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Ask Kyle: Will Kerryon Johnson ever be a three-down back for the Lions?

ALLEN PARK — Lions rookie Kerryon Johnson is averaging the sixth most yards per carry in the league. And he carried the ball just nine times in last week’s loss against Dallas.

That’s kind of weird, eh?

Johnson’s usage has become a big point of debate, and there were a ton of questions about it for this week’s mailbag, so we’ll start there. As always, many thanks to all who sent in questions. And yes, we’ll be back next week during the bye. (Hey, a guy’s still gotta eat.) Questions can be sent via Twitter here or email here

Without further ado …

Q: Do you think the Lions will ever wake up, and give Kerryon Johnson a chance to be the three-down back that Detroit fans are pleading for? Wouldn’t the threat of Johnson running the ball give the Lions the chance to really mix up the playcalls better?

A: Let me start by saying I absolutely believe Kerryon Johnson needs more than the nine carries he got in Dallas. He is clearly this team’s best running back. At this point, he is one of this team’s best skill players, period. And he needs the ball in his hands. Period. Make it happen.

Having said that, I don’t think running him out there as a three-down back is the best idea either. He did that in college, sure, and he became the SEC’s leading rusher while doing so. But he was also banged up to high hell. He suffered injuries to his ribs, hamstrings, ankles and shoulders, the last of which is an issue that dates to high school, when he injured both shoulders as well as sprained his MCL and broke his thumb and a partridge in a pear tree.

This isn’t to say Johnson isn’t durable. He led the SEC in carries last year, and still played in 12 games. He only missed four games in his college career. The kid finds a way to stay on the field. But his tall frame leaves him vulnerable to injury, and that risk grows in the NFL. 

The truth is very few running backs are built to handle three-down roles these days anyway. It’s often in the club’s best interest to roll with a committee to keep guys fresh. And you have to think that’s particularly true with a rookie like Johnson, who has never played more than 12 games in a season.

Detroit has 16 on the slate, last time I checked.

So I get what coaches said this week about why he only got nine carries against the Cowboys. That said, they need to do a better job figuring out ways to get the ball in his hands more. They’re already 1-3. You want Johnson to be at his best down the stretch, I get it, but you can’t afford to fall to 1-4 either, or the stretch run won’t matter anyhow.

Q: If you had to live without tacos or cats, which would you choose? — @mastergurn

A: What kind of monster would ever ask something like that? Who hurt you? 

Q: Is it common for players to retire early due to many concussions? Are the chances good that Lang will return next season?

A: It’s becoming increasingly common. Husain Abdullah retired early, citing concussions. So did A.J. Tarpley. John Urschel retired two days after a major CTE study came out last season. Most famously, Chris Borland retired early as a preventative measure for his brain. Most recently, linebacker Joshua Perry retired while camping with Seattle this summer after he suffered his sixth concussion. 

Now Lang, 31, has suffered at least the fifth or sixth known concussion of his career. This was a bad one, too. Lang was clearly disoriented after a head-to-head collision with Dallas linebacker Jaylon Smith, and struggled with his vision. He was covering his eyes as trainers tended to him, then was squinting as he headed directly for the locker room.

I would never speculate on the severity of a brain injury, but man that was a tough one to watch live. I got queasy in the press box, straight up. And knowing the kind of damage multiple concussions can do to the brain in the long term, including CTE, you have to wonder whether Lang will return, or even should.

Supposing Lang does want to return, it’s unclear whether he’ll be back next season. He does have one year left on his deal, but at a cap hit of $11.7 million, which is a ton of cash for a guard who missed games last year because of brain, back and foot issues, and now is missing more games because of more brain and back issues through five games this year.

Listen, Lang’s a good player when he’s on the field — he made the Pro Bowl last year, for goodness sake — but his health is betraying him, and paying a guard that kind of money with no guarantee of how much he’ll be on the field doesn’t exactly seem like the Patriots Way.

One way or the other, I believe we’re seeing the final year of T.J. Lang in Detroit.

Q: How big of a mistake did Lions make in not going harder after Mack? Two 1st rounders is almost nothing if you consider Mack is obviously better than anyone they’ll draft in 2019, the team ideally picks low in 2020–a crapshoot pick–and Mack would basically get Ziggy’s future money — @Josh_Koehn

A: There’s no guarantee the Lions could get the same deal as Chicago, of course. But if they could, I would have been on board with it, especially when you consider the Bears got back a second-rounder in the deal too. 

I fully understand the counterargument here. Trading for Mack limits what you can do in the draft, because you’re giving up your two best picks for two years, and limits what you can do in free agency, because you have to pay Mack more than anyone’s paid a defensive player, ever. That really handcuffs your ability to rebuild. (Or in the Lions’ case, permanently rebuild.) So I get it.

Having said that, for me, it goes back to the Ndamukong Suh argument. Yes, it would have cost Colombian drug cartel levels of money to keep him. But you also need good players to win games, and the money and draft picks you save by letting that kind of guy go almost certainly will not be enough to get you another player of that caliber in return. 

