What's Going to Happen in the Detroit Backfield?

The Footballguys staff offers thoughts on how the Detroit backfield will shake out

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.

But in Week 11, they lost him. For the rest of the season. Johnson is healthy again, but Detroit also signed veteran C.J. Anderson. The backfield also returns Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, and others.

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?

Jason Wood

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.

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