Impact Analysis: Rudi Johnson and Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions

by Mike Mady on October 1, 2008 @ 14:49:55 PDT


The Detroit Lions entered 2008 with the intention of being a balanced offense that would utilize the running game. They changed their blocking scheme, coaches and players. The new commitment to the run along with the intrigue of rookie running back Kevin Smith and the late signing of running back Rudi Johnson caught the eye of fantasy owners. The team began the year with Smith as the starter, but they used the bye week to install Johnson into the role, leaving fantasy owners to try and make sense of it all.

The back story

The Lions selected Smith with the first pick in the third round of this year's draft. Smith's work in the offseason was enough to impress the coaching staff and make him the Week 1 starter. He wasn't expected to be challenged much by then-backup running back Tatum Bell; however, the situation changed when the Lions signed Johnson (who was released by the Cincinnati Bengals) and released Bell. Suddenly, Smith was competing with an eight-year veteran who had been to a Pro Bowl, scored 50 career touchdowns and rushed for nearly 6,000 yards.

Kevin Smith

Smith left Central Florida as the school's all-time leading rusher, gaining 4,679 rushing yards and scoring 45 touchdowns on the ground in three seasons. Smith was projected as the Lions' starter entering the 2008 season, and he started the team's first three games. In those games, Smith rushed 35 times for 102 yards and one touchdown for an uninspiring 3.5 yards per carry.

His utilization wasn't what it was expected to be, either, most likely due to the Lions often finding themselves trailing in games. Smith still has seen heavier utilization than Johnson, but that began to change in Week 3. Over the first two weeks of the season Smith was utilized in 28.98 percent of Detroit's plays while Johnson was utilized in only 3.31 percent. In Week 3, Johnson was utilized in 32.18 percent of the team's plays while Smith was involved in only 5.36 percent.

Rudi Johnson

Johnson is an established running back who spent the first seven years of his career playing for the Bengals. After a hamstring injury hampered him for most of last season, Johnson reportedly got in phenomenal shape, added some muscle and appeared primed to bounce back in 2008. However, Johnson once again experienced soreness in the hamstring during the preseason and was eventually released by the Bengals.

The Lions signed Johnson, and he was expected to serve as Smith's backup - a role he played in the Lions' first two games, receiving only four carries. The team decided to get Johnson more involved during their third game, and he responded to the tune of 83 rushing yards (14 carries), 48 receiving yards (three receptions) and a touchdown. Most of this happened with Smith on the bench, as the rookie didn't receive a single touch after the first quarter.

The road ahead

Detroit had their Bye in Week 4, which gave their coaches time to sort out the backfield situation. They decided to go with Johnson as the starter, which might be a wise move considering their tough upcoming schedule.

Table: Detroit Lions' Week 5-8 opponents (statistics vs. opposing running backs)

Run Att
Run Yds
Run TD
Rec Yds
Rec TD

Things certainly don't look very promising over the next four weeks, with two of the NFL's top four rushing defenses on tap. They appear to get easier in Week 7 against the Houston Texans, who have been run over in their first three games. The Washington Redskins are a bit of a mixed bag, doing solid work against backs on the ground but struggling against them through the air. Of course, with just 11 catches between them, it remains to be seen if Johnson or Smith can take advantage.

Overall, Detroit's next four games provide little encouragement, with only one really attractive matchup and a pair of downright brutal ones.

Fantasy football outlook

When Johnson signed in Detroit, many believed the job was still Smith's to lose, and Johnson's lack of utilization in the first two games seemed to re-affirm that belief. The fact of the matter was, Johnson had signed with the Lions only days before the team's first game and had minimal time to establish chemistry with his teammates or grasp the playbook. Well, Johnson looked comfortable in the offense during their last game and has been elevated to starter status, raising his fantasy stock. Clearly this comes as a blow to Smith, whose fantasy value is falling.

At this point, Johnson should be viewed as a strong No. 3 fantasy back. He seems to be growing more comfortable with the offense with each passing week and has a proven track record as a starter.

As for Smith, he becomes a reserve option in fantasy leagues with his true value being as a handcuff for Johnson owners. If you own one, you should strongly consider targeting the other in a trade.

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About Mike Mady

Mike Mady has been a KFFL contributor since 2005.

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