ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Ty Johnson stepped on the turf at Ford Field two weeks ago and lined up in the backfield. Tom Savage handed him the ball. He burst off on the right side. Gained 13 yards. None of it counted.
A holding call nullified the first run of his NFL career. It was a preseason game, but being able to pull off that type of speed run immediately in the pros also did something more valuable.
Johnson wasn’t sure how his skills would fit in the NFL. It’s the question of almost every rookie when he makes the jump from college football. He started practicing with the Lions and broke off some big runs. Still a little skeptical, he lined up in the backfield against the Patriots, and then, first carry, that happened.
“Everyone wonders how it’s going to be when you first get here,” Johnson said. “But when I made a few plays, I was like, ‘OK, it’s going to translate pretty well.'”
Still, Johnson’s preseason has been pretty quiet. Some of that has to do with the Lions not using him all that much — though it’s clear they like what he can bring. Some of that has to do with the two backs definitively in front of him on the depth chart: Kerryon Johnson and C.J. Anderson. Heading into training camp, it wasn’t clear that Johnson was going to make the team.
Then the Lions cut veteran Theo Riddick, theoretically opening a spot on the roster for another running back. Since then, Johnson has played like a player deserving of a spot and much more.
Being a sixth-round pick out of Maryland means he isn’t going to get the attention others will early in the season. But he’s a player to watch, both in fantasy leagues and in real life, as a sleeper for a better year than you might anticipate.
That said, at the moment, Johnson is fine living the hype-free life.
“I’m off-the-radar right now, and I like keeping it that way,” he said. “I like staying low-key. That’s perfectly fine if I am. That’s perfectly fine.”
Why is he OK with that?
“It’s not as much pressure, one, and two, it’s the ultimate surprise, I guess, if I do make big plays,” he said.
It’ll be a great surprise if he does it a couple of times in the regular season — and there’s reason to believe he should receive some opportunities because his combination of speed and acceleration is different than that of Kerryon Johnson, Anderson or Zach Zenner. Johnson can get outside in the blink of an eye or through a hole in a flash.
Kerryon Johnson has the ability to make big plays with his vision. Anderson, who was a darling filling in for Todd Gurley II in the Los Angeles Rams’ run to the Super Bowl, is a bigger back. Zenner has special-teams value and has always been able to rush for the yards that are open to him. Johnson brings something different.
“He can go whenever,” Anderson said. “His speed speaks for itself. We can all get in the open field and hit some runs, but to finish those open runs, I think that his ability is better than myself, for sure.”
It’s what Johnson did at Maryland, finishing fourth in school history in rushing yards (2,635) and third in all-purpose yards (4,196). He didn’t catch many passes for the Terrapins, but already in Lions camp he has shown that he can do that too, something he was confident of when he was asked about his lack of receiving production on draft day.
The Lions were intrigued by his potential then and continue to be now. It isn’t clear what his role will be this season. Change-of-pace back? Third-down specialist? Special teams? It’s a spot the Lions are trying to find for him.
Johnson’s speed opened that up. He has all the makings of a future playmaker. Lions coach Matt Patricia likes his ability to burst through the line of scrimmage, except that Johnson still seems like a player going “what do we do?” once he gets there.
If he figures that out, the Lions should create a way to use him. That will make Johnson tantalizing in all aspects of football, both real life and fantasy.
“Certainly his speed is something that is very interesting, and I would say there are definitely some trends in the league right now where you have guys who have different types of speed out there that gives defenses problems, and those are hard players to defend,” Patricia said. “Right now, for him, it’s really about learning the position and making sure that’s all consistent.
“And then, once all that kind of gets settled down, if it goes in the direction that we want it to, we can try to explore other areas to use his athleticism and things like that to help us.”