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2017 Detroit Lions offseason needs: When and how the team addresses running back

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Recapping the Lions running backs from 2016 and looking toward replacement options in 2017.

Wild Card Round - Detroit Lions v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

When I first started covering mock drafts and tracking their results during the season, the fastest developing trend was how badly running back was viewed as a need by the Detroit Lions nationally. It’s no surprise, really, as the team had the worst rushing attack in the NFL for 2015 and nearly hit that mark again in 2016. Questions about durability were made worse for this group as every single running back on the roster was at some point injured and missing time. It’s a group that has talent, but clearly needs an upgrade or some other kind of shot in the arm.

Under Contract 2017: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, Mike James

Pending Free Agents: Joique Bell

When he was drafted, the biggest knock on Ameer Abdullah was whether he could be an every down back, holding up to NFL punishment. The other big concern with him was ball control. With back to back seasons where one or both of those things were an issue, the team can’t afford to bank on his issues being surmountable. Theo Riddick’s ability as a pass catcher are obvious and rightly lauded, but he has been wasted as a rusher, and while he’s improved, it still isn’t enough to call even average. Zach Zenner came on at the end of the year when he was finally given his opportunity and while he isn’t a perfect running back, he has the ability to hit his assignments hard, catch out of the backfield, and block when called upon to do so. Dwayne Washington showed some promise against Chicago where he rushed for 4.0 YPC, but in the 10 other games he played he only hit that number once and was under 3.0 YPC in five of his 11 appearances. The blocking was a problem for everyone, but Dwayne Washington had fewer 4.0 YPC games (good games) than every running back on the roster except Abdullah and Forsett (who only played in two games each) and more sub 3.0 YPC games by a margin. Joique Bell was brought in late season due to injuries and had no impact. Mike James made a splash in 2013 when he debuted for the Buccaneers, but an injury sidelined him and he hasn’t reclaimed that promise since then.

Free Agents Available

Le’Veon Bell, Latavius Murray, Jacquizz Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Rex Burkhead, Christine Michael

It’s unlikely that Le’Veon Bell goes anywhere near free agency, but as the best player coming onto the market and only 25 (!) years old (when market opens) it’s worth mentioning in case some craziness happens. Latavius Murray and Christine Michael are both hyper athletic size/speed matchups with injury concerns. Jacquizz Rodgers is a bit redundant with Theo Riddick, while Eddie Lacy and Rex Burkhead have consistency concerns of note. The RB market has been fairly generous when guys actually hit the market (it costs more to retain a good player), with Murray looking at about 3.3 million per season according to Spotrac and Lacy eyeing 5.9 per. Those aren’t terrible numbers, and RB should be treated much like linebacker on defense in terms of approaching the draft versus free agency in that the market is fairly flush and the cost isn’t very high. For comparison’s sake, it will probably cost about $8 million per season to retain or replace Larry Warford and at least $6.5 million per for Riley Reiff.

Draft Targets

Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, D’Onta Foreman, Alvin Kamara ||| Wayne Gallman, Samaje Perine, Jamaal Williams, Kareem Hunt, James Conner

That list seems to go on forever, right? And it’s not even a full list of the guys that are either considered national contenders to be drafted by the Lions or are guys that the team could benefit in picking on draft day. If you’ve heard of this draft class being stacked at rusher, it’s no joke. Now, this group should be separated into two parts: Early (rounds 1-2) and Late (late third or later), separated above by some vertical lines.

Leonard Fournette is unlikely to be present at 21, as is Dalvin Cook, but both have been mocked to the Lions and their stock has fluctuated. Christian McCaffrey is essentially the same type of player as Ameer Abdullah and comes in with the same question about if he can handle a full workload, as does Tennessee back Alvin Kamara. The rest of these backs fall into varying degrees of the same mold, larger than average sized backs who gain positive yards through contact. It really comes down to which one you like the most and there’s so many hours of good football tape to watch if you check those guys out for yourself, I’m not going to pick favorites. Go watch this running back class. It’s a good one.

Level of Need

Running back is a need, but it isn’t one I feel the team addresses in the first round of the draft. Not only has Bob Quinn said basically as much, but it just isn’t the type of practical trenches first-team building that Quinn espoused in his time in New England and showed in his first offseason in Detroit. That doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Quinn didn’t do much in terms of evaluation of RBs with the 2016 draft class, but with needs being a bit different in 2017, I don’t think it’s likely the team goes with waiting for another seventh-round project, especially given their recent results. It’s possible, if unlikely, the Detroit Lions go into 2017 with the same corps as 2016. Should that happen, you can bet on a large volume of ‘short list’ type UDFAs and free agents brought in for flood insurance if the team is rained on as badly as they have been with injuries.

Previously covered needs: