Kerryon Johnson wants to be workhorse; Lions might pull back reins

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — This probably won't come as a big surprise, but Detroit Lions running back Kerryon Johnson will gladly welcome a bigger workload in his second season. And the Detroit Lions aren't denying that's a possibility, but history and logic suggests there will be a limit on how much the team actually puts on his plate if they want to maximize both his durability and production. 

Lions running back Kerryon Johnson reaches back for a reception during drills.

Johnson was sensational as a rookie, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Only Green Bay's Aaron Jones topped that figure. But despite a modest workload, 118 total carries and never more than 19 in a single week, Johnson lasted just 10 games prior to being shelved by a knee injury. 

Clearly, the Lions are hoping for more out of Johnson this year, starting with a full 16 games. But what's the ceiling for how many carries that back can handle, while continuing to be as productive and efficient? Right now, the team isn't looking to put a number on it. 

"Nobody’s setting a number, a ceiling, a floor or anything of who’s going to get what touches and all that," running backs coach Kyle Caseky said earlier this week. "It’s all about getting the running game going and then setting all the other stuff up for us.

"Whoever the best running back is that comes out of this thing will be getting the touches, whoever’s hot will be getting the touches. And I don’t know who that is right now, but it’s going to be one of those things where they’re pushing each other right now and it’s good because there’s competition."

The Lions have quality depth in the backfield this year, with the additions of C.J. Anderson and speedy rookie Ty Johnson joining the returning Zach Zenner and Theo Riddick. There's a decent possibility they all see carries this season, but none have Johnson's potential. 

Lions running back Kerryon Johnson heads up field after a reception during drills.

After averaging nearly 24 carries his final season at Auburn, Johnson would be thrilled to have his number called more often his second season in Detroit, especially after spending his offseason making sure his body is better equipped to handle the rigors of the NFL grind. 

"I mean, I play football,” Johnson said. “That’s what I do, that’s what I’ve always done. I’ve been a running back my whole life. As long as they keep giving it to me, until my body breaks down I’m going to keep going."

But that's exactly what the Lions want to avoid. Johnson entered the league banged up from that year at Auburn, battled a number of injuries through high school and college, and wasn't able to finish his rookie season. 

Caskey noted Kerryon's workload probably won't be something he thinks about during a game.

"Kerryon’s as tough as any of them, so I don’t foresee any problems with anything coming about," Caskey said. "I’m not going to sit there in a game and say, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s got a number of touches, we got to get him out,’ or anything like that. He is one of those guys that he’ll give you everything he’s got. Every player’s a little different when the flow of the game starts hitting them, so we’ll figure it out as we go."

And maybe Johnson will see weeks with 20 or 25 carries. But going back to last season, Lions coach Matt Patricia acknowledged he's reviewed studies on season-long usage at the position. And his former employer, the New England Patriots, haven't had a back average more than 20 touches the past decade. The team leader was typically closer to 15. 

Even if Johnson averages only 15 touches per game, that would be a 52-percent increase in his workload from a year ago, assuming he manages to stay healthy for 16 games. 

Johnson is going to be an important piece in Detroit's offense. Maybe even the key cog. After his impressive rookie campaign, his workload figures will undoubtedly be on the rise, but expectations for that increase should be tempered.