The Lions saved a bunch of money by not re-signing Suh. And look what’s happened to their defense since. They were second Suh’s final year. They’ve finished 18th, 18th and 27th since. And the ineffectiveness of the defensive line is a major reason why.

Mack is the same kind of difference-maker as Suh, perhaps even more so. If the season ended today, he’d be my defensive player of the year, and that’s after learning a new system with no training camp. That’s bananas.

Sure, the Lions saved two first-round picks and loads of cash by sitting on their hands. But there’s a really good chance none of those picks will turn into a player as good as Mack, and same for the cash. And this is a team that’s probably going to be drafting front seven players early anyway.

There’s a compelling argument to be made both ways, especially when you consider the cap ramifications, but that’s where I stand. Yeah, it’s a lot to give up. But this game is about winning, not having the best draft picks possible. And Mack helps you win. Just ask the Bears.

Q: Can you explain to me how Luke Wilson, Levine toilolo, and Hakeem valles plus like 3 million in unused cap space this year is a better tight end situation than ebron — @toddgreenspoon

A: I cannot.

Q: Regardless of position/year, who do you think has been Bob Quinn’s most impactful draft pick so far? — @yourunclekyle

A: Great question. Obviously impactful can mean different things to different people, and it’s not the same as “best” either. This might be unconventional, but I’m going to go with Graham Glasgow. He improved the left guard situation as a rookie in 2016, replacing Laken Tomlinson, and then was the only reliable player up front last year. In a season where every other starting offensive lineman missed multiple games with injuries, and the top unit played just 95 plays together, Glasgow played all 1,041 snaps. He played well at left guard, and then played well at center when Travis Swanson was dealing with injuries there.

Now this year, he’s been pretty good as the full-time center, and tag-teamed with Frank Ragnow to pave some nice roads for Kerryon Johnson.

Taylor Decker has more upside and plays the more important position, but missed half of last season and hasn’t been the same since. Kenny Golladay is trending way up, but he’s still a No. 3 receiver. Ragnow and Johnson are trending way, way up, but it’s premature to call them more impactful than Detroit’s only reliable offensive lineman of the last two years.

Q: Why haven’t we fired JBC yet?

A: Because Matthew Stafford is the single most important asset in this franchise? And he’s played the best football of his career under Jim Bob Cooter? And the Lions rose to 13th in total offense last year (and seventh in scoring)? And are 13th again?

Just last week, they scored 24 points. Doesn’t sound like much, I know. But Detroit had just eight possessions against a top-10 defense in that game, and still scored 24 points. That’s 3.0 points per drive, which would rank fourth in the league if extrapolated for the full season. So, yeah, that’s pretty good. And it came on the road against a top-10 defense.

Obviously, there are problems with the offense. The red zone has been a disaster, for example, the single biggest reason Detroit isn’t one of the best offenses in the game right now. But you don’t throw out the whole thing just because of that. Matthew Stafford has played the best football of his career under Cooter, and played better in every game this season. The offensive line is playing well — or in the words of Mike McCarthy, “damn well.” The running game has roared to life. And this just might be the best set of receivers in the NFL. They’re certainly in the conversation.

I don’t think the offense has been a home run or anything, and their usage of Kerryon Johnson is curious. But Detroit has a lot of good things going on that side of the ball. It just needs the defense to get off the damn field so they can actually run a play or two.

Q: I know there was another penalty on the play, but what was your/the Lions take on the unnecessary roughness call on Romeo Okwara? — @DFritsma

A: That’s a tough one, because obviously Dak Prescott was down on the play. In fact, it was Okwara who made contact with Prescott and forced his knee to the ground. By rule, he’s down.

Of course, by rule, the play isn’t over until the whistle is blown as well. That’s something that is drilled into these guys every single day of practice all year long. It seems highly unfair to Okwara to expect him to go full speed at a quarterback, not blow the whistle until he’s already hitting the quarterback, and then throw a flag because he hit the quarterback.

Ultimately, I think the play was poorly officiated, even if Prescott was down, and the flag shouldn’t have been thrown. And either way, as you said, there was another flag on the play anyway, then Dallas scored on the next play, so all of this has absolutely nothing to do with the loss anyway. But yeah, it sucks.

Q: If you were going to be a guest DJ on an SiriusXM radio station, which one would it be? Bill Simmons just nailed it on the Pearl Jam radio. — @ptballs

A: Pearl Jam is fine and all, but I was always more of a Nirvana guy. That said, man, Eddie Vedder killed the soundtrack for “Into The Wild.”

As for which station I could handle, at the risk of affirming all suspicions of my hipsterdom, I really enjoy techno. Like, a lot. Like, I’ve been mulling making a techno myself. And I’ve got ideas, including one involving Nirvana, but that’s for another time and place.

I also can get down to some classic hip hop, and feel like I could hold my own there as well.


Q: What song accurately describes this Detroit Lions team? We’re pretty sure you’ll pick something like this but maybe also pick something other people have heard of too. — @BigDrewAndJim 


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