Kerryon Johnson checks 2 boxes for Detroit Lions

Monday, May 7, 2018

Kerryon Johnson checks 2 boxes for Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn wanted to improve the running game and toughen the NFL team's roster with his offseason player acquisitions.

In the 2018 NFL Draft, he turned immediately to the SEC to address both concerns. In the first round, the Lions drafted Arkansas center Frank Ragnow. In the second round, Detroit traded up to take Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson.

"I know I'm in Big Ten country here, so I'm going to tread lightly here," Quinn said when asked at his post-draft press conference about taking SEC players with the Lions' first two picks for the second year in a row. "The SEC has a great brand of football. When you watch SEC football, it's probably the closest thing in terms of scheme to the NFL. ... It's really the level of competition to see guys against better players on a consistent day-by-day, week-by-week. If we go out to practice at Alabama or LSU or Tennessee -- or Michigan or Michigan State -- all of those, these guys are practicing against good players every day, and on Saturdays they're playing against good competition. It just helps the evaluation process when you're trying to project a guy to play at our level."

Quinn said it was apparent to him last season that the Lions had to build a roster that could win the tough plays.

"NFL games come down to five plays or less every week, and most of these plays are short yardage, goal line, third down, red area, special teams," Quinn said. "So if you can get your team to perform better in those situational areas and you can win the majority of those four or five plays, then you're going to have a better chance to win. So I think when you look back at our team last year, all those critical situations like goal line and we can't run the ball half a yard, that bothered me. I took it upon myself to implement some changes in terms of what we want to do, what we want to look at, what we want to look like as a team. When (coach) Matt (Patricia) came in, I said, 'Listen this is what I think we need to do,' and he was on board, so that's kind of what our plan's been since."

Ragnow and Johnson fit that plan, Quinn said.

"Any player you take, I'd say any position except maybe corner or wide receiver, out of the SEC, they're tough and they're physical," Quinn said.


Although Johnson isn't a massive running back, weighing 213 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, Quinn said the former Madison Academy standout in the hard-nosed runner the Lions wanted.

"You see how Kerryon carries the ball and finishes his runs," Quinn said. "That was something we talked about in February when Matt and his staff came in about what we thought can make the team better. You can really get specific into what you want and what you need for the team. But in my mind, I've got to have a bigger, broader -- like 'What do we want the team to look like?' We want a big, strong, tough, physical team."

Ragnow is expected to start at center or left guard for the Lions.

Johnson's path to the field is less clear. Detroit signed eight-year veteran LeGarrette Blount, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, in free agency, and has five running backs returning from last season, including Ameer Abdullah, a former Homewood High School standout who led the Lions with 552 rushing yards in 2017.

"We're going to let all these guys compete," Quinn said. "This isn't a one-back league. Last year, we carried five running backs on our roster. That's one position where we have great depth, so that's great for us. Injuries do happen at the running back position every year, so we've got five, six, seven right now on the roster, so we feel good about each and every one of them."

Quinn traded the 51st and 117th selections in this year's draft to the New England Patriots to move up eight spots in the second round to get Johnson at No. 43.

"He's a guy that we kind of targeted at the start of the day," Quinn said about the second day of the draft. "Thinking about it overnight, going back (Friday) morning, looking at the draft board with the staff, he's a guy we were hoping was going to fall to us. But we really couldn't say for sure that he was going to, so felt fortunate to move up those number of spots and get Kerryon on the team."

Johnson earned the SEC Offensive Player of the Year Award for the 2017 season as he led the league with 1,391 rushing yards.

"He has a very unique running style, I'd say," Quinn said. "We've talked a lot about these backs in this draft for the last, I'd say, year. He's a very patient runner initially. But when he sees the hole, he's got great acceleration, and he really finishes runs very well. He's a little bit, I'd say, of an upright runner initially. But when it's time to get his pads down, he gets his pads down and gets yards after contact."

The Lions finished last in the NFL in rushing offense in 2017. Detroit hasn't finish in the top half of the league in rushing since 1998, which was running back Barry Sanders' final season. The Lions haven't had a running back record a 100-yard game since Reggie Bush picked up 117 yards in a 40-10 victory over the Green Bay Packers in Detroit's annual Thanksgiving game in 2013. With 1,006 rushing yards that season, Bush is the Lions' most recent 1,000-yard runner.

Detroit's streak of games without a 100-yard rusher is four short of the NFL record of 72, set by the Washington Redskins when they had quarterback Sonny Jurgensen flinging the ball all over the field in the 1960s.

"Definitely a priority," Quinn said about improving the Lions' rushing attack during the offseason. "I think we set the course in February of what we wanted our team to look like. I think the offensive line, the run game, power running, run blocking, different schemes we're going to run was something we really focused on, and, I think, obviously, Frank being our first-round pick is going to be a big part of that. We think he can play multiple positions along our front, which'll be really good. Then with Kerryon, he's going to be able to slash inside and outside. So it was an emphasis, and I think we accomplished a lot of things we set out to."

In addition to Ragnow, the Lions hope the offensive line gets another boost from a full season of left tackle Taylor Decker, who missed eight games in 2017 because of a shoulder injury. Detroit also put a fullback back on its roster, drafting 245-pound Nick Bawden in the seventh round after the former quarterback was the lead blocker for the past two national rushing leaders at San Diego State.

"On paper, should our running game be better? Yeah, probably," Quinn said. "Now it's up to the players, the coaches and all of us to make sure we get out to the spring portion of our practices to implement the new guys into the system, get to training camp -- and we'll have a very physical training camp -- and we'll see how everything comes together. So I think the pieces are there. Now it's really up to all of us in the building to make sure these guys produce at a high level."

The work for Johnson and Ragnow starts on Friday with the Lions' three-day rookie minicamp.

"I'm happy to be a piece of anybody's puzzle, and I'm ready to come in and work," Johnson said. "That's what I feel like this organization loves to do is work. That's what everybody knows Detroit for -- being a hard-working city. I'm looking forward to stepping in that and doing the same."

Mark Inabinett is a sports reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @AMarkG1.

from Auburn Sports Impact

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