Fantasy Football: Will Kerryon Johnson Take the Next Step in 2019?
Despite the club's apparent infatuation with Johnson leading to trading up to select him, he wasn't thrust into a feature-back gig from the start.
Johnson didn't reach double-digit carries in either of the first two games of the year, but he made the most of his first contest besting that threshold in Week 3, erupting for 101 rushing yards on 16 carries against the New England Patriots.
He'd surpass the century mark once again three games later, stomping the Miami Dolphins for 158 rushing yards on 19 carries. Those two games marked Johnson's only two games reaching triple-digit rushing yards in an injury-abbreviated, 10-game rookie season.
What's in store for him in 2019?
2018 Rushing Review
Johnson's 10-game campaign provided plenty to whet the appetite of gamers.
Johnson's 5.4 yards per carry in 2018 was tied for the second-highest mark among qualified runners. It also wasn't simply the product of a few long runs skewing the average. Johnson's 5.0 true yards per carry, a metric at PlayerProfiler that discounts all runs greater than 10 yards, ranked sixth among running backs. A glance lower on his PlayerProfiler page reveals he was excellent against stacked fronts (fronts with eight or greater defenders in the box) averaging 4.9 yards per carry, solid against base fronts (seven defenders in the box) sporting 4.3 yards per carry, and outstanding against light fronts (six or fewer defenders in the box) ripping off 7.1 yards per carry.
In other words, he didn't simply eat against light fronts while the Lions played catch up.
Johnson's 0.07 Rushing Net Expected Points per carry as a rookie stacks up favorably among his running back peers, too. To put that number in perspective, since 2015, there have been 180 instances of a back carrying the ball 100 or more times, and Johnson's 0.07 Rushing NEP per carry ranks tied for 23rd-best with six others.
Johnson's Rushing Success Rate (42.37% was just 59th, but teammate LeGarrette Blount notched a Rushing Success Rate of just 29.87% in the same offense and a Rushing NEP per carry of -0.16. Johnson thrived relative to his offense.
Johnson's Receiving Chops
Johnson's rushing work receives the bulk of the accolades, but he has the receiving skills to be a three-down back.
His 32 receptions on 39 targets were good for a 82.1 percent catch percentage, eighth out of 39 backs with a minimum of 30 targets last year. His 6.60 yards per reception leave something to be desired, ranking 32nd on the same list of 39 backs, but it did best the 6.30 yards per reception of teammate Theo Riddick, whose value is entirely tied to his receiving skills.
The rookie back's 0.21 Target NEP per target also bested Riddick's putrid -0.09 mark in 2018.
The former's mark ranked tied for 14th out of 40 backs with a minimum of 30 targets, while the latter's ranked next to last ahead of only Lamar Miller's -0.23. You have to go back to 2015 to find a season in which Riddick tallied a better Target NEP per target than Johnson did in his rookie season.
The reality is that the Lions would be wise to phase Riddick out of the offense in favor of the more well-rounded sophomore back who also happens to be the better receiving back at this point their respective careers.
Johnson's probable emergence as the preferred receiving back could be especially useful for his fantasy value on a team that's likely to be in a negative game script often. Detroit's win total is set at 6.5, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
An increase in usage in the passing game would also assuage concerns about free-agent addition C.J. Anderson stealing some early-down work and closer carries in games the Lions lead.
I specifically mention early-down work and carries late in the game because Anderson's not an asset in the passing game. Johnson offers the best blend of running and receiving skills in Detroit's backfield, and the tools and opportunity are there for him to build on his promising rookie campaign.
Additionally, when the game is in a favorable or neutral script, expect the Lions to lean heavily on their running attack with new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell calling the plays, awarding ample opportunities to tote the rock to Johnson even with Anderson spelling him. As NFL.com's Managing Editor Graham Barfield pointed out in the following tweet, Bevell's offenses have typically featured run-heavy play calling.
Darrell Bevell's offenses have ranked inside of the top-10 teams in rush play% in 8-of-12 seasons in his career as MIN and SEA OC.#Lions rank in rush play% over the past five years: 19th, 30th, 31st, 32nd, and 26th.
— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) July 11, 2019
Bevell doesn't just walk the walk when it comes to calling run-heavy offenses; he's also talking the talk about being a run-first offense in his first season. Volume is king in fantasy football, and an uptick in carries would be a boon for Johnson's fantasy scoring output this season.
In standard scoring leagues, Johnson has an ADP of 37.3 as the 20th running back off the board, according to FantasyPros average draft position (ADP) data.
His ADP creeps up to 35.3 as the 19th running back off the board in half point-per-reception (PPR) formats and sits at 35.2 as RB19 in PPR formats.
He'd be basically a break-even pick at his cost within the running back position if he matched his per-game scoring from his rookie season and stayed healthy for the full year. Our algorithm projects him as the RB23 in half-PPR formats.
With his efficiency and opportunity entering 2019, I'm optimistic he builds on last year's work and think he's worth spending a top-30 selection on in standard, half-PPR, and PPR formats.