The winless, undefeated Lions return home after a disappointing tie in Arizona to battle the Chargers. We take a look at the matchup. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Allen Park — There's no position in football with a shorter shelf life of high-level production than running back. Sure, there are the Emmitt Smiths and Frank Gores of the world, but those guys are anomalies. More often than not, backs are lucky to still be performing at or near their peak by the age of 30, while many players at other positions still have some prime years remaining.
That's why there has been a recent trend of running backs attempting to get paid, before the mileage racks up and the wheels start to fall off. In the past two years alone, three high-profile runners have held out for better long-term contracts.
Former Michigan State standout Le'Veon Bell sat out an entire year to secure his bag. And Ezekiel Elliott missed all of training camp and the preseason this offseason before the Dallas Cowboys broke down and signed him to a new six-year, $90 million pact with $50 million guaranteed.
Meanwhile, Melvin Gordon waits, with no end in sight to his situation with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Who knows what the future holds, but someday Lions running back Kerryon Johnson could find himself in Gordon's shoes. Detroit's second-round pick from a year ago quickly emerged as a starting-caliber talent, but as they often do at the position, injuries took their toll and he missed the final six games of the 2018 campaign.
Like all rookies, Johnson's salary is capped for the next three years. In addition to the $2.8 million signing bonus he received, he has base salaries of $775,622, $1.07 million and $1.37 million the next three years. A relative bargain for what he could bring to the table during that time.
Under general manager Bob Quinn, the Lions have done a good job getting ahead of contract extensions for key contributors. But if Johnson continues to produce at a high level and a new deal can't be reached before the final year of the rookie contract, it's possible he finds himself in Gordon's situation, weighing the value of holding out.
Of course, that's too far away to reasonably consider, but in the here and now, Johnson is supportive of Gordon's decision to fight for what he believes he's worth.
"It's worked for players and he's just trying to do what's best for him," Johnson said. "It'd be hard for me to say I don't support him. He's a running back. He's trying to get his money. He's trying to make the best future for himself. If that's what he chooses to do, that's what he chooses to do. He knows the bonuses, he knows the minuses of his decision and he's taking that full throttle and I support him.
"Every player wants other players to do what's best for them. We're all in this thing together. Whatever his decision is, it would be wrong for me as a player (to say), 'Hey, you doing this is stupid.' He's a grown man, he makes his own decisions. If that's what he wants to do, that's what he wants to do."
Johnson said he'll miss the opportunity to compete against Gordon this week, a back he admires. On the other hand, he knows backup Austin Ekeler is doing outstanding work in Gordon's stead. Ekeler scored three times in the Chargers' Week 1 victory.
More than any of that, Johnson is worried about correcting his own mistakes from a disappointing season opener, where he rushed for just 49 yards on 16 carries in Detroit's 27-27 tie with Arizona.
“I missed two big runs," Johnson said. "Ran smack dab into the middle of the defense, and I told them that was my fault. First game, everybody’s not perfect."
The heart of the Chargers is the team's pass rush, led by dominant defensive end tandem Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Johnson believes the ground game will be one of the key ways the Lions can hold that element in check.
"If you let them get going, those two guys can get there in a hurry," Johnson said. "We've got to come up with a plan for that, and the plan for that is also running the wall. It slows them down, if anything, a half-second to help our O-linemen and that's what we're trying to do. If you line up and try to pass block those guys 10 times in a row, they're going to get there."