Detroit Lions: Does Kerryon Johnson’s exit end this troubling pattern?

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - SEPTEMBER 08: Running back Kerryon Johnson #33 of the Detroit Lions prior to the NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on September 08, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, ARIZONA - SEPTEMBER 08: Running back Kerryon Johnson #33 of the Detroit Lions prior to the NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on September 08, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images) /

Just two years ago, running back Kerryon Johnson seemed like a critical piece of the Detroit Lions’ offense moving forward after a promising rookie season. Now, one can only hope that he represents the conclusion of a trend that has plagued the team over the last decade.

Johnson was waived last Thursday, and claimed by the Philadelphia Eagles just a day later, marking the end of a three-year run in Detroit that many would characterize as disappointing. As a rookie, he led the Lions with 641 rushing yards, but knee injuries cost him 14 games over his first two seasons. Seemingly having lost a step on the ground, he was relegated to third-stringer status last year behind rookie D’Andre Swift and veteran Adrian Peterson.

With Swift now the unquestioned No. 1 option in the backfield, and with free-agent signee Jamaal Williams and seventh-round draft pick Jermar Jefferson in tow, Johnson was deemed expendable. It begs the question, however: Why do Lions second-round draft picks keep falling short?

Before this year’s class, the Lions have had a bafflingly difficult time adding any consistent second-round contributors over their last ten drafts, spanning two general managers and three head coaches. It’s been so dispiriting in fact, that only four of their 11 picks in round two since 2011 have received a second NFL contract. Only one of them, cornerback Darius Slay, got a second deal from the Lions.

Going down the list of players, it’s just not pretty, and the reasons for their short stays are varied. Whether it was injuries (receiver Ryan Broyles, 2012), off-the-field troubles (receiver Titus Young, 2011), odd scheme fits (linebacker Kyle Van Noy, 2014), or just general ineffectiveness (cornerback Teez Tabor, 2017), the second-round results have been rough.

These misses have played a big role in keeping the Lions from crawling out of the lower ranks of the NFC North in recent years. Conversely, their divisional rivals have plucked a large number of significant contributors during the second round in the same timeframe, continuing to drive a wedge between them and the Lions.

The Chicago Bears found interior offensive linemen Cody Whitehair and James Daniels there in 2016 and 2018. Those two have combined for 109 career starts. Add in defensive tackle Eddie Goldman (2015), receiver Alshon Jeffrey (2012), and cornerback Jaylon Johnson (2020), and you have a rock-solid group of players mined in round two. Of those players, only Jeffrey is no longer with the team.

Additionally, the Minnesota Vikings grabbed offensive linemen Brian O’Neill (2018) and Ezra Cleveland (2019) in the second round. They also landed tight ends Kyle Rudolph (2011) Irv Smith Jr. (2019), as well as Pro Bowlers in linebacker Eric Kendricks (2015), and running back Dalvin Cook (2017) early on Day Two. Wow.

Not to be outdone, the Green Bay Packers nabbed All-Pro wideout Davante Adams in round two in 2014, as well as dependable slot receiver Randall Cobb there in 2011. Add in starting defensive backs Kevin King (2017) and Darnell Savage (2019) and the Packers have also found plenty of productive players immediately after round one.

But all is not lost for the Lions. The mistakes of previous regimes should have no impact on the new administration and the Lions’ last two second-round selections still have the chance to become valuable players.

Swift, former general manager Bob Quinn’s final second-round selection from 2020, had an up-and-down rookie campaign but showed some explosive potential and should be a primary focus for the offense this season. The Lions are hoping, despite the questionable overall value and longevity of today’s NFL running back, that he is not in a similar situation as Johnson two years from now.

Defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike, this year’s second-rounder and the first for new general manager Brad Holmes, will need some time to adapt to the NFL after opting out of the 2020 season at the University of Washington due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He flashed some athleticism and explosion in 2019, but he is firmly a question mark.

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The Lions enter 2021 with low league-wide expectations, but they will need to leave their second-round strikeouts behind them if they hope to close the gap on their division rivals in the next few years. Getting base hits only with their first-rounders won’t be enough anymore.