Can Detroit Lions count on Kerryon Johnson to be D’Andre Swift’s backup in 2021?

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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“He’ll hold up. … There’s no issues with his durability for us.”

Bob Quinn uttered those immortal words on Day 2 of the 2018 NFL draft, when reporters questioned why he traded up for running back Kerryon Johnson.

Johnson was a highly productive but oft-injured running back at Auburn, and Quinn tabbed him to solve the Detroit Lions’ decades-old problems running the football early in the second round.

For a minute, Quinn looked like he might be onto something. Johnson topped 100 yards rushing in his third career game, went for 158 on 19 carries a few weeks later and by early November seemed well on his way to a 1,000-yard season.

Then he hurt his knee in a Week 11 win over the Carolina Panthers, and two-and-a-half years, later his health continues to cast a pall over the Lions’ backfield.

The new Lions regime – Brad Holmes replaced Quinn as GM in January – has committed to last year’s second-round pick, D’Andre Swift, as its lead back, but has hinted it could be in the market for a new backup this spring when free agency opens next week.

“I think D’Andre can be a three-down back,” offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said in February. “I like his versatility. I think there’s some things we can do with him in the passing game, get him a little bit more involved in that. But I’m looking forward to working with this young man. We have to keep him on the field and I believe he wants to be on the field. We’ll find someone else to go with him, but I’m excited about what I saw on tape.”

Whether Johnson will be that “someone else” or not ultimately could depend on the state of his surgically repaired knees.

Johnson played all 16 games last season for the first time in his career, but logged just 52 carries in a supporting role. His health was a big enough concern that when Swift missed time in training camp, the Lions signed 35-year-old Adrian Peterson and immediately moved him ahead of Johnson on the depth chart.

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Johnson averaged about 20 snaps a game, primarily on third downs. He finished with a career-low 3.5 yards per carry, but thrived as a pass protector, which should endear him to new running backs coach Duce Staley.

“The most important thing with the running backs in my opinion … you’ve got to protect the passer,” Staley said. “That’s the most important thing. And I take pride in that. I take pride in making sure our quarterback doesn’t hit the ground. And that’s the most important thing for me. You can be one of the most talented runners out there, you can be the most talented route runner out there, but if you can’t block, you can’t play for me. Point blank, period. So we’re going to start there, that’s how we’re going to end it.”

While Johnson’s excellence in pass protection makes him a favorite for a roster spot in 2021, the Lions’ backfield remains a work in progress.

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Swift and Johnson are the only running backs under contract for next season — fullbacks Jason Cabinda and Nick Bawden are signed, too — and Johnson is entering the final year of his rookie deal.

Give his health history, their own move towards a more run-oriented offense and where they are as a team, the Lions must decide whether Johnson can be their No. 2 back, someone capable of shouldering a significant workload if something happens to Swift, or whether they need to bolster that position in free agency or the draft.

The free agent negotiating period begins March 15, and several potential free agents have ties to the new Lions regime, including Todd Gurley, LeSean McCoy, Malcolm Brown, Dion Lewis and Corey Clement.

Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne are the top running back prospects in the draft, though neither is a lock to go in the first round and talent at the position is considered lighter than it has been in recent years.

“We got to be prepared,” Holmes said last week. “Not even from a development standpoint, but it’s a long season and you need depth at all areas.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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