Detroit Lions running back Kerryon Johnson speaks to the media after the 32-21 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — LeGarrette Blount called it back in August, on a day when his cohort in the Detroit Lions backfield, rookie Kerryon Johnson, did little of note in a meaningless preseason game.

“I think he’s going to be a special,” Blount said that night. “I think he’s going to be a really good player.”

Two months later, with evidence continuing to mount in support of Blount’s claim, the veteran running back doubled down on his prediction Sunday, saying the Lions have “a special one” in Johnson for reasons both on and off the field.

“I just saw his work ethic,” Blount said. “All the work that he put in, all the things that he do to take care of his body. Everything that he does to make sure that he’s going to be prepared for the game on Sunday. He prepares like a veteran and that’s something that you don’t see a lot in rookies.”

Johnson ran for 158 yards on 19 carries Sunday to lead the Lions past the Miami Dolphins, 32-21, for their third win in four games.

He has been the catalyst of one of the NFL’s best early season turnarounds, and as the Lions approach the midpoint of the season in the thick of a crowded NFC North race, Johnson has separated himself as one of two frontrunners for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

The New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley is the favorite for the award at this point, a generational runner who plays in the nation’s largest media market and has lived up to the hype as the No. 2 overall pick.

But Johnson is the one legitimate challenger to Barkley, and a realistic candidate to be the just the third Lion ever to win the award.

“Love seeing them calling (Johnson’s) number,” Hall of Fame running back Sanders tweeted Sunday.

Sanders, of course, is the last Lion to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, doing so in his 1,470-yard season of 1989. (Ndamukong Suh won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2010).

And while there’s no comparison between Sanders and Johnson, it’s not a stretch to say Johnson is the Lions’ best running back since No. 20 graced the field.

Six games into the season, Johnson leads all NFL rookies with 444 yards rushing. He’s averaging an eye-popping 6.4 yards per carry, and most importantly he has helped balance out a Lions offense that for years had been one of the most one-dimensional in the league.

Last year, the Lions averaged a league-low 76.3 yards rushing per game. This year, Johnson is getting nearly that many yards — 74 — by himself every week.

“He’s an explosive play waiting to happen every time he gets the ball,” guard T.J. Lang said.

Barkley is a special player and his own unique breed of back. He has 811 yards from scrimmage entering Monday night’s game against the Atlanta Falcons, and he’s doing it while playing for one of the worst teams in the league.

But that’s part of the reason why Johnson has a chance to take home the Lions’ third Offensive Rookie of the Year award (Billy Sims also won the award in 1980). 

The last two NFL Offensive ROY winners, New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, have played on division-winning teams that have won a total of 24 games. Beyond that, six of the past 10 winners have come from teams with winning records.

The Lions, at 3-3, aren’t guaranteed any of that, but after soundly beating the Dolphins on Sunday, they’re certainly trending in that direction.

Johnson and Barkley aren’t the only Rookie of the Year candidates.

Quarterbacks Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield could easily find themselves in the mix with a strong final two months. Both are on their way to solving their team’s long-standing quarterback woes, Darnold with the New York Jets and Mayfield with the Cleveland Browns, and Mayfield in particular is the type of highlight-reel player who can siphon away votes.

New England Patriots running back Sony Michel, if his knee injury isn’t serious, might run his way into the mix, too.

But a week away from Halloween, and looking at the long history of the award, which running backs have claimed three of the last five years, this could come down to Johnson and Barkley.

Knowing Johnson’s personality, with him saying all the right things while splitting carries with Blount this year, I don’t suspect winning rookie of the year is high on his priority list right now. It’s no guarantee of a long, illustrious career (past winners include Eddie Lacy, Cadillac Williams and Vince Young), and it doesn’t correlate to team playoff success. 

The Lions under Matt Patricia won’t be campaigning for Johnson to win the award, either.

But the fact that he’s even in the mix, after being the sixth running back taken in April’s draft, is both a credit to him and the Lions and a testament to where he’s headed.

Ranking the Rookie of the Year candidates

1. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants – Barkley has been as advertised for the Giants this year. He’s second among rookie running backs with 438 yards rushing on 84 carries, and he has another 40 catches for 373 yards. The Giants still might come to regret not taking a quarterback No. 2 overall, but they found themselves a cornerstone player in Barkley.

2. Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions – Johnson leads all rookie running backs with 444 yards rushing through six games. He has topped 100 yards twice already for the Lions this year, and he’s still splitting carries with LeGarrette Blount. The Lions haven’t finished in the top half of the NFL in rushing in two decades, since Barry Sanders’ last season on the field. But Johnson has given the franchise legitimate hope that its rushing woes are a thing of the past.

3. Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns – Mayfield is similar to Darnold in that he looks like he’s his team’s long-term answer at quarterback, but he’ll be hard-pressed to win Rookie of the Year. Mayfield is an electric player and star personality, so that helps. But with nearly half the season in the books, he’s thrown for just 1,291 yards and six touchdowns, and the Browns are just 1-3 in his four starts.

4. Sam Darnold, New York Jets – Darnold’s had some rough games since he led the Jets to a win over the Lions in Week 1. For the season, the No. 3 pick of the draft has completed just 56.1 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His future is bright. But if the Jets don’t catch fire, he probably won’t have the resume to win.

5. Sony Michel, New England Patriots – Michel was a viable contender for the award before he left Sunday’s win over the Chicago Bears with a potentially serious knee injury. He has 422 yards rushing in seven games, and playing for the Patriots always helps. But if he’s done for the year, his chances are shot, too.

6. Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons – Odell Beckham, Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin and Percy Harvin are the only wide receivers to win the award in the last 25 years, so Ridley has an uphill battle. He does have six touchdowns, but he’s 45th in receiving yards and playing in Julio Jones’ shadow on a team that entered Monday night just 2-4.

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