With the 2018 NFL regular season now in the rearview mirror, it is time to look back on the performances of some of the players finishing their first season in the pros. Next up is running back Kerryon Johnson of the Detroit Lions.
I set the RotoViz Screener:
To find rookies from 2008 – 2018, and selected some basic production and usage numbers as variables. I also included the draft pick. The influence of draft pick on a player’s opportunity declines over time, but it’s still relevant heading into a player’s second season. Then I asked the Screener to find seasons comparable to my target player.
Let’s look at some of the players that the screener threw up as close comps for Johnson in their first season in the NFL.
If you’re looking at the above list and feeling a tad underwhelmed, then don’t worry. You are not alone in this regard. However, an encouraging sign is that Johnson is way ahead of all his comps, in terms of production. The other players on the list all played at least two games more than Johnson, who only suited up in ten games in 2018. In fewer games, he had more rushing yards than all of them but T.J. Yeldon, and none of the players came close to Johnson’s 5.43 yards per attempt.
Below, we can see how Johnson’s comps performed in their second seasons. I offer this as a glimpse at a possible range of outcomes and am not stating for certain that this is what Johnson will offer us in 2019. After looking at the numbers, I certainly hope he offers much more.
Matt Jones managed to fumble his way out of Washington, and pretty much out of the league. He coughed up the ball eight times in two seasons, which allied to his pedestrian 3.9 yards per attempt made him dispensable.
Devontae Booker has settled into the role of satellite back in concert with a variety of other Denver backs, without ever looking like he could earn a workhorse role for himself. He hasn’t started a game since his rookie season and averages a modest five yards every time he touches the ball over 376 carries and receptions.
If you are looking for a man to be the poster child for preseason hype not meeting season-long production, then you could do much worse than Ameer Abdullah. His second season was wrecked by injury, his third by chronic inefficiency. The Lions cut him during the 2018 season. After this, he landed on the Vikings, where he has done as close to nothing as possible.
Yeldon has enjoyed the best career of the comps, although it’s not a particularly high bar that he has set. He has three seasons with more than 700 yards from scrimmage, but after his 15.2 attempts per game as a rookie he hasn’t topped 8.7 in a season since. Like Booker, he has spent most of his time as a satellite back but has filled in for Leonard Fournette quite effectively at times in the last two seasons.
Reasons to be Cheerful
The Lions were slow to feature Johnson, holding the rookie to 13 carries in his first two games. But in Week 3, he exploded for 101 yards on 16 carries. This was the first time a Lions RB had eclipsed the 100-yard mark in a single game for 70 games, going back to Thanksgiving 2013. Johnson followed it up with 158 yards against the Dolphins in Week 7. He had 87 yards on 15 carries in the third quarter of the Lions Week 11 game against the Panthers before leaving the game with the knee injury that would ultimately end his season.
Johnson had ten or more carries in six of his ten games. He also averaged more than five yards per attempt in six outings. Despite the Lions insistence on giving LeGarrette Blount the ball more times than they needed to, Johnson still saw seven carries inside opposing ten-yard lines. Three of these resulted in touchdowns.
A big concern for any RB coming into Detroit is whether they’d be able to wrestle any receiving work from Theo Riddick. However, Johnson was more than adequate as a pass catcher, reeling in 32 of his 39 targets.
Reasons to be Disappointed
The biggest concern is obviously Johnson’s health after a knee sprain robbed him of the last six games of the season. However, Johnson did not require surgery, so he should be good to go by the time the 2019 OTAs come around.
The Lions, while not at their usual levels of pass happiness, still favor throwing the ball over running it. They were 21st in running plays in 2018, whilst only running the 18th most plays in the entire NFL. This puts a cap on any RB’s opportunities, especially in concert with an entrenched pass-catching back like the Lions have. Riddick saw 75 targets last season, catching 61 of them. His presence meant that Johnson was never able to establish a firm grip on playing time. He played on 60 percent or less of the snaps in eight of his ten games.
The Lions offense will probably look quite different by the time Johnson fully heels up after his injury. The team moved on from offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, making him the fall guy for the team’s worst season since 2012. In his stead, the Lions have appointed former Seahawks OC Darrell Bevell to run their offense. In his 12 years as an offensive coordinator, his teams have finished in the top ten in terms of rushing attempts seven times. This should mean ample opportunities for Johnson, who should be the leading option in terms of RB carries, especially as both Blount and Zach Zenner are unrestricted free agents.
Johnson was a top-12 fantasy back in three of his last four games as a rookie. This is an encouraging sign for him moving forward. It should be noted however that he saw at least five targets in three of these games, propping him up substantially. Johnson was a lot more productive in games that Riddick did not play in, as the image below shows.
Until we see otherwise, it would be reasonable to expect Riddick to continue putting a cap on Johnson’s true fantasy potential. This would seem to make Johnson an RB2 with occasional forays into RB1 airspace moving forward. But it’s a long way until the season, and a lot can change.