A fresh start. That is how Kerryon Johnson looks at his situation, which changed so suddenly last week when Detroit waived the fourth-year running back and he was claimed by the Eagles, a team looking for depth across the roster spectrum.
"I'm feeling better than I have in the past two years right now," said Johnson, who arrived at the NovaCare Complex on Tuesday to take his physical, meet the coaches, and gain some familiarity with the building. "But it's one thing to say it. I have to go out there and prove it every single day. I look forward to getting back into my groove and getting back into who I think I can be. This team took a chance on me, so I'm ready to make that chance pay off. I'm ready to give this my all and do what I came here to do."
His groove, at its best, was really, really good. He joined Detroit as a second-round draft pick in 2018 and promptly had success, gaining 641 rushing yards and averaging 5.4 yards per carry in 10 games before suffering a left knee injury that ended his season. Johnson returned for the 2019 season and jumped right into the fray for the Lions for six weeks – highlighted by a 125-yard performance on 26 carries against Kansas City in a September 29 34-30 loss – and then suffered a right knee injury that shelved Johnson for eight weeks. He returned for the final two games of '19, rushing for 91 yards on 21 carries.
Healthy enough in 2020 to play in all 16 games, Johnson carried only 52 times for 181 yards as the Lions turned to rookie first-round draft pick D'Andre Swift. Johnson's highest output was an 11-carry, 46-yard game against Houston on Thanksgiving, and after the Lions signed Jamaal Williams in free agency and then used a seventh-round draft pick on Jermar Jefferson from Oregon State, it was clear that Johnson was no longer in the plans.
The hope here is that Detroit's loss is the Eagles' gain. Johnson believes that is going to be the case.
"When the time comes, I've just got to go out there and play my game," Johnson said. "I feel like that will be good enough. I feel like the coaches will see that. I feel like the players will see that. I feel that I'll gain the respect that I need to have and we'll take it from there. That's my goal. That's what I came here to do, that's what I came here to be."
Johnson said he was impressed by Head Coach Nick Sirianni's energy and his passion for the job – "you can tell that he loves what he does and you can tell that he appreciates the opportunity that he has to lead this team" – and Johnson said he is ready to compete for a roster position and to make a significant contribution to the offense. With a 17-game schedule, the Eagles can use all the depth they can find, particularly at a position that is as physically demanding as running back.
"It's a lot of football. That's a lot of games, especially for a running back," Johnson said in a one-on-one interview before he met the Philadelphia media.
It is way early to say where Johnson fits into the Eagles' backfield situation, or even how Sirianni plans to use his backs. But this much we know: Johnson has size at 211 pounds, finishes his slashing runs with fury, and is known as an outstanding pass protector. Those are the kind of skills that every backfield can use. Johnson finished his press conference talking about the kind of running play that best fits his style, and he made it clear that every opportunity is a great one as far as he is concerned.
"I like every running play where we get the ball," Johnson said, chuckling. "Any play that they can give the running backs the ball, that is my type of play. But you know, they have a very good offensive line here and have had a good offensive line for years here ... I'm excited to get with those guys. It doesn't matter what running play I like. If they don't block it, I don't get yards. They have plays that they love to block, that they love to run, that's what I'll work on to get better at and that's what we'll run. It all stems from the five guys up front and obviously including the tight ends as well.
"Whatever running play they like, I'll like it more."