A month ago, new Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn raised some eyebrows when commenting on the team’s current running backs situation. Marveling over second-year running back D’Andre Swift, Lynn pointed to the team’s need to find a complementary piece to Swift so they can have a well-rounded backfield.
“We’ll find someone else to go with him,” Lynn said.
That didn’t exactly sound like promising news for Kerryon Johnson, the team’s current No. 2 back on the roster. Johnson, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, was mostly relegated to third down last year. Reading between the lines in Lynn’s statements, it seemed like he might be headed that way again in 2021
However, Lions running backs coach Duce Staley joined the Pride of Detroit podcast on Friday afternoon and painted a much brighter future for the Lions’ former second-round pick.
“What a complete back. Kerryon does it all, man,” Staley said. “You turn the film on, he’s up there blocking, and when I say blocking, he’s really trying to finish the guy. You see how aggressive he is. Then you turn the film on, he’s running routes. Then you turn the film on, he’s breaking tackles.”
It’s easy to see why Staley may like Johnson. One big improvement in his game last season was Johnson’s ability to pass block. He earned an 84.8 PFF pass block grade in 2020, placing him fourth among all NFL running backs. And as Staley said a month ago during his introductory press conference, pass protection is key to the running back position.
“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,” Staley said.
The question is whether Johnson can provide more than a limited pass protector role at this point in his career. Staley seems to think so, but with limited opportunities last season, Johnson only managed 181 rushing yards (3.5 YPC) and 187 receiving yards.
For the past several years, the Lions have searched for the perfect complementary back, but have seemingly failed at every turn. LeGarrette Blount and C.J. Anderson added little to the backfield. Last year’s addition of Adrian Peterson was probably considered the most successful of additions, but his production dropped off suddenly and he seems unlikely to be re-signed in 2021.
That leaves the door open for Johnson to prove he still deserves to be on the field on early downs and can be an offensive weapon. One thing is for sure, Staley believes he can get the job done.
“Since Kerryon has been in this league, he’s been a very productive back. He’s good.”