The Detroit Lions’ Running Back Woes

05/05/2018
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It’s that time of year again when we all start attaching draft grades to prospects before they even hit the field. I’m guilty of it too, but it’s a fun exercise to do before see how those players pan out. It’s fun, but also disheartening to look at the players that go after your team’s selection and end up being stars. You can do that with any pick, and for most drafts, you have to take the good with the bad.

As a Detroit Lions fan, there’s been good, but mostly bad. It hurts to type that, but I’ve lived through the quarterback carousel and a winless season – the first to ever do it, mind you. Meanwhile, I’m old enough to remember the Lions drafting a wide receiver in the first round three years in a row. In the words of Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone, “woof.”

Beyond all the good and the bad, there’s something ugly. The Detroit Lions are cursed at the running back position. Ever since Barry Sanders abruptly retired after the 1998 season, this team hasn’t had a consistent running game. The last time the Lions had a 1,000 yard rusher was in 2013, when Reggie Bush barely eclipsed the feat by six lousy yards. Before that, Kevin Jones topped 1,000 yards in 2004.

The First Rounders

Since Sanders, the Lions have only drafted a running back twice in the first round. In 2004, they traded back into the first round and drafted Kevin Jones out of Virginia Tech. Then they drafted Jahvid Best in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft – another trade up to get a running back. Both running backs went 30th overall, but neither one of them had the longevity that you’d expect out of a first round pick.

Jones played four seasons with Detroit and one season with the Chicago Bears. Outside of rushing for 1,000 yards in his rookie season, he never eclipsed that total again. As for Best, he had 1,000 all-purpose yards, but never rushed for 1,000 yards. Health was a major concern for both of these players. Best struggled with concussions, while Jones was hampered by foot and knee injuries. Neither of their careers lived up to the expectations of a first-round pick, especially one that you trade up for.

Some Other Running Backs

Yes, we’re going out of order, but that’s fine. The Lions have drafted backs all over the board, from the first round to the seventh. They’ve actually struck in the sixth-round with Theo Riddick from the 2013 NFL Draft, who has been a great asset in the passing game and actually led the league in receptions for running backs during 2015 with 80 receptions. However, he doesn’t even have 1,000 total rushing yards yet for his career.

Some other names that you can talk about are Aaron Brown, Artose Pinner, and Luke Staley. These are just a bunch of depth players who all had an opportunity to start or did start, and appropriately, the three of them combined for only a total of 1,047 rushing yards in their careers. Safe to say we can move on.

The third round is somewhat of a different story. Brian Calhoun was a third round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, and he finished with 54 career rushing yards. Then there was Kevin Smith out of Central Florida. Remember him? He was this sensational college running back who had over 2,500 rushing yards in his final season at UCF. The Lions loved him so much that they traded up to the first pick of the 3rd round in the 2008 NFL Draft and selected him.

During his rookie season, Smith ran for 976 yards and eight touchdowns. There was a feeling that the Lions had finally struck on a player and did it after trading up to get him. However, the wheels started to fall off after that. Smith couldn’t stay on the field, primarily due to lower body injuries. After five seasons in Detroit, he hit the free agent market and was never signed by anyone. He finished his career with 2,346 rushing yards.

The Second Rounders

Don’t worry, trading into the first round or third round to obtain a running back aren’t the only moves the Lions have made. They’ve also traded up to get a running back in the second round. We’ll start with Mikel LeShoure from the 2011 NFL Draft. The Lions gave a third and fourth round pick to move up and get him.

Coming out of Illinois, he had fresh legs. He only had 424 carries on his career, and it seemed like he was poised to break out. But before his career could even get started, it ended. LeShoure tore his achilles and missed his entire rookie season. He bounced back nicely in 2012 with 798 rushing yards, but he was suspended for two games after being arrested with possession of marijuana. The 2013 season was a disappointment; amassing only nine rushing yards, LeShoure struggled to see the field. Once the following season arrived, he was cut.

Lastly, we’ll discuss Ameer Abdullah from the 2015 NFL Draft. This was another draft that had some incredibly talented running backs. Some of the names were Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, David Johnson, and Jay Ajayi. While the Lions didn’t trade up to get Abdullah, they passed on several other backs. The running backs that went over the next 32 selections or so were Tevin Coleman, Duke Johnson, and David Johnson. Has Ameer been terrible? No, but he hasn’t lived up to the hype, either. If you could take one of those other backs, odds are you’re taking one of them.

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Coming out of Nebraska, “Fear Ameer” was the saying. He was this high character player who was explosive in the open field. Parts of his college game have indeed translated to the pros, like his ability to return kicks and catch passes out of the backfield. But there are also negatives to his game, from not staying healthy to his tendency to bounce runs to the outside. It’s clear that he’s still stuck in his old habits from college, where he wasn’t facing defenders with elite range, speed, or tackling ability. One mark that he hasn’t been able to reach is 100 yards rushing in a single game. During his career at Nebraska, he had over 100 rushing yards in 24 games. He also provided the Cornhuskers with three straight seasons of over 1,000 yards rushing, but he’s only got 1,250 yards rushing in his career with Detroit, and he’s never rushed for over 100 yards in a game. Last year, he was benched near the end of the season because of poor play, and then his 2016 season was cut short because he tore a ligament in his left foot. It’s been up and down for him, and it doesn’t seem like he has any trade value, but with the way this Lions backfield looks, he could be on his way out.

Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford has only had a 100-yard rusher in his backfield seven times. Three of those 100-yard games are from Reggie Bush, who the Lions signed in free agency. The last 100-yard rusher came on November 28th, 2013 against Green Bay. Reggie Bush ran for 117 yards, and the Lions steamrolled the Packers by a score of 40-10.

The Depth Chart and Outlook

As I was saying, things aren’t looking up for Ameer Abdullah. The Lions signed LeGarrette Blount to a one-year deal in free agency. They have their receiving back in Theo Riddick, and they just drafted Kerryon Johnson out of Auburn. He’s the last player I want to discuss.

In the 2018 NFL Draft, the Detroit Lions got aggressive and moved up to obtain a running back. Should this surprise you? Judging by their history, it really shouldn’t. More often than not, they trade up and obtain a running back. No matter who’s running the show, they find themselves pulling the trigger. However, with each pull, the bullet seemingly inevitably goes directly into their foot. Maybe things will be different for Bob Quinn, though. After all, this is the second running back that he’s drafted since taking over the team in 2016. During that draft, they selected Dwayne Washington in the seventh round, which you can’t really hold against him. Washington has been a solid depth player and has contributed primarily on special teams.

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The selection of Kerryon Johnson will be a big factor in what Quinn accomplishes and could impact his overall tenure with the team. Certainly, he’s gone about drafting a running back in a different way. In the 2018 NFL Draft, Quinn drafted Frank Ragnow (C from Arkansas) in the first round and Tyrell Crosby (OT from Oregon) in the fifth. For some odd reason, Crosby fell to the fifth round, but I’m not complaining, because it’s a terrific value pick. No other coach or GM in the league has put as much focus on the trenches as Bob Quinn.

So what does this mean for Kerryon Johnson? First things first, he needs to beat out Blount, Abdullah, and Riddick for the starting role. Realistically, Johnson should be the featured back. Blount will get the carries at the goal line and in short yardage, Riddick will catch passes out of the backfield, and Abdullah should be traded for some type of day three pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. But if they do things the “Patriot way”, they could very well have a healthy scratch each week and go with the running-back-by-comittee (RBBC) approach.

The Outcome:

One of the biggest factors for Johnson is that he needs to stay healthy. As you can tell from above, he’s had a list of injuries. I’ve had Auburn fans coming at me about how good he is and how little I know. That’s fair, they have to do what they have to do. At the same time, I have to do what I have to do.

That’s to tell you that the Lions are going about this the wrong way. Like I’ve mentioned, this was an incredibly deep running back class. What rule should you not break? Never move up and get a running back. Let the running back fall to you or wait for another one to fall into your lap. I’m a big fan of moving up and getting YOUR guy, but for a position that has a short career span, it doesn’t make sense, especially when you’re a team that continues to strikeout on drafting a running back. I’ve shown you the backs they’ve drafted since Barry Sanders. The chances of success have been slim-to-none. Why should I feel any different about this back?

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Apparently, Kerryon Johnson has a Le’Veon Bell-ness to his game. As a Spartan alum, I can tell you, that’s not true. Kerryon is a patient runner and does a good job of letting his blocks develop, but he doesn’t have elite burst or vision. Does it have to be elite? No, but it’s not at the same level as the 48th overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft (Le’Veon Bell). Again, though, his vision and burst are average. He spends a lot of time jump cutting his way up the field, and personally, I’d like to see him keep running. Sometimes you have to just hit the hole and keep it going.

Does this mean I dislike everything about his game? No, he does a good job with his blitz pick up and he’s a slippery runner between the tackles and can avoid contact with his jump cut. There are games that he’s tough to stop, and then there are games that he’s just another player in the backfield. With his methodical running style, tendency to run high, and injury history, Johnson was the 80th-ranked player on my board. For comparison, Mike Mayock had him ranked as his 78th player. My board came out a week or so before his, so take that for what it’s worth.

Only time will tell what this pick means for the Lions. They need talent and they need depth. They gave up a 4th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to move up and get Kerryon Johnson, a player that should have been available later in round two or even in the early stages of round three. They then moved back into the 4th round by giving up a 3rd round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. I’m sorry, but how can you give up future draft picks without your head coach even coaching a game? One of the biggest things that haunts teams is that they lack talent and/or depth, so by trading away future draft picks, the Lions are not setting up new head coach Matt Patricia for success.

In the backfield, the Lions have always lacked talent. They passed on one of the most talented running backs, Derrius Guice, not once, but twice in this draft. Put all the video game issues aside and the supposed screaming match that has been denied by the alleged team, Guice was a top-10 player in this draft. Just on talent alone, he could have and should have been a Lion.

It’s going to be interesting to see how they approach their defensive philosophy with this versatile defense and a hybrid approach. As a fan, I feel good about their defense because they have a defensive-minded head coach. As for this offense, it doesn’t just rest on Matthew Stafford. He does what he does, and he’s going to keep doing that. He’ll throw the ball and be the reason they win football games. But for the most part, everything rests on this offensive coaching staff to get the running game going. It falls on this second round pick to deliver. This team has had their woes at the running back position, but they clearly believe in Johnson to deliver results. Prove me wrong. Please, prove me wrong. If you can’t, carry on, Kerryon.

National Scout for Cover 1. Host of Cover 1 | The NFL Draft Podcast. NFL Draft Enthusiast. X's and O's. Heard on ESPN Radio, FOX Sports Radio and CBS Sports Radio.

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