In 2015, the Detroit Lions heavily relied on two running backs to carry the ball. Ameer Abdullah and Joique Bell combined for 233 rushes — or 66 percent — of the Lions’ 354 rushing attempts last season. Abdullah returns this year to improve upon his rookie performance, but the Lions released Bell back in February.
Abdullah is likely to get a bigger piece of the rushing attempts' pie this year, but that still leaves a significant amount of carries to be claimed by other backs on the team. Which of the remaining five running backs are best poised to step up this year?
The case for Stevan Ridley
Of the backup backs on the roster, Stevan Ridley boasts the most success as a rusher. Over a five-year career, Ridley has averaged 4.2 yards per carry and even surpassed 1200 yards in 2012. While injuries shortened his season in 2014 and 2015, Ridley proved worthy in a backup role in 2013 with the Patriots (though he started six games that year). That season, Ridley rushed to the tune of 773 yards (4.3 YPC) and seven touchdowns.
Can Ridley overcome his injuries and become the back he was three seasons ago? That is the biggest question. Unfortunately, Ridley already appears to be struggling to overcome an undisclosed injury which held him out of minicamp.
The case for Theo Riddick
Theo Riddick exploded onto the scene in 2015, but mostly as a receiver out of the backfield. His 80 catches were a franchise high for running backs. Riddick managed to excel despite hardly being used as a rushing thread. In his three years as a Lion, Riddick has only carried the ball 72 times.
If the Lions can manage to get Riddick into the open field in the rushing game, his value would grow exponentially.
That being said, Riddick has yet to prove himself as a rusher in the NFL. He has averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in his career and doesn’t even have a rush of over 16 yards. An increased workload for the youngster out of Notre Dame does not necessarily mean an increase in efficiency.
The case for Zach Zenner
Last season, Zach Zenner earned his spot on the roster after leading the entire league in preseason rushing yards (183 yards at 5.2 a carry). When Joique Bell suffered a knee injury, Zenner got his shot in the regular season. The results were mixed. Zenner finished the season with 60 rushing yards on 17 attempts before a gruesome rib injury ended his year in Week 6.
Given that Zenner worked his way from an undrafted rookie to a rotational back last season, he is a fan favorite. But it is still very much unknown whether Zenner could potentially take on a significant portion of carries for an entire season. Of the three candidates, he certainly has the most upside, but he also has the most to prove.
Who has the edge going into camp?
Without a doubt, Ridley has the most impressive résumé as a rusher. If he enters training camp with a clean bill of health, he is the clear favorite to win the backup running back job. But if Zenner continues to be an offseason wonder, he could very well make an argument for a truckload of carries in 2016.