One of the biggest failures of the Detroit Lions’ 2017 season was their inability to run the ball in short-yardage situations (or really any situation). According to Football Outsiders, the Lions converted on just 45 percent of “power runs,” defined as “runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go” and “runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer.” That number was much lower for the majority of the season, but Detroit still finished last in the league and a good 19 percent lower than the NFL average.
There a multitude of reasons for the Lions’ failure in those situations. Detroit dealt with a bunch of injuries on their offensive line. They didn’t really possess a true power back. The play-calling on short-yardage downs seemed questionable, at best.
Some, too, point to the Lions’ absence of a fullback as part of the problem. Detroit did occasionally use a player as a fullback—15 total times, per my count—but they used either Alex Barrett or Nick Bellore (two linebackers) as their lead blocker.
Improving the running game should be one of the Lions’ biggest priorities this offseason, and if this week’s conduct at the Senior Bowl is any indication, bringing back the fullback position may be part of those plans:
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves here, it’s important to note that teams meet with just about everyone at events like the Senior Bowl. The Lions interviewing a fullback could mean something, but it absolutely could mean nothing, too.
But let’s toy with the idea for a moment. San Diego State’s Nick Bawden, believe it or not, converted from quarterback to fullback in college. The transition paid off, as his work at fullback helped make D.J. Pumphrey the leading rusher in NCAA Division I history. He also helped propel the career of teammate Rashaad Penny, who rushed for over 2,000 yards in 2017 and is projected to go in the first two days of the 2018 NFL Draft.
As for Bawden himself, it’s hard to say if he’ll get drafted or not. Only about 2-4 fullbacks are drafted every year, and typically none before the fifth round. Back in 2015, the Lions spent a fifth-round pick on Michael Burton, only to release him two years later.
Right now, Walter Football has Bawden ranked as the fourth-best fullback in this class, meaning he’s right there on the bubble between being a late-round draft pick and going undrafted.
The Lions don’t have a sixth-round pick after sending it to the Rams for offensive tackle Greg Robinson, and they may not have their seventh rounder either. In 2016, they made a conditional trade with the Buccaneers for cornerback Johnthan Banks. Banks only played in two games for the Lions that year, but it’s still unclear if that met the conditions of the trade.
So if the Lions are interested in Bawden, they may either have to take him as early as the fifth round or hope that he falls out of the draft completely so they can try to sign him as an undrafted free agent.
Either way, we’ll see if the Lions’ interest in a fullback is legitimate in a few months when the NFL Draft takes place in late April.