For the time being, Tatum Bell is projected to be the Lions' starting running back going into the 2008 season. That may be a scary thought to many considering Bell wasn't even active for a game beyond the first part of last season, but unfortunately this is the reality created by yet another questionable decision. With Kevin Jones out of the picture after being released earlier this month, the Lions have to figure out what the future holds for the running back position. 2008 is important and can't be forgotten. However, Detroit needs to start looking for a long-term plan now.
Looking at the running back position right now, there is Tatum Bell, Aveion Cason, and Brian Calhoun. Out of those three, only Bell can honestly be considered as having the ability to start on a regular basis. I'm not trying to ridicule Cason or Calhoun in saying that at all, but it's the truth. Cason is a solid backup running back. He can start every once and a while if needed and has done that in the past. Still, he is not a viable option to be "the back" for the Lions. The same goes for Calhoun, who really hasn't even had a chance to show anything in his first two seasons with the Lions. Both of the previous two seasons have been ended early for Calhoun due to injuries, leaving him with very little in-game experience.
If the 2008 season began today, Tatum Bell would be starting at running back for the Lions. Barring an injury, I don't see that changing from now until September as Detroit just doesn't have the resources, in my opinion, to find a starting running back in that span of time. With the free agent backs that could start long gone, the Lions' only real remaining option is the draft next month. Detroit holds the 15th overall pick of the draft and could very well use it on a RB.
The running back position is very deep for this year's draft. That gives teams in need of added depth for that position the ability to be somewhat flexible when it comes to the timing of selecting a RB. Detroit doesn't have to use its first-round pick on a RB as there will still be good ones around going into the second-round and even the second day of the draft. For the Lions, past drafts would suggest that if a running back is going to be taken, he will be selected in round one. I say that because the Lions rarely use picks in the first-round for non-flashy positions, sans Ernie Sims two years ago.
Although Brian Calhoun was drafted in the third-round of the 2006 NFL Draft, he was not taken with the intention of finding a new starter at running back. Calhoun was expected to come in and be a special teams player as well as a RB. To find a starter, it is my guess that Detroit would not want to wait around until the second-round or beyond considering there is likely going to be a top-name RB available when the Lions go on the clock in the first-round.
This year's draft class has three big names at running back: Darren McFadden (Arkansas), Jonathan Stewart (Oregon), and Rashard Mendenhall (Illinois). McFadden will not fall to pick 15, so immediately he is out of consideration. Stewart and Mendenhall, on the other hand, both could still be available when Detroit goes on the clock. Stewart has a lot of things going for him and just a few weeks ago would have been a solid pick for Detroit. The reason I say he would have been is because he recently had surgery to repair a turf toe injury and will be out 4-6 months. Some may suggest that a toe injury is nothing to worry about, and I do agree to some extent. Still, the fact remains that Detroit just released its starting RB because of injury problems, and the last thing I want to see is another injured one joining the Lions.
The Lions will still probably take a long look at Stewart and could very well end up drafting him next month. I personally don't like that move, though, so let's take a look at Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall is the perfect example of your typical one-year wonder. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the reason Mendenhall has jumped up draft boards so much is largely because of one great season. Don't get me wrong, he has shown many other attributes that make him worthy of the hype and high status on many draft boards, but I'm still not totally convinced. Again, he will be given a look and could be drafted by the Lions. There's no question in that. Personally, my opinion remains the same with Mendenhall, meaning I think it would be a bad move to draft him in the first-round.
If the Lions truly are looking for a franchise running back that can be the starter for year's to come, then drafting one in the first round is the right type of thinking. It isn't, however, the only road to go down. As stated previously, this year's draft class is very deep at RB, giving the Lions the ability to wait until the second-round to draft that position. The talent drop off may seem big after the big three discussed above, but I really don't see it that way at all. When Detroit is on the clock in round two, there will still be many running backs that could join the Lions this year and see playing time. I won't go as far as saying they would be able to start as that is tough for any rookie to do. I will, though, say that if Tatum Bell completely disappointed everyone, then it wouldn't hurt having a talented backup not named Cason or Calhoun.
For an idea of who is out there after McFadden, Stewart, and Mendenhall, here are the RB rankings from SB Nation's own Matt Miller (number is overall rank):
28. Felix Jones (Arkansas)
30. Jamaal Charles (Texas)
48. Matt Forte (Tulane)
51. Kevin Smith (Central Florida)
59. Chris Johnson (East Carolina)
84. Steve Slaton (West Virginia)
86. Tashard Choice (Georgia Tech)
94. Mike Hart (Michigan)
Out of all those names, the one I would keep my eye on most is Matt Forte. Why? I'll let the Chicago Sun-Times explain.
Regardless of who is selected and when, I think one thing we all can agree on is that the Lions have to draft a running back at the draft next month. There is just no way Bell, Cason, and Calhoun make for enough depth at that position, and looking down the road to 2009, running back will be completely void of any players capable of starting.