This article is about a 14-minute read.
In a Backfield Breakdown, we will look at a team's running backs from all angles. Is there a bell-cow back on the roster? How about sleepers? What roles do we foresee from these backs?
Let's find out about the Lions right now.
Coming into the 2019 season, despite some worry about his durability, Kerryon Johnson was thought to be the lightning to C.J. Anderson's thunder. Anderson lasted two games before being released. Johnson played eight before tearing his meniscus.
Is this backfield a two-headed monster this season? Can one of Swift or Johnson get an edge on the other? Do you have any faith in Johnson staying healthy all season? Is there room for Scarbrough, Ty Johnson, or Huntley to carve out a role?
How does this backfield shake out in 2020?
For 2020 specifically, I give a strong historical edge to Kerryon Johnson. Durability has been a watchword for Johnson through two seasons and I would imagine it was a major discussion point in the drafting of D'Andre Swift as a strong secondary option if Johnson misses time again. The rest of the depth chart consists of NFL baseline talents with their skillsets at best.
Historically, Johnson has two things working for him:
First, in similar situations where a Day 2 running back saw another Day 2 or higher running back added in their early-career years by the team, the veteran (Johnson in this case) turned out to be the correct fantasy answer in the first season. After that, the results were far more ambiguous. But in Year 1, the veteran has a significant advantage.
Second, Johnson fits all the criteria of the classic top-12 producer for a fraction of the fantasy cost in 2020. For running backs, the general criteria is Day 2 or better NFL Draft pick, 25 years old or younger, going outside the top-20 running backs, presumed to be the 1A option to open the season, with either an injury profile and/or incoming rookie suppressing their value or expectation. This fits Kerryon Johnson across the board (along with Ronald Jones II by the way) as ideal upside plays from the (relative) depths of the running back starting player pool in 2020.
I disagree with Chad.
Johnson's window for being the back to finally vanquish the ghost of Barry Sanders went out the door last year with the torn meniscus. The team didn't target D'Andre Swift early to let him sit behind a guy that isn't better than him at anything. Even if you say Johnson and Swift have comparable speed, Swift has better vision, is more patient, is harder to bring down.
Johnson couldn't crack the Top 30 in two seasons, NFL running backs rarely get three strikes before they're out.
Now, where I do agree with Chad is that it'll probably start out as a committee, but Swift will be so much better on a per-touch basis, it'll only be a matter of time before he takes over the starter's share of snaps.
Swift, barring injury, should be a top-20 fantasy back in all formats.
This is likely to be a situation where the starting running back has a lower ADP than the backup to open the season. Kerryon Johnson is not a seasoned veteran who is just keeping the seat warm, he is a legitimate NFL starter that has struggled with injury, not unusual for a Detroit running back. This may be the wrong season to expect much from a rookie running back. Learning and preparation is likely to be heavily curtailed. D’Andre Swift was taken high by the Lions so they obviously want to use him, but Johnson is only 23 and was taken high in 2018.
Legitimate cases can be made to take both, but when in doubt look for the guy with the lower ADP.
The rest of the running backs are all potential roster cuts or third-stringers at best. If an injury happens keep them on speed dial, but expect lower production.
I am with Jason on this and prefer Swift over Johnson by a good margin. I have always been a believer in valuing draft capital when it comes to rookies. More than words ever can, a team's actions give us true insight into projected roles, their scouring report of the prospect, and their own self-scouting on what positions on their team need to be upgraded. The fact the Lions used a top-40 selection on Swift tells us both that they love him as a prospect and that they do not believe Johnson is likely to be the player they thought he was when drafted.
After two years, a player's draft capital is not very useful and I am not sure it much matters where Johnson was selected back in 2018. It is not just the fact that Johnson has had a hard time staying healthy. It is also the cumulative impact of so many lower-body injuries on his explosiveness going forward. Johnson came into the NFL with a long history of injuries (including three to his shoulders) and has missed significant time each of the past two seasons with knee injuries. He has now had three significant knee injuries in his career. I am not convinced he will ever be the same guy and profiles as a backup moving forward.
