ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- His goal might seem kind of uninspiring. But in Kerryon Johnson's mind, the most important thing to him after a rookie year in which he became a valuable piece of the Detroit Lions is just being able to stay part of the Detroit Lions.
As in stay healthy. Stay on the field. Be able to stay involved for a full season after his first year ended after 10 games. It has been his goal since before he entered the league -- something he said he brought up as far back as last year’s NFL combine.
He wanted to be able to finish games, “finish seasons.”
One of the criticisms of Johnson coming out of Auburn, where he was SEC Offensive Player of the Year in 2017, was durability. Could he handle the rigors of a full NFL season without missing time? As a running back, he knows that’s difficult. It’s a position that takes a lot of punishment.
The goal, though, isn’t necessarily for those around him. It’s a personal thing.
“If I finish the season, people will still have the same knocks,” Johnson said. “Knocks have never bothered me. I want to do it for myself. I like being reliable. I like being out there. I like playing with our guys. I like being able to talk about the game and having an impact on the game.
“So knocks, honestly, I could care less.”
The Lions feel the same way. When Detroit drafted Johnson, general manager Bob Quinn said he was not worried about Johnson’s durability concerns. After the season, both Quinn and Johnson said they believed a full NFL offseason instead of having to prepare for the combine and then the draft can help Johnson alleviate any durability issues.
Johnson said he already is close to 100 percent from his knee injury and thought if the Lions had made the playoffs, he might have been able to return. He said he’ll be healthy for offseason workouts -- and that’s reason enough for Detroit to at least feel OK about the situation. Because what Johnson was able to do when he was on the field was dynamic. He became a complete running back for Detroit with 641 rushing yards (5.43 yards per carry) and 213 receiving yards.
He snapped Detroit’s years-long 100-yard rusher streak and had two 100-yard games as a rookie (and was on his way to a third against Carolina before suffering the knee injury that ended his season). He also provided the Lions with a consistent lead back for the first time since Reggie Bush and Joique Bell teamed up to give the franchise a strong run game.
It’s why the present and future of Detroit’s run game is hopeful for the first time in a while.
“What he has shown this year is his game is pretty well-rounded,” running backs coach David Walker said. “He’s been able to factor, really, in all facets in terms of running the ball, receiving the ball and blocking for the ball.
“So, you know, he’ll make strides because he’ll be a smarter player. He’ll see things, it won’t be the first time of him seeing things.”
Johnson already knows this. He gained knowledge from watching LeGarrette Blount, Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah and Zach Zenner throughout the season. He tried to figure out how they took care of their bodies and went through day-to-day in-season life to pick up pointers.
He also took things from his opponents, particularly the linebackers who tried to stop the rookie.
“It was invaluable,” Johnson said. “It’s one thing to think about going to the NFL, to think about playing against Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner, these guys, you know. Going out there and doing it, seeing the mindset that they approach the game with, the mindset that they play the game with, it kind of inspires you.
“It kind of gives you, ‘Hey, what do I need to hold on to? What do I need to get a better grasp on this offseason and next season going through the year?’"
One of those things is taking care of his body, melding the advice he received from his running backs and his coaches along with what he picked up from his opponents. Especially the running backs. Watching them, learning from them, gave him the idea of how to reach his goal.
Make it through a season.
If he does that it’s possible everything else he might want to do will end up happening. After all, this year worked out pretty well for him, injury and all.
“We drafted him with the second[-round] pick,” Walker said. “We thought he’d be able to come in and produce.
“And he’s done kind of what we expected of him.”