Shortly after the 2021 NFL Draft, the Lions decided to move on from one of their former second-round picks. The team waived Kerryon Johnson, who was selected 43rd overall in 2018 after it spent its final pick on Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson. Between Jefferson, free-agent signee Jamaal Williams and 2020 second-round pick D’Andre Swift, the Lions had plenty of depth at the position. That made Johnson expendable.
With Johnson available on waivers, it was expected that he would land with another running back-needy team. Instead, he ended up being claimed by the Eagles. That’s an interesting move, to say the least.
The Eagles already had a lot of depth at running back. Their starter from last season, Miles Sanders, averaged 5.3 yards per carry in 2020, fifth-best among running backs last year. He played in just 12 games but had 867 yards and eight touchdowns. There is reason to be excited about him. His backup, Boston Scott, also looked good. Scott averaged 4.7 yards per carry on 80 totes while totaling 212 yards as a receiver.
On paper, adding a player like Johnson to that tandem to provide experience and upside would make a lot of sense. But the Eagles have already added two other running backs to their roster this offseason. Jordan Howard rejoined the team after struggling (1.7 yards per carry) in Miami last year. He was a 1,000-yard rusher in 2016 and 2017 and averaged 4.4 yards per carry with the Eagles in 2019. Maybe he has something left in the tank.
The Eagles’ more inspiring addition was Kenneth Gainwell. Some expected the Memphis product to be a Day 2 pick in the 2020 draft, but he slipped all the way to the Eagles’ selection in the fifth round. He sat out the 2020 campaign because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he had more than 2,000 scrimmage yards and 16 TDs in his last collegiate season in 2019. He has potential, especially given the success that Memphis backs like Tony Pollard and Antonio Gibson have had recently in the NFL.
Prior to adding Johnson, the Eagles had four potential running back weapons and special teams ace Jason Huntley was available at the position as well. Now, Johnson provides yet another backup option.
While Johnson has struggled (3.5 yards per carry) the past couple years, he did average 5.4 yards as a rookie. He has averaged better than 10 yards per catch out of the backfield the last two years combined, so perhaps the Eagles could find a way to utilize him more as a pass-catcher than the Lions were willing to.
No matter what the Eagles do with their backs, one thing is becoming clearer: They are emphasizing their running game this season. With second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts set to take the reins, the team evidently wants to provide him with as much help as possible. That includes receiving weapons like DeVonta Smith, but it also involves taking pressure off him by building a deep, experienced and talented running game.
Sanders, Scott, Gainwell, Howard, Johnson, and Huntley can’t all make the team, so this will be one of the more intriguing position battles to watch in the offseason, especially for fantasy football owners trying to assess who the handcuff to Sanders may be. For now, it still appears to be Scott, but the competition for roster spots appears to be wide open.