By: Will Burchfield
If there’s a certainty regarding the Lions offseason, it’s that reinforcements are coming to the running back corps. It may happen in the draft, it may happen in free agency. It may happen in both.
General manager Bob Quinn intends to have four or five running backs on the roster next season, and it won’t be the quintet of Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Tion Green, Dwayne Washington and Zach Zenner that stumbled to a league-worst 3.36 yards per carry in 2017.
The draft is especially deep at running back — “It’s a good-looking crew,” Quinn said on Wednesday at the scouting combine — and the Lions will almost certainly dip into this pool of talent. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them make a splash in free agency as well. The Lions lacked an effective power back last season, and a number of such veterans will be available when the signing period begins March 14.
As things stand today, the team has about $27 million in open cap space.
Here are five free agent running backs Quinn and Co. could target.
1. LeGarrette Blount
The 31-year-old Blount would emphatically fill the physicality void in Detroit’s backfield. He still runs as hard as anyone in the NFL, coming off a season in which he averaged 4.4 yards per carry with the Eagles. The season before that, he piled up a whopping 18 touchdowns with the Patriots.
There’s an obvious connection with Quinn, who spent two years in New England with Blount and pursued him in free agency last year. Matt Patricia adds to the level of familiarity, and Blount is certainly a fan of the Lions new head coach.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see last year’s flirtation between Blount and the Lions turn into something real this spring.
2. Carlos Hyde
Hyde isn’t quite the downhill runner that Blount is, but still boasts the kind of hard-charging style the Lions need. He’s coming off a down year with the 49ers, miscast in the team’s run scheme, and will likely hit the market at a bit of a discount.
Hyde, who will turn 28 in September, is one season removed from averaging a career-high 4.6 yards per carry. He also proved to be a solid pass catcher in 2017, ranking sixth among running backs with 56 receptions.
3. Frank Gore
After 13 NFL seasons, Gore, who will turn 35 in May, certainly has some miles on the odometer. He also still has some tread on the tire. He averaged just under 1,000 yards per season over the last three years with the Colts. His yards per carry dipped to a career-low 3.7 in 2017, but Gore remains a between-the-tackles bull.
He’s also extremely durable, having not missed a game since 2011. That’s been another area of trouble for the Lions’ backfield in the past couple seasons, with the lead tandem of Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick missing a combined 22 games.
Wild Card: Shane Vereen
It feels like the Lions will snag a versatile, open-field runner in a draft chockfull of such options, while targeting a north-south complement in free agency. But could they opt for the reverse?
Vereen, one of the best pass-catching backs in the NFL, would obviously be redundant on a team with Riddick, who carries a $4.1 million cap hit next season. But the Lions could cut Riddick after June 1 and save about $3.1 million, while getting similar production from Vereen at a lesser cost. In the draft, Detroit could target a physical, three-down workhorse like Kalen Ballage from Arizona State.
Vereen, like Blount, has the Quinn/Patricia connection. He’s also a better runner than Riddick, averaging 4.2 yards per carry over his career to Riddick’s 3.4.
Keep An Eye On: C.J. Anderson
Anderson isn’t officially a free agent, but all signs point toward the Broncos cutting him in the coming days. If and when he hits the market, the Lions will want to give him a look.
A stout runner with shiftiness to boot, Anderson cracked 1,000 yards last season for the first time in his five-year career. His tree-trunk legs are as strong as those of any player at his position. Anderson may demand more money than the Lions are inclined to spend at running back, but at 27 years old and with a strong track record he’s an intriguing option.