When Ameer Abdullah and Michael Burton were drafted in 2015, the expectation was that an improved offensive line should help the Detroit Lions develop a solid run game to push the offense to a new level. Injuries, scheme changes, and general ineffectiveness have kept the team at the bottom of the NFL in rushing for two years straight, and more changes coming in 2017 give both hope and pause for where the run game is going. All in all, though, this is a unit that should be better just based on the health of the unit coming into the season.
2016 Training Camp squad: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, George Winn, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, Michael Burton, Stevan Ridley
Others: Justin Forsett, Joique Bell
Ameer Abdullah started the 2016 season hot, and he looked like he might finally be the man to break the long trend of Jim Caldwell offenses that lacked an even average run game. Unfortunately, Abdullah would suffer a lisfranc injury early in the season and, along with his departure, the entire threat of a run game would evaporate. The perennial Theo Riddick hype train was once again left sitting at the station, super athlete Dwayne Washington never developed any semblance of the vision required to play in the NFL, and it wasn’t until the final few weeks of the season when Zach Zenner finally showed he can play. Veteran Stevan Ridley was brought into camp, but showed early on that he simply wasn’t NFL quality anymore, while it took in season stints from Justin Forsett and Joique Bell to show the same.
Abdullah was the only rusher that would end above 4.0 yards per carry, though he did so on only 18 carries. Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner would near that bare minimum for efficiency though both fell short, while Washington carried the rock 90 times and couldn’t even crack three yards per carry. Zach Zenner’s four touchdowns were more than any of the remaining running backs combined. The team also lacked big plays, with both Dwayne Washington and Theo Riddick landing more than 10 percent of their total yardage on their best run of the season (putting their far below average YPC numbers in an even more disturbing context. Removing a RB’s best run normally drops their YPC by .1 or .2 (as it does for Zenner), but in the case of Riddick and Washington it drops them a whole half a yard per carry. The blocking was terrible in Detroit, but the running backs did the team no great service with their play, either.
2017 Pre-Training Camp Squad:
Returning: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington,
New: Matt Asiata, Tion Green, Mike James
A healthy Ameer Abdullah portends some good things if the Lions assumed blocking improvements pan out. Theo Riddick is still recovering from offseason wrist surgery, but Zach Zenner looks like he’s made strides since coming into his own late into the 2016 season. Dwayne Washington appeared to (finally) fall out of favor late last year, and it has mostly been quiet in camp regarding his status with the offense. Recent acquisition Matt Asiata shouldn’t give anyone warm and fuzzies that he’s going to do much (he has never topped 4.0 YPC in his long career), but he’s an improvement from what Washington brought last season in the same roster spot. Free agent Mike James and undrafted free agent Tion Green are not likely to make the team, but both provide more upside than George Winn or Stevan Ridley did.
Guesswork final 53: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Matt Asiata
I had fancied at first keeping only three running backs, allowing me to spend the roster spot on another receiver or lineman, but opted against doing so. Matt Asiata will hopefully see no offensive snaps in the regular season, but he provides some special teams ability and makes the team based on that. Barring any further injuries, the first three rushers on the Lions roster are pretty set, as well as what their roles should be. Ameer Abdullah should take the Lions’ share of the snaps and, if he remains healthy, may top 800 yards on the season (where he was trending in 2016). Theo Riddick retains his third down receiving role and will get some play rushing on draws or off tackle plays, while Zach Zenner should take any power snaps or short yardage duties.
Did the unit improve?
In terms of talent, this Lions unit improved only in who is likely to be healthy to start the season and a certain presumption that health will maintain better than the season prior. More important for this unit is the improvements along the offensive line, though it has been blunted somewhat by the injury to Taylor Decker. What really holds back the Lions rushers as a unit is team coaching. Jim Caldwell is historically one of the worst rushing coaches in the NFL and that has run true through two separate offensive coordinators in Detroit. Jim Bob Cooter, in his limited time, has shown little willingness to commit to the running game even when it is working (as evidenced by the Dallas and Chicago games). Both he and Caldwell have also showed little creativity in that respect as well.
Still, the unit as a whole ought to be improved over 2016 even if you ignore the health and talent in the unit itself. The 2016 Lions team was one of the worst rushing units in decades and even in the long history of terrible non-Sanders/Sims Lions offenses ranks among the worst units ever. It’s rare a unit such as that doesn’t improve at least a little bit, but the Lions took active steps to ensure their unit improves even if health doesn’t hold. If the Lions limited rushing options stay healthy, it’s hard to imagine a situation where they don’t rank better than 30th (2016), 32nd (2015), or 28th (2015). This isn’t likely to be a top ten or even a top fifteen unit. If Ameer Abdullah remains healthy, however, they could push themselves into the low twenties or high teens, enough to make the offense dangerous.
Has the Detroit Lions running back group improved over 2016?
This poll is closed
They’re going to be Caldwell’s best unit ever!
Same group, but health and OL improvements mean they’re better.
They should match their 2016 30th ranked unit.
If anything, they’re a little worse off than last year.
Even for Caldwell, this unit is the worst.