The New Orleans Saints came into the 2017 draft with underrated running back Mark Ingram already on their roster. They then traded up in last year's draft to draft all-purpose threat Alvin Kamara in the 3rd round. The Ingram/Kamara duo proceeded to dominate the 2017 season, setting an NFL record for a running back combination with 3,094 yards from scrimmage and scoring 26 touchdowns. They helped the Saints to the 2nd best offensive ranking in the league, each earning Pro Bowl honors, with Kamara winning the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year. Tuesday's announcement that Ingram will be suspended for the first four games this season thins out a Saints running back squad that has little proven depth behind Kamara. Could the subject of today's undrafted rookie profile take advantage of a potential roster opportunity?
D'Ernest Johnson, RB (South Florida)
Johnson was a 4-star recruit coming out of Immokalee High School in Florida that stayed close to home in attending South Florida University. He saw limited playing time as a true freshman, then earned a bigger role as a sophomore, scoring 5 touchdowns on 653 yards from scrimmage and averaging nearly 27 yards per kickoff return. Johnson earned second team American Athletic Conference honors as a returner in 2016, averaging 28.9 yards per kickoff return and 11.8 yards per punt return, including one score. Johnson's return responsibilities decreased last season, playing a bigger role in the Bulls' run-oriented offense, as he rushed for a career high 796 yards and added 9 offensive scores. He left South Florida as the school's all-time leader in all-purpose yardage, along with receptions and receiving yardage for a running back. Despite his versatile abilities, Johnson went undrafted, instead receiving an invitation to compete at the Saints rookie mini-camp this weekend.
Johnson runs with power through the hole, and reads his initial blocks well. He is a physical runner, attempting to dish out punishment as he runs through contact. He maintains good knee bend and pad level when hitting the line of scrimmage, then runs with a smooth stride in the open field. He is somewhat undersized at the NFL level (5'10, 208-lbs.) for a player with such a physical running style, but shows limited agility and cutting ability. He isn't a naturally instinctive runner, and struggles to create plays on his own if the initial blocking fails to open a hole. Johnson is a very good receiver out of the backfield, averaging over 12 yards per catch on his 73 collegiate receptions and scoring 12 times through the air. He has good hands, secures the catch and turns upfield quickly. His open field abilities were on display as a returner as well, averaging 24.4 yards per kick return and 10.3 per punt over his career with the Bulls.
The four game suspension to Mark Ingram is a blow to a Saints team that plays 2 divisional rivals in the season's first four weeks, but the team still has Drew Brees and plenty of offensive firepower. With Kamara already in place, it's unlikely that the Saints make a move to bring in another big name running back. Ingram's absence does affect their depth at the position, to be sure. The team's other rostered backs are Trey Edmunds, an undrafted rookie in 2017, Jonathan Williams, a 5th round pick in 2016 with Buffalo signed by New Orleans off the Broncos practice squad last year, Daniel Lasco, a 7th round Saints draft choice in 2016 coming off a major injury, and Boston Scott, a 6th round pick in last month's draft. D'Ernest Johnson may have a real opportunity to crack this roster, based on his hard running style, receiving ability, and kick return potential. New Orleans has had alot of success with undrafted rookie running backs in the Sean Payton era. Pierre Thomas (2007), Chris Ivory (2010), and Khiry Robinson (2013) have all emerged from training camp and forged successful careers in New Orleans, and remember that Edmunds went undrafted a year ago. D'Ernest Johnson will now have his opportunity this weekend at the Saints rookie camp to add his name to that list of success stories.