Swift has the chance to be an impact player in the NFL. He has a special ability to make the first man miss and also excels as a receiver. I expect Swift to quickly take the starting job from Johnson and be the go-to guy moving forward.
As a second-round NFL draft pick in 2018, Kerryon Johnson is in an interesting spot. Historically, 55% of running backs drafted in the second round of the NFL draft go on to produce a top-24 seasonal finish. For second-round running backs who miss in the first two seasons, the number drops to 28%, essentially cutting their likelihood of hitting in half from their entry into the league. Notably, 73% of second-round running backs survive the first three years of their career without their team taking a running back with superior draft pedigree, so D'Andre Swift's selection makes Johnson an outlier of sorts. Outside of the injuries, the most concerning part of Johnson's game has been his performance in the passing game. He has not seen the passing game volume his college profile would suggest and he has struggled when targeted.
As an 18-year old freshman at Georgia, Swift forced his way onto the field in a passing game role in a backfield with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. At worst, I think Swift gains the passing game role in this offense very quickly, and ultimately, Swift is the back to own long-term. However, 2020 is a murky situation. Outside of an injury, I think is at best a 60-40 type committee, but I'm not sure who is the lead back. I think Johnson and Swift have top 15 weekly upside in the event the other misses a week during the season.
As several have indicated, Kerryon Johnson is the incumbent back who already knows the offense. He has made waves in the past but injuries have kept him from fully taking flight. I have no doubt that D'Andre Swift is talented and capable of creating his own path to greatness, but I do fear that it may not happen this year, or at least not soon this year.
In addition to Swift perhaps starting off slowly there is the whole concern of, is Detroit, under Matthew Stafford's guidance, going to change their ways? Previous running backs regardless of talent have struggled to find a foothold in Detroit. I mentioned this in a previous discussion, but here it is again, the leading rushers for the Lions since Reggie Bush last rushed for 1,000 yards in the 2013 season.
- 2013: Reggie Bush 1,006 yards
- 2014: Joique Bell, 860
- 2015: Ameer Abdullah, 597
- 2016: Theo Riddick, 357
- 2017: Ameer Abdullah, 552
- 2018: Kerryon Johnson, 641
- 2019: Kerryon Johnson, 403
Even if Swift is given the nod to start, is he the one who can reverse this trend? There are too many factors pointing in a downward direction that lead me to feel confident about any Lions running back, especially Swift.
At first blush, this feels like the Indianapolis situation with Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor, but Detroit is a little bit different. Looking at the contracts, Kerryon Johnson is still on his rookie deal through the 2021 season, so this is not his final go-around for the Lions. That points towards Detroit using the veteran and incumbent back as the starter and giving rookie D'Andre Swift a year to learn the offense and work his way into the rotation.
Looking at how the lions have used Johnson over the past two seasons gives some interesting insight. When he was a rookie in 2018, he played under 40 snaps in his first five contests (40% of the overall Detroit offensive snaps), but then they had a bye week and they started to use him more, and he broke down. (Note - this hints at the recipe of how they will use Swift). This was the first attempt for the Lions to use Johnson about 65% of the time. Last year they took another shot at that rate, using Johnson on 228 of 349 (65%) of the offensive snaps through six contests, and he was injured again. So, regardless of how Johnson broke down, the evidence seems to point that Johnson cannot hold up with that heavy of a workload for a full season, so he needs help.
That all points to me that Johnson and Swift will be close to a 50-50 snap distribution this season, with the hot hand getting more work after halftime. Swift will likely struggle out of the gate at first with no preseason and the coaches not wanting to overuse him, but they also have to keep in mind that Johnson shouldn't see over 55% of the workload either. That opens things up for a third-down situation back - probably sixth-round draft pick Jason Huntley, who had 134 career catches for New Mexico - to scarf up 10-15% of the snaps.
