Our free agency preview continues this week with one of the most talked about positions of need for the Detroit Lions in 2018: running back. For far too long, the Lions’ running game has been stuck in neutral, and as pointed out earlier in the week, Detroit has had the most ineffective rushing attack over the past three years... by far.
Late night stat.— Pride of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) March 6, 2018
Lions rushing yards under Ron Prince (2015-17): 3866, 32nd in NFL
31st-ranked team (LAC): 4463
The Lions went about fixing that problem already, overhauling the entire offensive line coaching staff, but that’s only half the equation. Detroit will add at least one or two running backs this offseason, general manager Bob Quinn has said as much. So let’s take a look at the running back choices for the Lions this offseason.
Under contract (Final year of contract in parentheses)
- Ameer Abdullah (2018)
- Theo Riddick (2019)
- Dwayne Washington (2019)
- Tion Green (2019)
The Lions have their top four rushers still under contract for the 2018 season, but that doesn’t mean any of them are particularly safe. Detroit could get over $2 million in cap savings by cutting Theo Riddick and just over $1 million if the parted ways with Ameer Abdullah. Though considering they combine for a cap hit of just $5.4 million, it seems unlikely (but not out of the question) for them to be let go.
Dwayne Washington and Tion Green are both cheap enough to likely stay on the 90-man roster, but their jobs are anything but secure for the 2018 season.
Lions free agents
- Zach Zenner (RFA)
- Mike James (UFA)
Per Dave Birkett, Matt Patricia is interested in re-signing Zach Zenner, although it looks like he won’t be tendering him a restricted free agent offer. Zenner brings solid pass blocking and even a little bit of starting experience to the backfield, though he’s anything but an explosive runner.
Quinn has showed interest in James by signing him twice to the Lions’ roster in 2016, but a concussion ended his 2017 season before it even began. There’s a chance the Lions keep him heading forward, but the likelihood of him having any sort of impact is extremely small.
Free agents available
With temptations like Le’Veon Bell and Chris Ivory off the table, there are still some solid options in free agency. Here are four:
Carlos Hyde (age 27)
Despite failing to have a decent offensive line since Jim Harbaugh skipped town, Hyde has managed to keep up a very respectable 4.2 yards per carry in the past four years with the 49ers.
Hyde fills the Lions’ much-needed role of a punishing back that is useful on third-and-short situations. Though the Lions don’t need him to be given their current set of rushers, Hyde could also be a three-down back, as his pass blocking is above average and he’s coming off a year with a career-high 59 catches.
The biggest downside to Hyde is that many view him as the best free agent running back available, meaning he’ll come with a somewhat hefty price tag. Running backs can generally be had for cheap on the free market, but there could be a small bidding war for Hyde.
Isaiah Crowell (age 25)
The young and promising Crowell could be the steal of free agency if he doesn’t draw too expensive of a contract. The undrafted prospect out of Alabama State has carved himself a pretty impressive career with the Browns—which is somewhat of a miracle on its own.
Crowell has rushed for over 600 yards in all four years of his career, and has averaged 4.2 yards per carry along the way.
Like Hyde, Crowell can be described as a physical back, but with a little less tread on his tires than Hyde. It’s hard to know if he’ll be an exact fit in new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson’s rushing attack, as the long-time running coordinator has experience in both zone and man blocking schemes, but Crowell’s talents are versatile enough to work either way.
LeGarrette Blount (age 31)
Blount isn’t a perfect fit in Detroit. Most of his success in the past has come in offenses that use him in non-shotgun formations. Even though he had a successful year with the Eagles, who love to spread it out, 72 percent of Blount’s carries came from under center in 2017. And according to Philly.com, he’s much more successful in those scenarios:
He’s averaging 5.2 yards per carry from under center and just 2.8 out of shotgun.
That being said, both general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia are well aware of Blount’s talents, seeing has he played in New England for three seasons.
Blount’s ultimate role in Detroit would be as a situational power rusher. He is, however, unlikely to be the team’s workhorse back. If the Lions still have hope in keeping Abdullah as the feature back, Blount would make for a nice complementary piece.
Frank Gore (age 34)
They say that Father Time is undefeated in football, but Frank Gore is pushing the limits to that theory. Despite starting in at least 10 games in 12 straight seasons, Gore is still rushing at an impressive rate. While it’s true he hasn’t finished with a yards per carry above 4.0 in three years, it would be hard to blame him considering he’s been behind one of the worst offensive lines in Indianapolis.
Gore still shows flashes of the back that has made the Pro Bowl five times in his career and rushed for over 1,000 yards nine times. Gore, too, fits the mold of a tough-to-bring-down back that will get every possible inch out of a run.
However, Gore will be 35 by the time the season starts. At best, he’d be a rotational stopgap option while the Lions allow time for a potential rookie to gain his footing. At worst, Father Time will finally claim him.
Who should the Lions target in free agency?
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