Earlier in the week ESPN listed a player on every team’s roster that they believed could use a “change of scenery.” The notion here is that every team has a talented player who has not reached their full potential in their current situation, and a change in teams will help unlock some of that talent. Sometimes coaches aren’t utilizing a player properly, or the environment has grown too toxic for the individual. A change in scenery doesn’t always breed success, but it’s certainly not unheard of.
Michael Rothstein was responsible for listing that player for the Detroit Lions and his choice was pretty easy: running back Ameer Abdullah. The former second-round pick is undoubtedly talented both physically and mentally, but in three years in Detroit, he has yet to put it all together.
“It might be time for Abdullah to move on from Detroit -- especially since general manager Bob Quinn said he’ll be bringing in at least one new running back for 2018,” Rothstein wrote. “Which could mean a shifting role for Abdullah.”
I agree that Abdullah could certainly benefit from a change in scenery. However, I believe that change of scenery could be right back here in Detroit.
No reason to give up yet
As I wrote back in late November, the book on Abdullah’s career should not be written yet. Yes, he’s been a disappointment so far, and yes, 2017 was likely his most disappointing season to date.
However, it’s impossible to ignore how little help he got from his offensive line last year. All season, Abdullah had to deal with defenders in the backfield and it led to a flooding of statistics like these:
Ameer Abdullah is 29th in the NFL, averaging 3.8 yards per carry. According to PFF, he's 4th in yards after contact, 2.97 yards.— Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) October 19, 2017
Over the last 2 seasons, Ameer Abdullah has averaged 3.48 yards after contact per carry, 2nd-best for all backs with 50 or more carries— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) September 28, 2017
I still think it's crazy that Abdullah is 7th in the NFL in yards after contact. It really shows how bad the blocking is.— Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) December 3, 2017
That last number fell to 29th by the season’s end, but mostly because Abdullah had a total of 15 carries in the month of December. According to RBScout.com, through the first six weeks of the season, Abdullah was getting met in the backfield quicker than all but one running back, yet he was still averaging the third-most yards after first contact.
Abdullah is the most talented back Detroit currently has, and while I absolutely agree that the Lions should bring in more talent, both to challenge Abdullah this year and provide some long-term help, getting rid of Abdullah now would be hasty. Especially because...
Abdullah is cheap
The Lions could cut Ameer Abdullah and save just over $1 million in cap space, but his cap hit in 2018 is just $1.3 million. That’s less than one percent of the projected salary cap. By comparison, Theo Riddick’s cap number will be $4.1 million next year. For as much as fans seem to value Riddick, he only outgained Abdullah in total yards 730-714, had the same amount of touchdowns (5), and averaged just 0.1 more yards per carry—and Riddick played in 100 more snaps that Abdullah.
Abdullah and Riddick essentially gave the Lions equal value in 2017, so if you think Abdullah isn’t worth the cost, then you cannot justify keeping Riddick on the roster at his price tag, either.
But the truth is that both deserve another shot in 2018. They are both relatively cheap, valuable options in the backfield that could thrive in a better environment. Which they could get,, because...
A new scheme is coming
One of the biggest benefits of a “change in scenery” is a different set of coaches and schemes to play under. While Abdullah will have the same offensive coordinator and running backs coach guiding him in 2018, the addition of Jeff Davidson as the Lions offensive line coach suggests that major changes are coming in the running game.
It isn’t a true “change of scenery” per se, but the drastic change in scheme—presumably from a zone blocking to power blocking strategy—gives Abdullah a second chance at life in Detroit. Could he benefit from the increased use of a fullback? Will he have more room to pick up speed before facing off against a defender?
We don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but Davidson has developed schemes in the past that allowed running backs like Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon to look like better-than-average rushers.
Additionally, the Lions may have a different player at center in 2018. Graham Glasgow could very likely take over Travis Swanson’s role as the team’s snapper and Glasgow has looked good in limited opportunities in that role. The center plays a key role in pre-snap reads and line adjustments, so if Glasgow continues to improve, it could drastically help backs like Abdullah in the running game.
So while Abdullah is certainly on his last chance in 2018, there’s no reason to do anything drastic like cut or trade him before this season. That would eliminate the Lions’ best running back, while robbing him of the opportunity to prove himself with a potential improved blocking scheme. It would also make one of the team’s biggest weaknesses even weaker, forcing the Lions to make an aggressive move both in free agency and the draft.
And while some may be begging for the Lions to finally make that huge move, putting yourself in a position in which you need to draft a specific position early is never ideal. If the board doesn’t fall your way, you’ll could find yourself empty-handed. Abdullah provides a cheap insurance plan that still has a very high upside.