Wojo: Lions make needed leap for RB Kerryon Johnson

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Kerryon Johnson isn’t huge or blazing fast but he’s a pounding, downhill runner.

Allen Park — Acknowledging an enormous weakness is one thing. Doing something about it is the important thing.

The Lions had the worst running game in the NFL, and there was no sense pretending it just naturally would get better, with time and improved health. GM Bob Quinn didn’t waste any time pretending, and made another decisive move to fix it Friday night, trading up to draft Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson in the second round.

For the second straight night, Quinn went to the big, bad SEC to find help, and that’s a fine place to look. In the first round, he grabbed Arkansas center Frank Ragnow, and he’s determined to fully, finally complement Matthew Stafford with a bruising running game. He began by signing LeGarrette Blount as a free-agent, and he couldn’t stop there.

The Johnson-Ragnow combo was a slight gamble, but when you’re dealing with an historically inept running game, bold moves are necessary, and this absolutely was necessary. We’ll have ample opportunity to debate whether Quinn chose the right guys, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s chosen the right concept, trying to push the Lions from finesse to force.

It comes at a cost, of course. The Lions didn’t draft any defensive linemen or pass-rushers in the first three rounds, and Quinn made a curious pick of Louisiana-Lafayette safety Tracy Walker, who was rated much lower.

“I don’t think we’ve been the most balanced offense here the last few years, and that was a priority to improve the running game,” Quinn said. “It’s something we set out to do in free-agency and the draft, and we’ll continue to look at every avenue to improve it.”

Decisive action

So when two running backs were taken late in the first round, and two more  Nick Chubb and Ronald Jones II  went early in the second, Quinn made his move for the guy he said the Lions had targeted. He traded with his old team, New England, to move up eight spots and grab Johnson. The Lions gave up their own second-rounder, as well as a fourth-rounder, to the Patriots, and might close the draft with only five total picks.

More: Names to watch for Lions on Day 3 of NFL Draft

That’s not a small price, but Johnson is not a small talent. He was the SEC offensive player of the year and led the conference in rushing (115.9 yards per games). He’s not exceptionally big (6-foot, 212 pounds) or fast, but but can be a downhill pounder with shifty cutting ability, and was a workhorse for Auburn. He played through nagging injuries in the brutal SEC, and plowed for 104 yards in a 26-14 victory against No. 1 Alabama last November, before injuring a shoulder late in the game.

“The competition and speed of the game (in the SEC) is as close as you’re going to get to the NFL,” Johnson said. “Hopefully that helps as a learning curve.”

Johnson is a physical back without the eye-popping big-play potential of, say, LSU’s Derrius Guice, who was projected higher but slid well past the Lions. Washington finally took Guice 16 picks later in the second round, as Quinn seemingly stuck to his safe routine as far as player character assessment.

One thing is apparent — the third-year GM loves players from big-time programs, acknowledging an emphasis on size and strength. The Lions’ top three picks in 2016 came from Ohio State (Taylor Decker), Alabama (A’Shawn Robinson) and Michigan (Graham Glasgow). The top two picks last year also came from the SEC, both from Florida (Jarrad Davis and Teez Tabor).

Johnson doesn’t lack for toughness or confidence. He rushed for 1,391 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, despite missing two games and parts of others with hamstring, rib and shoulder injuries. Some questioned his durability, but he missed only three games in three years at Auburn.

“If you draft players out of the SEC, they’re gonna be a little banged up,” Quinn said. “But he’s good to go. … He has a very unique running style, a very patient runner initially, but when he sees the hole, he’s got great acceleration and he finishes runs very well.”

'Build through the middle'

So far under Quinn, and now first-year coach Matt Patricia, the Lions are all about plugging holes and hitting holes. Blount and Johnson are straight-ahead runners. Ragnow is a straight-ahead mauler, rated by some the best center in the draft. Normally, teams don’t take a center in the first round, but Ragnow was considered a top-20 pick by several analysts and didn’t allow a sack in three years as a starter at Arkansas.

“I think it starts in the trenches, it starts up front,” Quinn said. “We want to build through the middle of our team, through the offensive line and defensive line. That’s kind of what we believe in.”

When building an offensive line and a running game, you can’t go halfway. The Lions have invested a ton in their line, with Decker and Glasgow on the left side, and T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner on the right side. They have good pieces, when healthy. But if you leave a gaping hole in the middle, a line can get blown up, as the Lions repeatedly showed in short-yardage situations.

They moved on from center Travis Swanson — who ironically played at Arkansas before Ragnow — and replaced him, theoretically, with a meaner, more-polished version. This is now the closest the Lions have been to a finished line (if not the finish line), and closer to a sufficiently stocked backfield.

With Blount and Johnson joining Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick and others, the Lions actually have versatility and depth. Johnson was the sixth running back taken in the draft, about where he was projected.

“What people are trying to figure out is, how much what he did was (Auburn coach) Gus Malzahn’s system, and how much of what he can do will transition into the NFL,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said recently. “I personally love the way he runs the ball, I love his patience and vision.”

Patience and vision, fine traits. Hopefully for the Lions, Johnson possesses both, and so does Quinn.