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Lions 2018 review: Kerryon Johnson is a keeper in need of help

The Detroit Lions have wrapped up the 2018 season. Over the next two weeks, will hand out reviews for each of the team’s position groups. Previous position reviews include quarterbacks.

Running backs

Starter: Kerryon Johnson

Backups: LeGarrette Blount, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner

Key stats: Finished ranked 23rd in the NFL with 103.8 rushing yards per game, 26th with 4.1 yards per rush and 23rd with 11 rushing touchdowns

Nate’s grade: B-

When Matt Patricia arrived in Detroit at this time last year, his plan was to get the Lions to do what they hadn’t on offense for years and run the football. Coaches have spoken about the need to do it better for years, but the Lions knew it would take more than words and hope, so they went out and targeted a new carrier of the rock.

Kerryon Johnson led the Southeastern Conference in rushing but managed to fall through the cracks of a loaded running backs class due in part to his injuries at the end of the season. When Lions general manager Bob Quinn traded up for the 5-foot-11-inch, 2016-pound Auburn product in the second round, he promised he’d last based on how the team wanted to use him in more of a versatile yet limited way.

They then turned a power runner into a guy who ran inside and outside and caught passes as well. He was an instant success, breaking the nearly five-year drought of 100-yard rushers not once but twice in his first seven games. He not only gave Matthew Stafford a competent back but one who at times looked like a star, like on the 71-yard run he ripped off against the Dolphins or in the 101 yards he racked up on the Patriots of all teams.

Johnson did everything in a strong rookie season, including catch 32 passes in a newer role. He did everything, at least, except stay healthy. He lasted until the 10th game before he hurt his knee, which sidelined him for a couple weeks and then for the season when the Lions fell out of the playoff picture.

Kerryon Johnson could have come back to the Lions in 2018

A second straight year ending in injury gave him something to work on this offseason, but everything else shows that he is ready. He ran for 641 yards and three touchdowns on 5.4 yards per carry, the second-best rate of any running back in the NFL this season. He still needs work on pass protection, but that should come with better bulk and with time.

What Johnson needs is a back to go with him. Detroit tried to do it with a traditional power element that Patricia knew well and whiffed. LeGarrette Blount was a bust, averaging just 2.7 yards a carry, and he saw far too much work for that level of performance. He’s a free agent, and though he seems to be gone at the age of 32, there should be no doubting Patricia’s affinity for him.

Zach Zenner proved to be a better option down the stretch, rushing for 4.8 yards a carry and three scores after he returned with quite a bit more muscle on his frame. He’s still not a quick athlete and probably fits better as a No. 3 than a No. 2, but he should have a role.

Theo Riddick just wasn’t the same in making defenders miss in the open field as a receiver, falling to 6.3 yards per catch and nop receiving touchdowns. He’s still a sound pass protector, but with $3.4 million in potential savings, the soon-to-be 28-year-old could be a cap casualty if the Lions see Johnson as more ready for his third-down role.

Either way, Detroit figures to add a back it can rely on as a No. 2 because no matter what Johnson does to his frame, you can’t guarantee the health of any running back in this brutal game. The Lions will have options in free agency with bigger veteran backs like Mark Ingram and C.J. Anderson. They could also look to the draft to form a punch-counterpunch duo of two young runners with varying traits.

They will need to take this role seriously because they can’t afford the drop-off they suffered when Johnson went out of the game.

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