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What should the Lions do with Mikel Leshoure?

After sitting out most of 2013, Mikel Leshoure is entering the final year of his rookie contract with the Detroit Lions. What role, if any, will he play in 2014?

Just look at those puppy-dog eyes. You wouldn't release him, would you?
Just look at those puppy-dog eyes. You wouldn't release him, would you?

Last week, Martin Mayhew talked about the future of the formerly overlooked Mikel Leshoure. In Leshoure's three-year career with the Detroit Lions so far, he sat out his rookie season with an Achilles injury, gained over 1,000 total yards the next year, then spent nearly all of 2013 on the sidelines as a healthy scratch. However, Mayhew insisted there may be a role for him going forward. With Leshoure entering the final year of his rookie contract, is keeping him on the roster the right move?

Before going into whether he is worth a roster spot, consider the pros and cons of releasing Leshoure. Right now, Leshoure's cap hit is a smidge over $1,000,000. Letting Leshoure go would save the Lions $843,297, which is a pretty modest number, especially considering the growing salary cap. But with limited cap space to begin with, the Lions could use room anywhere they can get it.

On the flip side, releasing Leshoure would leave the Lions with just four running backs under contract, including Steven Miller, who does not have a regular season carry in his career. The Lions may be hard-pressed to find a running back in the free agency market who will come as cheap as Leshoure and have as much unknown potential.

Another "option" is to trade Leshoure. But at this point, there just isn't a market out there for a back who spent most of 2013 on the inactive list. Getting anything more than a seventh-round pick is unrealistic.

So is there a spot on the roster for Leshoure or should they cut their losses and move on? My gut reaction was to cut him, as fourth-string running backs are a dime a dozen. And I don't quite remember Leshoure's play in 2012 as fondly as some. Though he tallied 9 touchdowns and over 1,000 total yards, I remember his play for a lot of negative-yard plays, missed holes and failed third-down conversions. His play, in my memory, was wildly overshadowed by the emergence of Joique Bell, who averaged a yard more per carry than Leshoure in 2012.

But it has been over two years since we've seen Leshoure have any meaningful carries, so I decided to go back and see how selective my memory is, and the results were a bit surprising.

The first thing I decided to look at was Leshoure's negative carries. In 2012, Leshoure had 215 total rushes. 36 of those rushes went for 0 yards or less, or 16.7 percent. That seems like an exceptionally high number, but I decided to put that in context by comparing it to Bell's performance in 2013. Bell has always struck me as a runner who almost always falls forward and minimizes any potential loss on a play. However, to my shock, Bell actually had a higher percentage of rushes that went for 0 or less yards. 32 of his 166 rushes last year failed to gain any yards, or 19.3 percent.

I was thoroughly confused. Could my memory of Leshoure be that skewed because of my unfounded man crush for Bell? I decided to dig a little deeper. One of my biggest pet peeves for Leshoure was his failure in short-yardage situations. I went back and looked at Leshoure's and Bell's success rate in short-yardage situations in 2012 and 2013, respectively. I defined a "successful" run as one that gained a new set of downs on third down with one or two yards to go, or a rush from inside the 2-yard line that scored a touchdown.

Leshoure was successful in only eight of 14 of these rushes, or just 57 percent of his opportunities. Bell, on the other hand, had a successful run in 17 of 23 opportunities, or nearly 74 percent of his chances. This was more in line with how I remembered Leshoure, and something that continues to worry me.

But I think the biggest strike against Leshoure is his lack of versatility. One common rationalization for keeping Leshoure is comparing how the New Orleans Saints used a team of backs last year. In fact, Mayhew used this exact argument. However, there is a problem with this comparison. While there were four running backs who had a meaningful amount of carries for the Saints last year, three of those backs had significant contributions on special teams. Leshoure hasn't played any sort of role on special teams in the past, and that could kill his chances at a roster spot. Take, for example, Montell Owens. Owens actually has a slightly higher cap hit than Leshoure, but he could fill the fullback role, backup running back role and contribute on special teams.

But in the end, I think the positives (slightly) outweigh the negatives. Cutting Leshoure doesn't really save all that much money, and while it wouldn't be too hard to find his replacement, there is little harm in checking one last time if Leshoure still has any tread left on his tires. And there are many reasons to think Leshoure could rebound this season. Perhaps a new coaching staff will find ways to play to Leshoure's strengths. Maybe all Mikel needed was an improved offensive line. And a year of sitting on the sidelines may be enough to give him that chip on his shoulder to learn to contribute in other ways. And if Leshoure doesn't improve in 2014, the Lions don't have him on the hook any longer and can let him go in free agency next year.

I don't think it's realistic to expect anything more than 200-300 yards for Leshoure in 2014. It's highly unlikely he'll pass Bell on the depth chart (presuming the Lions bring back Bell, as they have intimated they want to do). But with limited costs, and some real reasons to be hopeful for Leshoure, there's no pressing need to send Leshoure packing right now.

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