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2017 is a crucial year for several Detroit Lions running backs

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The future of the Lions running back position will be determined in 2017.

Denver Broncos v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

In the weeks leading up to Detroit Lions training camp, we’re going to do a position-by-position breakdown of where the roster stands. Our series continues with the Lions running backs.

(The final year of each player’s contract is listed in parentheses.)

Starters: Ameer Abdullah (2018) Theo Riddick (2019)

Backups: Zach Zenner (2017)

On the bubble: Matt Asiata (2017), Dwayne Washington (2019), Mike James (2017)

Long shots: Tion Green (2019)

Overview

Much like Detroit’s wide receivers, there is only clarity among the top two running backs on the team. Ameer Abdullah will be the leading carrier in 2017, while Theo Riddick is an ideal third down back that will be a huge receiving threat out of the backfield.

From there, it seems like only Zach Zenner’s job is safe. Zenner proved to be a viable option as a full-time replacement down the stretch last season. Should Detroit’s backfield suffer from injuries, Zenner will be a good body to have. The question is: what, if any, role will Zenner have with a healthy Abdullah and Riddick? Can Zenner be the thunder to Abdullah’s lightning or will he only get touches in replacement duty?

Detroit will certainly carry a fourth running back in 2017—and could even theoretically keep a fifth since there’s no fullbacks left in town—but at this point there is no frontrunner for the job. Matt Asiata and Mike James both bring a fair amount of experience, but neither have had much recent success. Dwayne Washington’s ceiling is highest and he also brings some special teams talent, but he’s also the only one of the three that is practice squad eligible. This battle will be decided in training camp.

Undrafted free agent Tion Green will have to impress quickly to get a shot at the roster, but with no clear leader for the RB4 job, it isn’t out of the question for Green to do it. Green is motivated to be “a franchise special teams player” to earn his way onto the roster, but don’t sleep on his physicality. For a team in need of a physical back, Green’s 6-foot, 230 pound frame could fit the bill down the line.

Need going forward

Detroit’s future need at running back is completely dependent on how this crew performs in 2017. If Ameer Abdullah can put all of the injury and fumbling questions behind him, running back won’t be a huge need. If Abdullah struggles, the Lions could be in the market for an early-round back in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Even if Abdullah succeeds, Detroit may want to consider adding a short-yardage back next year. Zenner could assume that role in 2017, but the jury is still out on him.

Previously: Quarterbacks, wide receivers, offensive tackles