Kerryon Johnson, New-Look Lions Striving For 'Top 10' Rushing Attack

D'Andre Swift might help them get there.

Will Burchfield
June 10, 2020 - 4:33 pm
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When the Lions drafted D'Andre Swift, Kerryon Johnson wasn't stressing about job security. He had bigger things on his mind, like how Harry Potter was going to take down Voldemort. The stamps are on Twitter. 

"I was actually watching Harry Potter, so that was my initial reaction," Johnson said on a Zoom call with local media Wednesday. "Finally watched Harry Potter for the first time in my life, so that was pretty cool.

"Look, I knew we were going to draft another running back eventually. We got, in my opinion, definitely one of the top two. I love having a running mate, I love winning games and I think he can help us do that, so I wasn’t tripping at all." 

There's proof of this, too. Johnson took a brief timeout from binging the eight-part series to welcome Swift to Detroit. Together, they have the potential to take the Lions' rushing attack somewhere it hasn't been in a while. And perhaps take the team with them. 

So asked if the arrival of another highly-touted running back puts him on notice, Johnson was quick to answer no. 

"I’m excited. He’s a phenomenal player," Johnson said. "I remember playing against him in college, I hated seeing him. We played against Nick Chubb and Sony Michel (at Georgia), and I’m telling you, when that kid stepped on the field, he’s lightning in a bottle. He’s threatening to go 80, 70, 60 yards every time he touched it." 

The Lions see the same big-play ability in Swift, which is part of the reason they drafted him early in the second round. They also drafted a pair of offensive linemen in the next two rounds, trying once and for all to build a ground game they can lean on. If another option in the backfield doesn't bother Johnson, nor does the idea of a new-look O-line.

"At the end of the day, they move people, I run. That’s all we need for the relationship to work," Johnson said. "So I’m excited, excited to meet those guys, excited for us to have so many options, and I'm sure they’re excited for us to have the talent we have in the backfield.

"We’ve made some improvements in the run game, in my opinion, the past couple years, but we’re still trying to go for top 10 in the league. That’s just the goal we’re trying to get to."

It's a lofty goal, all things considered. The Lions haven't had a top-10 rushing attack since Barry Sanders was carrying the ball. In fact, they haven't even finished in the top half of the league in that span. Fitting that two Barry disciples want to end the drought, but they have a long road ahead. 

The Lions ranked last in rushing the year before Johnson arrived, then moved up to 23rd in 2018. There were flashes of something more last year under new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, but mostly the same results, including Johnson's second injury in as many seasons. In both cases, his presence was missed. 

When Johnson got at least 10 carries in 2018, the Lions averaged 115 rushing yards per game -- that would have ranked 14th in the NFL over the course of the year. When he got at least 10 carries in 2019, they averaged 122.8 rushing yards per game -- that would have been tied for ninth. His durability is a key unknown heading into 2020. 

It's another reason the Lions drafted Swift. Should Johnson go down again, they have another explosive back they can turn to. And in the event both stay healthy, Detroit stands to have one of the most dynamic duos in the league. After the draft, Lions GM Bob Quinn said Johnson and Swift "complement each other very well.” Johnson seems to agree.

"We're two different people," said Johnson. "He’s a lot more elusive than I am, I would say. I think everybody would agree with that. But just having multiple backs that are capable of running the ball at an efficient level, whether the style is different or the same, it just takes stress off one another." 

Johnson has started 14 games through two seasons. It's the same number of games he's missed thanks to knee issues. He returned for the final two games last year partly to prove that he could get back on the field. If he wants to shake the injury-prone label, this is the year to do it. Right now, he said his said his body is "feeling good."

There's no magic wand for staying healthy. But if Johnson can stay on the field this season, he and Swift have the ability to make some magic.