The Detroit Lions roster was so depleted in 2016 that they had a myriad of team needs coming into the 2017 NFL Draft. From offensive line to the linebacking corps, pass rush to running back, there were a lot of holes to fill.
The team ultimately decided to add talent to what was possibly the worst linebacking group in the league by drafting Jarrad Davis in the first round and shoring up a secondary with several pieces departing in 2018 by drafting Teez Tabor in the second round. The team addressed it’s woeful pass rush in free agency, if you could call it that, by signing Cornelius Washington and Akeem Spence, neither of whom had lived up to even the lowest of expectations.
Despite their current winning record, there’s a lot of things the team could have done better this season. Despite the anemic pass rushing group, if I had to choose from those many different changes, I would have addressed the running back corps in the 2017 draft or free agency.
The Pride of Detroit staff did little to hide their appreciation of Kareem Hunt during the run up to the draft. Sure, it’s easy to look back and claim to have always been a fan of a player drafted later who does well, but we made sure to keep receipts. It isn’t just passing on Hunt, who our staff were fans of, or on Alvin Kamara, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, but passing on any running back in any round of the draft.
Instead of Hunt or Kamara, the Lions drafted Teez Tabor, who has barely played and was inactive for most of the season. Tabor may turn out to be a fine player in his own right—cornerback generally takes a lot longer to develop as a pro—but with the players they skipped on to take him it could very well be an Eric Ebron situation where even if he plays well, it will always come back to what might have been instead.
The Lions’ run game has been so bad for so long, it’s tantalizing to think of what it may have been with someone like Hunt as a lead back. As a rookie, Hunt has six games where he rushed for more than 100 yards, which is only one fewer (7) than Jim Caldwell has had in over eight full years as a head coach or offensive coordinator from 2009-2017. Alvin Kamara’s single 100-yard rushing game as a rookie is more than Caldwell’s Lions have had in four seasons.
Putting aside the draft, the Lions chose to remain with their entire running back corps from 2016 coming into the year, only adding an undrafted free agent in Tion Green. The free agent class is always a bit of a gamble, but imagine if the Lions had targeted someone like Latavius Murray in free agency rather than Cornelius Washington, Akeem Spence, or DJ Hayden. Sure, Cornelius Washington registered a career high in sacks this season, but that previous high was only 2.0 sacks and he only has 2.5 now. Akeem Spence would match Washington’s sack total, but you would be disappointed if your free agent haul pulled in 5.0 sacks with either a defensive end or defensive tackle, its embarrassing when both combine for that few.
Latavius Murray has a respectable 662 yards and 6 touchdowns. Although his 3.8 YPC is poor, it’s better than both Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, and would only trail Tion Green (who only has 26 carries and whose YPC has dropped in each game since his first). Even a part-time back like Rex Burkhead has been more productive than anything the Lions have fielded, hauling in a total of eight touchdowns in the Patriots offense. Or what about LeGarrette Blount? His 717 yards and 4.5 YPC would lead the Lions, even if his two touchdowns aren’t as impressive.
While the Detroit Lions are fielding one of the weakest pass rushes in the NFL, their run game is currently rated second worst in the NFL, marking the third consecutive year a Jim Caldwell led offense has been bottom three in the NFL and fourth consecutive year in the bottom five.
While scheme and blocking are bigger issues than running back, we’ve seen enough of this running back group to know that the lack of vision combined with a lack of athletic ability, speed, or power is limiting the offense.
With Matthew Stafford having one of his most efficient seasons of his career, and a pair of receivers nearly hitting 1,000 yards, it’s tragic to watch the season unfold where your quarterback is left carrying a poor defense with no help from his running game. If the Lions had paid more attention to their pass rush, they’d probably be a lot better off, but if they had paid more attention to their run game they could potentially be much better set up not only in 2017, but for the future.