So my breakdown is Johnson 50% of snaps, 35% for Swift and 15% for Huntley, and Swift may take on more work as the season progresses and he gets more comfortable with the offense, but they may be rather cautious with both Swift and Johnson getting more than 50% for either of them.
I barely have Johnson inside my top-50 running backs, which places me lowest on staff. When he wasn't hurt last year, Johnson looked replacement-level as a runner and contributed zilch as a pass-catcher. It's no wonder the Lions were in a rush to draft his replacement.
As Jason said, D'Andre Swift is better than Johnson at everything. But he's decisively more polished as a receiver, which is crucial for two reasons:
- Johnson was targeted a total of 15 times in seven starts last year.
- The Lions defense figures to land the team in lots of shootouts. Last year, they ranked 31st in total yards allowed, including a league-worst 4,551 yards through the air. Detroit's secondary has more depth this year, despite the loss of star cornerback Darius Slay. But their pass-rush, which tied for 31st in sacks in 2019, is once again underwhelming on paper.
If a running back is going to post top-20 numbers on this team, it will be the one running pass routes. Swift is an advanced route runner with soft hands (think Miles Sanders in his final season at Penn State). Johnson is not. Even in a split backfield (which it won't be for long), Swift's touches will be far more valuable than Johnson's. He's one of a precious few high-upside running backs worthy of drafting in the early-middle rounds.
Phil, you nailed exactly what I've been thinking about Kerryon Johnson since last fall. I was watching him closely as a possible trade target in a couple of leagues where I was in bad shape at running back and I came away more convinced than ever that Detroit did not have their man. Phil's point about the pass-catching totals is what scared me off about Johnson last fall (poor rushing lines aside). The Detroit coaching staff did not want to overuse him and that meant he only got 15 targets in his 8 games. I don't see any reason to have confidence in what Johnson will do this year.
For the record, I don't think anyone in the backfield outside of Johnson and D'Andre Swift can be projected for any meaningful fantasy contribution other than from an injury. The guys they have backing up the top two are merely solid backups and I don't see them pushing for any bigger share of the workload. They've all had a tryout in one way or another and failed to impress. If one of the top two were to go down I would expect it would be fairly formulaic with Bo Scarborough getting early-down carries and TY Johnson catching more passes. I don't know if the fifth-round rookie, Huntley, has the tools to compete right away, but there is no reason to roster him until something positive pops up about his move up the depth chart.
That leaves the question of Swift or Johnson. As I said above, I don't have any confidence in Johnson. I believe they want to use Swift as a pass-catcher as several of the guys have pointed out, and Pasquino made the astute point that both years they tried using Johnson in a larger role ended up in an injury. I do think the term injury-prone is used too often, but that doesn't mean it doesn't apply to players at a certain point. Some guys just have a body that can't take an NFL beating for very long. It appears Johnson is one of those guys.
But even if we set that aside, Detroit has certainly tried to place their faith in him and let him earn the role. But that has mostly ended in very lackluster numbers. For example, in Week 1 last year he played a weak Cardinals defense and mustered 16 carries for 49 yards and 8.2 PPR fantasy points. Or Week 4 against the Eagles when he carried the ball 20 times for thirty-six yards. The Eagles had a tough run defense, but that is bad by any standard. His rushing lines were, for the most part, consistently awful across his two seasons of work so there is a reason Detroit drafted two running backs.
Now, after thoroughly trashing Johnson I will say that I believe Detroit wants him to stay active as the smaller side of the committee they hope will develop with Swift garnering the lion's share of the touches. I would expect, after an initial phasing in of the rookie over the first month, that Swift will move from a true split or thereabouts to a 65-70% share of the opportunities. This would keep Johnson healthy as a change of pace and allow Swift to come along for 2021.
