By: Will Burchfield
The Lions had faith in their running game entering this season thanks to a bolstered offensive line and the healthy tandem of Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick.
Detroit finished last in the NFL in both yards per game (76.3) and yards per carry (3.4). Abdullah, their leading rusher, was benched toward the end of the season and ranked 36th in yards (552) among his fellow backs.
“I think it was a disappointment to everybody, from the fans, to the coaches, to me, to everybody in this city,” general manager Bob Quinn said on Monday. “We need to run the ball better, bottom line. We need to block better, we need to run better, we need to protect the ball better, we need to run better plays.
“You name it, everything needs to get better.”
That includes the personnel.
Though Quinn dismissed the idea that he overestimated the Lions’ running backs last offseason, when he failed to make any significant upgrades, he allowed the group underachieved. And he’s not going to subject himself to the same possibility in 2018.
“Our running backs didn’t perform as good as everyone thought. I think that’s the facts. But I think we have guys in that room that are tough guys, they’re smart guys, they have skill. Will we add someone? Probably, absolutely,” Quinn said.
That has to be music to Lions fans’ ears. They haven’t seen a single 100-yard rusher in a game since 2013. They’ve seen just seven during Matthew Stafford’s nine year career. For a long time, and especially the last two seasons, it’s been clear how dominant Detroit’s offense could be if it had just a semblance of a run game.
Quinn, it sounds, wants to find out for himself.
So, who might he bring in?
Let’s start in the draft, which is going to be chock-full of running back talent. The Lions have the 20th overall pick.
Saquon Barkley, who declared for the draft on Monday, is the dream solution, but he’s certain to be picked in the top 10, possibly the top five. The Lions would have to make a significant move up the draft board to have any shot at snagging him.
LSU’s Derrius Guice is a more realistic option. He possesses a similar skill set as Barkley, with just as much cutting ability and power. He lacks the same breakaway speed, but this kid’s for real. People like to say he runs “angry.” He’s projected to go somewhere in the middle third of the first round.
If Guice isn’t on the board at No. 20, Stanford’s Bryce Love and/or USC’s Ronald Jones II almost surely will be. Love has drawn comparisons to Chris Johnson with his open-field speed, and Jones, a tough between-the-tackles runner, is considered by some to be the most underrated back in the draft. Neither has declared yet, but the expectation is they both will.
Of course, last year’s draft proved there’s no need to commit to a running back in the first round. (See: Hunt, Kareem; Kamara, Alvin.) If the Lions prefer to wait until the second or third, look out for Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Alabama’s Damien Harris and Oregon’s Royce Freeman. All three are power backs with scat-back-like quickness.
Lastly, remember the name Ito Smith. The Southern Mississippi product is as elusive as they come and has the potential to be a big-time sleeper, possibly in the form of Hunt. Smith racked up a cool 4,000 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and 39 touchdowns over his final three seasons at Southern Miss.
In free agency, some more household names figure to be available.
Le’Veon Bell is obviously the one that stands out, but the Steelers are almost certain to franchise tag him for the second consecutive season. He’d be out of the Lions’ price range, anyway.
More feasible targets include Carlos Hyde, who’s likely to be cut loose by the 49ers, Isaiah Crowell, who could receive the same fate with the Browns, and Philadelphia’s LeGarrette Blount, in whom Bob Quinn and the Lions have expressed interest in the past.
Hyde, 27, had a career low 3.9 yards per carry balanced out by a career high eight touchdowns in 2017. Crowell, 24, has started all 32 games for the Browns the last two seasons while averaging 4.5 yards per carry. And the 31-year-old Blount, who piled up a whopping 18 touchdowns a year ago with the Patriots, is still running as hard as ever.
The Lions have sorely needed a power back in recent years, so Hyde and Blount make particular sense.
As things stand today, the Lions will return Abdullah, Riddick, Tion Green and Dwayne Washington at running back. Zach Zenner is set to become a restricted free agent.