Matt Waldman’s RSP contributor J Moyer profiles two receptions of Detroit Lions RB Kerryon Johnson to underscore the difference between a pass-catcher and a receiver.
Decades of draft history show us projecting offensive skill players from college to the pros is difficult. The heterogeneity in offensive schemes between the NCAA and the NFL is one prominent contributing factor. To make this vague concept more concrete, take the case of Kerryon Johnson.
In his final season at Auburn, Johnson led the SEC in both carries and rushing yards. He toted the rock nearly 24 times a game, within an offense that ran the ball on an astonishing 62.7 percent of its plays. For reference, in 2018 the average NFL team rushed 41.2 percent of the time.
Despite this tremendous usage in the run game, Kerryon was hardly involved as a pass catcher. He had 24 receptions in his final season for 194 yards (averaging 2 catches for 16 yards per game). Unsurprising given the context of Auburn’s offense, these receptions came nearly exclusively as a check-down or screen option.
While these clips show Johnson comfortably catching the ball, the evaluator gains little insight into whether he can function as more than a sure-handed check-down option. In the NFL, complex pass-focused offenses are the norm, defenses are more intricate, and defensive backs are immensely skilled.
To function as a receiver, a back must learn to release against elite press coverage, manipulate defenders with an intricate route stem, and perform clean route breaks. All while reading coverage, perceiving and exploiting leverage and making proper route adjustments based on his perceptions. Oh, and he still has to catch the ball.
Fortunately for the Lions, Kerryon began bridging the functional gap between a pass catcher and a receiver in only his rookie season, despite his lack of even collegiate-level experience with downfield route concepts.
Based on his precocious success and refined process, expect Johnson to eventually function as one of the elite receiving backs in the game. Unfortunately, drawing any conclusions as to his full ability prior to his arrival in the NFL was nearly impossible.
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