DETROIT - OCTOBER 10: Jahvid Best #44 of the Detroit Lions runs 88 yards for a third quarter touchdown during the game against the Chicago Bears at Ford Field on October 10, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
One of the biggest questions the Detroit Lions are facing this offseason is quite simple: Will running backs Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure be able to play and be effective in 2012? We probably won't have this question answered until the summer, but we did get an update on both players in the last day. Best has been cleared to work out, and the expectation is for him to take part in offseason activities. Leshoure's rehab appears to be going well, and he is expecting to return in time for the start of the 2012 season.
Obviously, how good the running back position can be for the Lions really depends on the health of these two players. If both are able to play and be effective, the Lions' running game should be much improved compared to last season, hopefully giving the offense a bit more balance. Conversely, if one or neither is able to contribute, the Lions could be looking at another season of plugging guys in and hoping to get by with a very average running game.
Beyond Best and Leshoure, the Lions have Keiland Williams and Joique Bell under contract next season. Williams was picked up off waivers prior to last season and rushed for only 195 yards and two touchdowns on 58 carries. The hope was for him to come in and be a short-yardage/power back, but it's not like the Lions suddenly got much better in short-yardage situations. As for Bell, he was added at the end of last season when the Lions signed him off the New Orleans Saints practice squad. The Lions are hopeful that they have landed a hidden gem who can be a solid contributor at running back, but considering he hasn't appeared in any games in the last two seasons, it's tough to predict what he will bring to the table.
The Lions have three free agents at running back this offseason. One is Kevin Smith, who joined mid-season last year and was productive when he wasn't hurt. The Lions are interested in bringing him back, and that would be a good move if Smith keeps playing like he did last season and if he can stay healthy (a big if). The other free agents are Maurice Morris and Jerome Harrison. Morris has been a good role player at the position for the Lions the last few years and could be brought back. Harrison's playing future, on the other hand, is very much up in the air after a brain tumor was discovered during a physical by the Philadelphia Eagles following a trade last year. The trade was voided, and Harrison was placed on the reserve/non-football illness list.
Need going forward?
Just how big of a need exists at this position comes down to the health of Best and Leshoure. If both are ready for next season, the Lions will pretty much be set between them and a combination of Bell, Williams and somebody like Smith. Of course, even if they are ready other injuries could always happen. Plus, it's unlikely the Lions will have a good idea about their status until the summer, so it's necessary to have some backup plans in place earlier in the offseason. That is why many expect the Lions to draft another running back or at the very least bring in a free agent or two.
My best guess right now is that the Lions will add some new faces at running back to compete for a spot on the roster. These new faces could come via free agency, a trade, a draft pick (most likely a pick in a later round) or an undrafted free agent. I expect the Lions to make moves as insurance for Best and Leshoure so they aren't caught off guard if one or both isn't ready for the 2012 season. This will make sure they are prepared for the worst, and if the best-case scenario happens and both players are in fact ready, then the Lions will have the nice problem of having a lot of talent for only a few spots.