The Detroit Lions have a running back problem and they know it. That’s why the team reached out to former Houston Texans running back Arian Foster for a visit in Detroit. Unfortunately for the Lions, Foster never made it to the Motor City. Instead, the 29-year-old veteran didn't leave Miami without a contract and ended up inking a one-year deal with the Dolphins on Monday.
That leaves the Lions with six running backs on their roster: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Stevan Ridley, Zach Zenner, George Winn and Dwayne Washington. Of that six, the Lions still do not have a reliable power runner. Ridley and Zenner are potential options, but both come with injury concerns and Zenner is still very much an unproven commodity.
So how do the Lions find a remedy for their running back predicament? The first option is to trade for someone. But it would be difficult to find a significant contributor on the trading block this late in the offseason. A much easier option would be to re-sign Joique Bell, and it makes sense for a lot reasons.
Bell’s struggles in 2015 were very overstated
Joique Bell did not have a great year in 2015. He averaged a career-low 3.5 yards per carry. An ankle injury held him out of three straight games early in the year. Throughout the entire season, Bell’s game high was just 71 rushing yards.
But it wasn’t all bad. Like the entire Detroit offense, Bell’s game improved drastically once Jim Bob Cooter took over the offense. After averaging just 1.9 yards per carry under Joe Lombardi over the course of four games, Bell finished the final nine games averaging a respectable 4.0 per carry under Cooter. Additionally, Bell’s value as a pass catcher was extremely underrated down the stretch of last season. Over the last six games of 2015, Bell totaled 195 yards as a receiver, just 57 yards less than Riddick over the same span.
Bell fills a currently vacant role
The Lions need a bruising back. And while Joique struggled through the first half of the year, as he got healthier, he started to fill that role quite nicely. Just look at this play from Week 11 vs. the Raiders:
On a key third down late in the game, Bell bounces off a sure tackle and picks up five yards when he needed three. The conversion allowed the Lions to nearly run out the entire clock and secure the win, but Joique wasn’t done yet. One play later...
Not only does Bell break another tackle, but he also has the wherewithal to pick up the first down and not get in the endzone. By not scoring, Bell allowed the Lions to take knees to end the game and ensure victory.
The Lions don’t currently have a player that fills this exact role. When the game is on the line, key plays like this are absolutely essential in turning a probable win into an assured one. The Lions need a hard-nosed back that will run through the tired defense in the fourth quarter, but who can they trust to do that on their current roster? An injury-prone Ridley? Zenner, the undrafted rookie who has 60 career rushing yards? Bell has proven to be a solid tackle-breaker, and with a competent offensive coordinator, he can still succeed in the league.
Bell wants to be a Lion and the Lions want Bell
The Lions actually offered to restructure Bell’s contract before eventually cutting him in February. But at the time, Bell believed he was worth more and turned down the offer:
Didn't want to say who. Also said he turned down an offer from the Lions before being cut. "Had to do what was best for my career"— Russ McNamara (@McNamaraWWJ) February 20, 2016
But it’s now late July, and Bell has yet to find another team. What’s worse is Bell sounds like he regrets the decision a bit. In an interview in May, after being asked if the deal was still on the table, Joique said, "Hopefully it is."
When the Lions signed Stevan Ridley, it appeared they had moved on from Bell and were happy with their crew. But with their recent courting of Arian Foster, it’s easy to see the Lions aren’t happy with what they have in the backfield. Bell could become part of their plans again.
Bell should come cheap
It sounds like Bell is willing to take the Lions’ previous offer, which was obviously going to be less than the $2.5 million salary Bell was due in 2016. After months of failing to sign with an NFL squad (although he has reportedly fielded a few offers), Bell could potentially be signed for around the veteran league minimum. At that point, signing Bell becomes a no-risk move.
The Lions have plenty of cap space and two open roster spots, so why not?