The Detroit Lions’ new coaching staff did not waste much time addressing a lingering problem.
Needing to bolster a ground game that ranked last in the league a year ago, the Lions traded up in the second round to snag Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson with the No. 43 selection on Friday night.
New head coach Matt Patricia, who served as the defensive coordinator with the New England Patriots before taking over the Lions, turned to his former team to move up eight slots in the second round.
Detroit sent the 51st overall pick and a fourth-round selection (No. 117) to New England in exchange for the rights to snare Johnson, the SEC Offensive Player of the Year last season.
“Felt really good about that pick. He’s a guy that we kind of targeted at the start of the day, thinking about it overnight,” Lions general manager Bob Quinn told reporters at his media briefing Friday night on his reasoning for the trade. “That’s something we thought long and hard about because, you know, I did want to acquire more picks, but I think we knew there was going to be a run on running backs in the second round and he was the one we wanted.”
Johnson was rated the No. 6 overall running back by NFLDraftScout senior analyst Rob Rang and fills a huge need for Detroit, which averaged a paltry 76.3 yards rushing last season — by far the worst in the NFL.
The 5-foot-11, 213-pound Johnson rushed for 1,391 yard and 18 touchdowns last season for Auburn, including 11 scores in a three-game span. He rumbled for 167 yards in an upset of then-No. 1 Georgia, which wound up advancing to the national championship game.
“He’s a very patient runner initially, but when he sees the hole he’s got great acceleration and he really finishes runs very well,” said Quinn.
Johnson did miss two games due to injury last season and durability has been the knock on him. NFLDraftScout analyst Dane Brugler termed Johnson “one of the toughest backs I’ve ever evaluated” and praised his high pain tolerance, but made note of a lengthy injury history dating to high school.
Miller said the Lions had Johnson in for a visit and felt good about the reports by team doctors after checking him out thoroughly.
“He’ll hold up. He’s a guy that they (Auburn) run inside the tackles primarily in that offense, if you know Gus Malzahn’s offense,” said Quinn. “They basically run between the guards, so I think this guy’s very versatile that he can run inside, but I think we’ll use him more to run outside as well. So, listen, any player you take, I’d say, any position except for maybe corner or receiver out of the SEC, they’re tough and they’re physical.
“So, we feel really good about that. There’s no issues with his durability for us.”
Injuries at the position have been a major detriment for Detroit’s sagging ground game. The Lions drafted undersized Ameer Abdullah in the second round in 2015 and he already has missed 16 games in three seasons.
Quinn showed his commitment to rebuilding the ground game by using the 20th overall pick to take Arkansas center Frank Ragnow, who can also play guard.
“Having balance on offense is important,” said Quinn. “I don’t think we’ve been the most balanced offense the last few years, right? So, I think that was a priority in the offseason to improve the running game. I think I said that here in January, so that was something we set out in free agency, in the draft.
“We’re going to continue to look at every avenue to improve that. I think we’ve done that the last couple days.”