What's the one constant to the Detroit Lions’ lack of success over the years? It's not the secondary, it's not the defensive line. It's not even the offensive line, at least not to a full degree.
It's the Lions’ lack of a run game. It's the fact that the Lions are still trying to replace Barry Sanders almost 20 years after his retirement. It's the fact that the Lions run game hasn't ranked higher than 17th in almost 20 years.
I have a deep belief that if you give the Lions a run game in 2016, we’re looking at a completely different outcome. We’re suddenly talking division title and a deep playoff run, and that's with a run game that doesn't have to rank first in the league.
With that in mind, the time is now for the Lions to make this a reality. If they hope to bring a championship home in the near future, this must be Bob Quinn’s top priority this summer, as I believe it actually will be.
What’s he to do? Well that's what today's piece is all about. Locked deep in a vault in the Atlantic Ocean are blueprints I hid there a while ago and forgot about. Recently I SCUBA’d them out. Here are three options the Lions can use for success in their run game in 2017.
Plan A: Free Agency
The first blueprint involves making decisions that are both popular and unpopular. As I mentioned in last weeks defensive line piece, Lions fans have grown accustomed to their team not spending big money on big names, and I believe you can argue that, for a time, the Lions needed to do that just to survive.
But the Lions have money. Perhaps more money than they're used to having in a long time. It's time to go out and find that crown jewel at running back. That jewel just so happens to be sitting in free agency.
His name is Latavius Murray. In my opinion, the Raiders are what a balanced offense looks like. They finished sixth in total offense by yards, seventh in points. They had this success partially because they have a great passing unit, but also because they're rushing attack ranked sixth in the league. Murray had a lot to do with that.
You can certainly make an argument that the Lions passing unit has that same talent, as well. Now infuse Murray in with the Lions, and you have one scary looking offense.
Here’s the good thing and the kicker. There really isn't a market for running backs this summer. Le’Veon Bell will get franchised tagged if the Steelers can’t strike a deal, and Murray will find himself being the highest paid tailback on the market. But that doesn't mean the Lions have to break the bank in him. Look for him to get a deal similar to DeMarco Murray’s four year, $25 million deal. That's more than doable.
But someone or some people will have to go. That means having to say goodbye to Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington. That also means Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick will now play supporting roles more than ever. But the Lions run game may be revived greatly. So it will all be worth it.
Plan B: The Draft
This plan, too, views Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick more as complementary players than feature backs. Instead of focusing on free agency, they would try their luck in the talented 2017 NFL Draft draft class.
If the Lions do go this route, the question is do they use the 21st pick on the position? As I’ve mentioned before, I believe the Lions will go into the offseason with the run game as their top priority. So in that vein, let’s say they use the 21st pick on a running back.
This gives the Lions a few options. Do you hope Leonard Fournette, the current favorite to be the first running back taken in 2017, falls to 21? Do you grab Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, a guy who has many Lions fans already salivating? Or do grab a guy like Christian McCaffrey, a guy that’s a fringe first-round draft pick, but has the tools to do some big things in the NFL?
My personal preference is Cook, because he’ll likely be there and because the guy is a stud. His 6.1 yards per carry and 19 touchdowns show that he is a force to be reckoned with. In his final year at Florida State, Cook had 288 carries—or 22.2 carries per game—showing that he could be that every down back. But in Detroit, he likely wouldn’t have to be. He can also be a threat in the pass game. He racked up 488 receiving yards in 2016. Cook is like combining Riddick with Abdullah, in theory, of course.
If the Lions don’t go running back in the first round, they can always grab guys like Curtis Samuel, Kareem Hunt or even Joe Mixon, if they don’t mind that PR nightmare.
Plan C: Stick with it
With this plan you have to ask yourself, is it really as bad as it seems? Before you answer with a resounding "Yes," think about this for a moment. The Lions have clearly tried to do a running back by committee for the past few years. It never seems to work out. It hasn’t necessarily been a talent problem, but, rather, injuries always seem to rear their ugly head.
Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick looked like they were gonna go wild on the NFL in 2016 until Abdullah got hurt for the first time in his career two games into the season. Theo Riddick showed some improvement as an in-between-the-tackles runner in 2016, but he missed six games himself.
The replacement running backs the Lions were forced to play last season were never meant to get a healthy portion of the snaps. Zach Zenner looked great at times, but if he had to do anything other than go forward, he was done. Dwayne Washington ran for 2.9 yards per carry and looked like a guy that was drafted in the seventh round. Justin Forsett ran for a whopping 38 yards and was subsequently cut.
If the Lions can just get everyone to be healthy at the same time, they can try this running back committee one last time. They can then use Abdullah as their in-between-the-tackles guy, Riddick as the utility player and Zenner as the short yardage power guy. Health and a little more work in the trenches could make the current group hard to stop.
What do you think, Lions fans? What blueprint would you like to see the Lions go with in 2017? Be sure to vote and leave your comments below.