing off the short side edge. He saw it was the tight end’s responsibility to pick up the blitzing linebacker and his eyes went outside to the corner. It was fantastic recognition. Like he saw it coming before the play even started, he picked up the corner that blitzed outside the linebacker.

One area that gives him trouble though, is staying engaged while blocking bigger guys. There were a few plays that he had trouble staying engaged while blocking larger rushers. Johnson would step up to block, give them one good pop, disengage and let them run around him to get to the quarterback. Consequently, he’ll have to work at this aspect of his game. Since he is always willing to stick his nose in there, he will get better at staying engaged.

Johnson’s three-down potential

We know Kerryon Johnson can run. His three-down potential, rather, stems from his versatility, ability to pass block, and his fluidity catching the ball out of the backfield. Bob Quinn has praised his ability to run both inside and outside the tackles.

This year’s draft saw the Lions focused on versatility. Ragnow can play both guard and center, Tracy Walker can play all over the defense, Da’Shawn Hand can play any position on the defensive line, and Kerryon Johnson can do it all from the backfield. Lions brass was looking for players that can stay on the field for all three downs, and they got them.

Will Johnson be a three-down back this season?

Without injuries to any other Lions running backs, he won’t be. Looking at some of 2017’s rookie running backs though, you never know. The Lions traded up to select Johnson, showing there is no shortage of belief in him.

Next: What if the Lions had drafted JaMarcus Russell?

My prediction is this season will be similar to his 2016 season at Auburn. Johnson’s potential will be on display while splitting carries with others and getting acclimated to the NFL game. In 2019, with LeGarrette Blount and Ameer Abdullah’s contracts expiring, Kerryon will be ready to explode as a full-time back and big-time playmaker yet again.