I can't imagine drafting Johnson anywhere, to be honest. He just has very little upside in my mind, so I'm pretty much ignoring him in drafts. I like Swift much more if I can get him as an RB3 than an RB2, but he'll do as your second guy in a pinch. He is an exciting player in what could be an exciting spot, but I'm not overextending for rookies this year.
I am not drafting any of Detroit's running backs. The Lions haven't had a running back crack the Top 10 at the position since Barry Sanders was the top back in 1997.
In 2019, the Lions running backs managed a meager 354 carries, 76 receptions, and 8 touchdowns which were good for 312.6 PPR fantasy points. So all of Detroit's running backs combined were still worse than the four best running backs last season.
The top Detroit running back in 2019 was Kerryon Johnson. He finished as RB54.
Adding in a high-profile running back (D'Andre Swift) just further erodes this limited pie. Our offensive line expert ranks Detroit as the 23rd best unit (among 32 teams).
Let someone else grab these players. They are likely to all underperform their average draft positions.
The Lions backfield is one of the most challenging in the league to project because the last two years have not gone as planned. Kerryon Johnson hasn't been able to stay healthy. Darrell Bevell replaced Jim Bob Cooter as the offensive coordinator and we didn't get much of a sample size to really get a sense of how he wants to distribute touches, develop specific roles or anything else. If we look back to his prior stint as offensive coordinator for Seattle, it's almost useless. Bevell's last three years included injury-marred seasons that led to J.D. McKissic finishing as the top back in 2017 from a fantasy perspective. Of course, he had a bellcow in Marshawn Lynch and he was central to the Seahawks identity as a team. The Lions have none of that going on here, much less a high performing, efficient offensive line to fuel optimism.
What we can confidently assume is that the Lions backfield will largely boil down to Kerryon Johnson and D'Andre Swift. Everyone seems to be fully on board with the notion that the Lions have moved on from Johnson, but I'm not there yet. I also don't hear any of that coming out of Allen Park or the Lions coaching staff. That said, all of the warning bells are ringing and Johnson's health has severely undercut whatever promise he showed. Haseley shared that the Lions have not had a 1,000-yard rusher in a long, long time. Similarly, they went years without having a single 100-yard rushing, but Kerryon Johnson fixed that in just his third game as a pro. In 18 games, Johnson has rushed for 100+ yards three times. While we can wonder if the injuries have sapped his explosiveness, I will not write him off just yet. Johnson has been as tough a runner as there is when he's on the field and that dates back to him carrying his Auburn team on his back demonstrating exceptional toughness and productivity despite really good SEC defenses, like Alabama, know what was coming.
Beyond Johnson and Swift, the Lions will likely keep 2 other backs with Bo Scarbrough being perhaps the top choice for early downs in an injury scenario and the other spot coming down to Ty Johnson and Jason Huntley. I believe the Lions will lean on both backs, assuming health, with Johnson perhaps having a bigger role early in the season while Swift learns the offense and starts to assert himself as a multi-tooled back capable of impacting the game as a runner and receiver.
As David and others asserted already, it might be best to avoid any of these players in your fantasy draft unless you're in a dynasty league with rookie drafts where Swift is easily a top-six pick. The challenge with redraft leagues is the price you have to pay for Swift based entirely on projecting him as the lead back, which may or may not happen right away or even at all this year. On the other side, taking Johnson either feels like a value pick or a falling knife. Johnson is arguably a better value because he can linger on draft board a round or two beyond his ADP. In most cases, there are other backs or players at other positions I covet more and, as a result, I'm just not getting too many shares of either player.
With all of that said, there are so many questions surrounding the Lions starting with Matthew Stafford's health, but including the cohesiveness and overall play of the offensive line, the emergence of T.J. Hockenson (if he's truly healthy) and whether the glimpse of Stafford we saw last year is sustainable or even repeatable. The range of outcomes is vast. If things click, the Lions could be a surprise team with a top 5 offense and better depth at their skill positions than they've had in recent years. Yet this is the Lions and this team doesn't invoke much confidence, so if things can go south - they probably will (Same Old Lions).