Rookie burner Ty Johnson showing more than speed for Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The 40-yard dash has become our baseline for evaluating a football player's speed. But once you get away from the precise, electronic timing of the NFL scouting combine, and into the murky waters of hand times during pro days, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. 

Ty Johnson

For example, at Maryland's pro day this offseason, one scout clocked running back Ty Johnson at 4.26 seconds. That not only would have made Johnson the fastest running back in his class, it would have made him the fastest player. 

Johnson said he never got an official time. His agent told him the majority of the teams had him between 4.3 and 4.4 seconds. Even at the worst end of that spectrum, it still would have matched Oklahoma State's Justice Hill for the fastest back at the combine. 

But Johnson wasn't invited to the combine. No surprise. At this point, he's become accustomed to being overlooked. He was lightly recruited coming out of high school, and after sending letters and highlight tapes to dozens of schools, he netted only a couple offers, the best being Maryland's.

And despite averaging 7.6 yards every time he was handed the ball during with the Terrapins, he was only given more than 15 carries in a game three times in four seasons.

The Detroit Lions were happy to roll the dice on Johnson in the sixth round of the NFL draft this year. There's always a place for speed in the NFL, and at 5-foot-10, 208 pounds, he's big enough to handle a larger workload than he saw in college. 

And while the learning curve is significant, especially for a back who saw minimal work in the pass game at Maryland, Johnson's speed is already showing up during the Lions' early offseason practices, particularly as a kick returner, where Johnson figures to be in the mix to contribute throughout training camp and the preseason. 

During a minicamp practice last week, he caught a kickoff near the goal line and seemed to hit top speed in four steps, bursting through a lane where he was off to the races.

Of course it's important to note there are no pads on, and contact is limited, but the top gear Johnson possesses cannot be ignored. And Lions coach Matt Patricia said Johnson is showing more than speed during these early practices.

"You can see his quickness, his vision as a runner," Patricia said. "He has the ability to get out and catch the ball really well."

The fact that Johnson is proving capable as a pass-catcher is critically important as he enters into a fierce competition for a roster spot in a crowded running back room. At Maryland, he was rarely utilized in that capacity, catching just 29 passes in 43 games. 

That transition, from not being asked to do it regularly in college to proving capable at the professional ranks, isn't uncommon. The Lions navigated through a similar developmental hurdle with Kerryon Johnson last season. 

Kerryon Johnson gained a bit more experience running routes out of the backfield at Auburn, but peaked at 24 receptions his junior year. Yet as a rookie with the Lions, he hauled in 32 of his 39 targets in 10 games, proving more versatile than many talent evaluators likely imagined. 

Now Ty Johnson is looking to do the same. 

"They’re young players trying to learn as far as Ty and Kerryon are concerned, and they just have to keep improving from that standpoint," Patricia said. "It’s a good time of year to work on it. It’s a good time of the year to take a look at it and see where it is compared to maybe what we saw last year or what we saw on film in college."

Beyond Kerryon Johnson, Ty Johnson joins a room full of veteran talent. He'll be competing for reps with C.J. Anderson, Zach Zenner and Theo Riddick, among others. But Ty Johnson's ability to return kickoffs, as well as cover kicks and punts, will offer him opportunities to showcase added value before the Lions reach the point where they'll make roster decisions. 

And if his eye-catching speed plays in the preseason, he'll make those decisions even tougher.