From Birkett, Det FreeP: (Note, this is it until TC, no more practices until then.)
Nine NFL running backs had at least 60 receptions last season, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say Kerryon Johnson will be a part of that group this fall.
Johnson made the highlight play of the Detroit Lions’ final organized team activity practice of the spring on Thursday when he caught a long pass down the sideline for a touchdown.
Johnson’s catch wasn’t jaw-dropping in the Odell Beckham Jr. sense, but it was notable for several reasons. First, and I didn’t see where Johnson originally lined up on the play, but he had an easy 3 to 5 yards on the nearest defender as he streaked down the sideline.
Second, Matthew Stafford underthrew the pass, so Johnson had to cut short his route to make a leaping catch near the goal line as safety Tavon Wilson closed on him from behind.
It wasn’t an easy catch for any player, let alone a running back, but it was one that Johnson made look simple as he crossed the end zone and one that got me thinking about all the ways the Lions can use their No. 1 running back this fall.
Later in practice, Johnson caught another pass that made my notes, a simple check-down in a red-zone drill when he toe-tapped the sideline before going out of bounds.
The Lions have used Theo Riddick as their primary receiving back the last few seasons, and that’s still the role he’s best suited for, assuming he makes the team.
But I’m not sure Riddick is a lock for the 53-man roster – he’d make good trade bait, like Michael Roberts, in my opinion – and if the Lions do decide to go in another direction they don’t need to take Johnson off the field on third downs.
Johnson caught 32 passes in 10 games as a rookie last year and I could see him doubling that production, given the opportunity, this fall.
He’s a slithery runner who always seems to get positive yards on the ground, and he has better hands as a receiver than most gave him credit for coming out of college.
I still don’t see Johnson being much more than a 20-touch-a-game player this fall as the Lions want to preserve his health. C.J. Anderson, Zach Zenner, Riddick and rookie Ty Johnson all have a chance to earn snaps in a backup capacity.
But when the Lions need a play in their two-minute offense or when the game is on the line late, there’s no reason Johnson shouldn’t be on the field.
More observations from Thursday:
• Neither Riddick nor Anderson was on the field Thursday in a practice that felt a little like the last day of school with players getting ready to head home for the summer. Damon Harrison and Darius Slay remain away from the team, of course, and a handful of players sat out team (and in some cases) individual drills nursing injuries including Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, Tommylee Lewis, Chris Lacy, Trey Flowers, Steve Longa and Nick Bawden.
• I don’t know what he’s dealing with, but add Christian Jones to the group of Lions tending to health issues. He did not practice Thursday, but he popped his head briefly out of the practice facility and had a sleeve on his right leg. With him out, rookie Jahlani Tavai took first-team reps at linebacker alongside Jarrad Davis and Devon Kennard.
• After juggling combinations in mandatory minicamp last week, the Lions had their projected starting offensive line back on the field Thursday. That meant Frank Ragnow played center, Graham Glasgow right guard and Kenny Wiggins left guard with the first unit. Luke Bowanko, who signed as a free agent earlier this week, took second-team reps at center, with Joe Dahl at left guard and Oday Aboushi at right guard.
• Johnson’s catch aside, tight end Logan Thomas had the play of the day Thursday when he made a high leaping grab over Tracy Walker in the back of the end zone. The Lions have a ton of size in their tight end room this year, with Thomas (6 feet 6), Jesse James (6-7) and T.J. Hockenson (6-5) looking like a small-college basketball team. Expect Stafford to use it in the red zone this fall.
• Stafford also caught a pass Thursday, when one of his throws was batted back in his face at the line of scrimmage. I didn’t see which defensive player got his hand on the ball, but the whistle blew well before Stafford could turn and run upfield.
• Stafford did get some throwing in with Marvin Jones and Golladay, though neither of the Lions’ top two receivers was really running routes. The trio, plus quarterbacks Tom Savage and David Fales and receiver Jermaine Kearse, threw some mostly stationary fade routes while most of the team was on the far field doing special-teams drills.
• Twice during Thursday’s practice, offensive line coach Jeff Davidson gathered his group in front of one of the two big screens the Lions have on their practice field to watch the previous period. Matt Patricia has touted the educational value of having those boards on the field before, and we saw it in action Thursday.
• In your daily Teez Tabor update: The third-year cornerback had another interception while working with the first-team defense Thursday and downed a punt as a gunner near the 5-yard line (when he actually caught the punt before it landed). Overall, he’s had a positive spring after a rough first two seasons in Detroit.
• Kicker Matt Prater is about the least of the Lions’ concerns given how reliable he’s been during his career. I still got a kick – pun intended – out of one of his field goals Thursday. Practicing on the Lions’ skinny goalposts, which are about half as wide as regular goalposts, he banked a kick off the right upright, then the left upright, before he sailed through. Give him a hundred chances and I’m not sure he could do that again.
• That’s it for observations for the spring. The Lions will kick off training camp somewhere around July 25, and I’ll be back with more observations then.