Is Kerryon Johnson Still the Lions’ Most Valuable Fantasy RB?

Is Kerryon Johnson Still the Lions’ Most Valuable Fantasy RB? article feature image
Credit:

Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Kerryon Johnson

  • Kerryon Johnson looked a top running back last season. Could he break out if the Detroit Lions go with a committee backfield?
  • Ian Hartitz assesses the second-year back's fantasy football value heading into 2019.

Editor’s note: The Lions released Theo Riddick after this piece was first published. See Kerryon Johnson’s and the rest of the Lions’ updated fantasy rankings — which you can use to build custom cheat sheets for your draft — in our Draft Kit.


The Lions didn’t exactly live up to expectations in their first season under new head coach Matt Patricia, finishing last in the NFC North thanks to a mediocre 6-10 record.

One of Detroit’s few bright spots was rookie running back Kerryon Johnson. The 43rd overall pick of the 2018 draft snapped the franchise’s infamous 70-game drought without a 100-yard rusher in Week 3 against the Patriots and displayed an ability to turn nothing into something on a routine basis.

Let’s take a look at what makes Johnson tick and determine his fantasy football value heading into 2019.


Kerryon Johnson Took over Detroit’s Backfield in 2018

The Lions had a fairly packed backfield entering 2018. LeGarrette Blount was the early-down back, Theo Riddick handled passing downs and some continued to hold out hope for 2015 second-round pick Ameer Abdullah.

Enter Johnson, who managed to emerge as the offense’s best overall back by Week 2. It took a bit longer for the coaching staff to come around to the idea of featuring their rookie as a three-down back, but it was clearly a new era in Detroit following the team’s Week 6 bye.

Riddick and Blount (to a lesser extent) remained involved, but Johnson was clearly the lead back over this stretch. The rookie was one of just 17 backs to average at least 18 combined carries and targets per game from Weeks 7 to 11.

Even more encouraging for Lions fans was just how effective Johnson was with those touches. His average of 5.43 yards per carry was the highest by any Detroit player (minimum 100 carries) since Barry Sanders averaged 6.13 yards per carry in 1997.

Johnson was one of fantasy’s most valuable assets over this stretch, working as the overall PPR RB9 in Weeks 7-11.

His season was ultimately cut short by a sprained left knee. And while Johnson is positioned to once again work as the Lions’ lead back in 2019, it’s tough to see him gaining a three-down workload because…

The Lions Love Committee Backfields

First of all, workhorse running backs don’t exactly grow on trees these days. The only running backs who played even 60% of their offense’s snaps in 2018 were:

  • Christian McCaffrey (91%)
  • Ezekiel Elliott (83%)
  • Saquon Barkley (83%)
  • David Johnson (80%)
  • Todd Gurley (75%)
  • James Conner (64%)
  • Alvin Kamara (63%)
  • Dion Lewis (61%)
  • Joe Mixon (60%)

LeSean McCoy, Lamar Miller, Leonard Fournette and Melvin Gordon were poised to join that group with better injury luck, while Kareem Hunt was on his way before being released.

Johnson is hardly the league’s only running back who isn’t guaranteed to play much more than 50% of their team’s snaps every week. This has been a league-wide trend for a few years:

ESPN’s Matthew Berry reported after the combine that his sense from Patricia and Bob Quinn is “that they were pretty clear they do not intend to give [Johnson] a feature-back role and that both believe in multiple backs.”

Riddick is under contract through next season and figures to work as the team’s lead pass-down back. That leaves a potential early-down grinder role for either incumbent backup Zack Zenner or recently signed vulture C.J. Anderson.

The good news for everyone involved in the Lions offense is that we should probably expect a step forward in 2019, especially from the rushing attack.

The Lions’ Fantasy-Friendly Coaching Changes

Former Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter might’ve had the best name in all of coaching, but he wasn’t exactly the best at enabling fantasy-friendly running backs. The Lions ranked 30th, 31st, 31st and 18th during his four years calling plays from 2015 to 2018.

Meanwhile, new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has ranked inside the league’s top-10 most run-heavy play-callers in seven of his 12 seasons as an OC since 2006. Bevell certainly made a more concerted effort to get his lead running back touches than Cooter over the years:

The Lions probably won’t suddenly feed Johnson 300-plus touches like a prime Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch, but that seems to be in his theoretical range of possibilities thanks to the team’s change at OC.

Johnson is presently the RB24 in PPR average draft position. Even a moderate improvement from the change at OC, or from Matthew Stafford (averaged six-year low 6.7 adjusted yards per attempt in 2018) could help enable the team’s lead running back to rank among the league’s top-15 fantasy backs.

We should only target players who appear to have elite talent if a robust workload isn’t guaranteed, and that’s exactly what Johnson offers.