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Between the retirement of Barry Sanders and the start of the 2018 season, the Lions struggled to find a running back. In Week 3 of the 2019 campaign, they found Kerryon Johnson.
Is 2019 the Kerryon Johnson Show? Or is the second-year back being overvalued? What kind of roles will Anderson and Riddick have? Is THIS the year for Zenner -- or anyone else -- to surprise us?
There's a lot of optimism about Kerryon Johnson, and it's easy to understand why. He was a hyper-productive college workhorse in the best conference and landed on a team run by a Bill Belichick disciple desperate to have its first feature running back in recent memory. Head coach Matt Patricia came from a Patriots team that routinely rushes for 2,000+ yards and is as committed to a ground game as anyone, even if casual fans think of the team as Tom Brady and Company.
The season started off reasonably well for Johnson, but he ended the season on the sidelines with a knee injury. Luckily the injury wasn't structural and Johnson is expected back and 100% this preseason.
While healthy, Johnson averaged 11 carries and four passing targets per game, which is a solid workload but hardly enough to turn him into a fantasy star. Through Week 11, Johnson was the 15th-best fantasy running back in standard leagues.
In extrapolating his outlook this year, there are positive and negative changes. Darrell Bevell taking over as offensive coordinator bodes well because he's a conservative play-caller and fully committed to a balanced run/pass attack. On the other hand, both Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn both emphasized the value of a committee approach in the weeks following the NFL draft.
Last year Johnson's main competition for touches was LeGarrette Blount. Blount, on the wrong side of 30, struggled (2.7 yards per attempt) and yet still got 8+ touches most weeks. This year the Lions have replaced Blount with C.J. Anderson, who we last saw outplaying Todd Gurley in the Rams final few games.
If the Lions coaching staff gives Anderson the goal-line work, as they did Blount, it's hard to see Johnson as more than the solid RB2 he was last year. But the good news is his current ADP prices Johnson that way, so you're not having to reach for a breakout season.
Another potential source of upside is as a pass-catcher. The Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett believes veteran Theo Riddick may be a cap casualty. If he's correct, Johnson should see a significant increase in his role as a third-down pass-catcher, and that would give Johnson RB1 upside in PPR leagues.
Assuming Johnson's ADP doesn't move significantly higher, he's worth targeting. C.J. Anderson is also going late enough he's worth drafting either as a handcuff or for depth.
I am one of the biggest fans of Kerryon Johnson out there. He is a classic three-down back in the NFL with smooth receiving chops, pass protection acumen and movement and power beyond his measurements as a runner. C.J. Anderson was nearly out of the NFL before his late-season rise with the Rams and color me skeptical Anderson is much of an impact on a healthy (hopefully) Kerryon Johnson. Theo Riddick's career arc is similar to many good receiving-centric with a couple of strong seasons in 2015 and 2016 before the natural decline. Anderson is an intriguing handcuff type on a developing run offense, but Johnson is the only option I want of the backfield and perfectly comfortable with Johnson in drafts around RB15-20 and especially ahead of Aaron Jones and Josh Jacobs, who typically go ahead of Johnson.
Kerryon Johnson performed at an elite level in every efficiency measure that matters at running back. He is a north-south runner (3.42 Next Gen Stats Efficiency) that knows how to remain patient at the line of scrimmage. He created big plays (greater than or equal to 15 yards) on a healthy 8% of carries. As Chad mentions above, he also performed well as a receiver and blocker.
Jason makes a great point about head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn emphasizing the value of a multiple-back approach. That follows the Bill Belichick formula as well. Conversely, new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has typically given his lead back between 15 and 20 carries (50-70%) when talent allowed (Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson). This will be something to monitor. If Theo Riddick remains with the team it could be tough for Johnson to see much more than 50% of the work, but if he is gone Johnson likely approaches the 60% mark.
In the past, Bevell has shown a strong commitment to the run. In 50% of his seasons as an offensive coordinator, he has run the ball on 50% or more of attempts. That is one of the most run-heavy histories you will find in the NFL today. Many of those seasons came with teams that lead often. Vegas has the Lions at 6.5 wins, something more in the 55% passing range is more likely. That would be less than the 59% last season though and Bevell runs a similar tempo offense. Expect an additional 25-50 rushing attempts for the team.
Kerryon Johnson will cost you a late third round or early fourth-round pick in your fantasy draft. That is a good estimation of his value given the range of outcomes. To provide big gains on that price rational coaching must prevail or Theo Riddick must move on. If that happens he has RB1 upside. If that doesn't happen he is a low-end RB2 with high volatility.
I'll add to the consensus on Johnson as an RB2 with RB1 upside and second Jason's view of Anderson as a worthy end-game pick in just about all formats.
Anderson's dominant stretch run last season was more a function of the Rams offense than his own talent, but his situation in Detroit isn't as bad as his current ADP suggests. Johnson looked great last year, and there's no doubt he's the starter, but he only appeared in 10 games as a rookie. If he continues to have trouble staying on the field, Anderson has a clear path to early-down and goal-line work in a run-heavy offense, putting him in the weekly RB2 mix during any week he's the starter.
The Detroit running game should be simple. Kerryon Johnson is the starter and he should be a borderline RB1 in fantasy terms. He was highly impressive in an interrupted rookie season and is the standout back here. Any thought that C.J. Anderson is more than a relief back or possible goal-line sneak needs to be put to rest. Both Carolina and Oakland did not think him good enough to keep on their rosters and like Phil said his performance with the Rams was that he was the right guy, in the right place at the right time. Theo Riddick seems to have worn out his welcome and his roster spot will be an issue unless Johnson cannot pass protect satisfactorily. Forget Zach Zenner or others, they will only appear in box scores at the tail end of the season if injuries ahead of them on the depth chart hit hard.
I'm just here to talk about C.J. Anderson. We all know Kerryon Johnson has elite-level talent, it's just a matter of him staying on the field. I'm excited to get Johnson where he is currently going off the board and will gladly plug him in as a weekly starter.
A couple of things on Anderson; First, he's always been good late in the season. When he broke out with the Broncos for two years (2014, 2015) it was in the final eight games of the year (only Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr had more all-purpose yards over the final eight games of 2014) -- and that was with a poor offensive line, plus in 2015 it was with Brock Osweiler or a not-quite-himself Peyton Manning. During that Super Bowl 50 playoff run, Anderson led the league in rushing for the postseason.
The Rams offensive line certainly benefited him last year, but Anderson is not a slappy. He's done this before and could do this again if Johnson struggles with injury.
I can't explain the Panthers non-usage of Anderson, but know this; Jon Gruden let him go last season as a favor. I've heard Anderson asked to be released from the Raiders after a week (perhaps knowing the Rams were interested) and Gruden obliged.
Anderson isn't a threat to Johnson at all, but he is an important handcuff later and in leagues that have enough bench space. As he's done multiple times in the past, with multiple teams, Anderson can be a late-season league-winner for your backfield if the chips fall the right way.