Kerryon Johnson Could Seize the Lead Role in the Detroit Lions' Backfield

The Lions traded up to take Johnson. Will he be the answer to their rushing woes?

Kerryon Johnson had an incredibly successful junior season with the Auburn Tigers, and now the 2017 Doak Walker Award finalist is ready to make a name for himself in the NFL. The former SEC standout clearly made an impression on the Detroit Lions, who moved up eight slots to select him with the 43rd overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft.

A Little Background

After spending most of his first two collegiate seasons as a backup (to Peyton Barber in 2015) or a complementary runner (to Kamryn Pettaway in 2016), Johnson emerged as a feature back a season ago and shouldered the largest workload of his career. When given the opportunity to carry the Tigers' offense, all Johnson did was rush for 1,391 yards and 18 touchdowns, while snaring 24 receptions for 194 yards and 2 additional scores en route to being named SEC Offensive Player of the Year.

Per Pro Football Focus, Johnson ranked fifth in the nation in yards after contact, picking up 826 yards after contact in 2017, while forcing 50 missed tackles in the process.

Johnson has earned positive reviews for his patient running style and proficiency as a between-the-tackles runner. Per Fantasy Guru's Graham Barfield , Johnson was stopped for zero-yard gains on only 13% of his sample carries, the best rate of any back in this draft class.

According to PlayerProfiler, Johnson registered a 93rd-percentile burst score. Although beyond that number, he owns an otherwise average athletic profile. He also had a less-than-elite (by college standards) tally of 4.8 yards per carry in his career, but ultimately, the Lions felt good enough about him to spend a high draft pick to secure his services.

Furthermore, is reasonably adept receiver out of the backfield. In fact, he didn't drop a single pass in 2017. These traits will help ease his transition to the next level, and ultimately increase his value at this level.

Fantasy Fit

It goes without saying that Detroit needs running back help as their running game has been in the tank for years.

By now, you've probably heard this, but it is worth repeating -- no Lions runner has rushed for 100 yards in a game in four years. It's a cliche at this point, but the fact is, per our schedule-adjusted metrics, the Lions fielded the second-least efficient running game in the league last season. Things needed to change.

Enter Johnson.

Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick remain in the mix, but neither has proven capable of handling a significant rushing load at the NFL level, although Riddick is certainly a nice commodity in the passing game. The Lions also brought in tailback LeGarrette Blount as a free agent, but at 31-years-old, he may be better suited for a supporting role at this stage of his career.

The fact is, none of these backs performed particularly well by our numbers. We can see this by checking out our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, and we can also look at Success Rate, the percentage of positive expected-point runs. (For more information on NEP, check out our glossary.)

For some context, the league-average Rushing NEP per carry in 2017 was -0.05 while the average Success Rate was 38.08%.

Player Rushing NEP Per Carry Success Rate
LeGarrette Blount -0.09 37.57%
Ameer Abdullah -0.13 30.30%
Theo Riddick -0.14 35.71%

Those numbers are less than impressive, and the
simple reality is that the Lions traded away a fourth-rounder to move up to take Johnson in the second round. They wanted to address their running game, and they wanted Johnson.

While Johnson may not enjoy a three-down workload right out of the gate -- Riddick will almost certainly be a factor in the passing game and Blount could be a goal-line masher -- there's little doubt that he was drafted to be a key cog in the very near future.

The Lions are showing a clear commitment to improving their rushing attack. Not only did they take Johnson, they've used first-round selections on offensive linemen in two of the last three seasons (Taylor Decker in 2016 and Frank Ragnow this year), while also spending significant money on Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang in free agency.

Johnson joins an offense that features a franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford and playmakers like Golden Tate and Marvin Jones. It's a good situation for a young back, and he could prove to be could be a nice fantasy producer as soon as 2018.