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Projecting the Detroit Lions’ running back workload distribution

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With four mouths to feed, the Lions have a choice to make in the backfield.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in many years, the Detroit Lions may have too many options at running back. With the additions of Kerryon Johnson and LeGarrette Blount to a backfield already home to Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah, there will be no shortage of resources for offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter in 2018.

By looking at the past few years of Lions running backs, we can see how Cooter prefers to split up his offense. A change in personnel may mean a change in strategy, but there are some patterns to uncover from recent history. Digging through the data points from 2015 to 2017 can give us somewhat of a starting point as we look toward this season.

In each of the past three seasons, the team has featured four running backs who receive the majority of the carries. 2016 is a bit of an outlier with Abdullah missing essentially the whole year, but the other two seasons have eerily similar numbers. The following table takes weighted averages to show how the top four backs have typically split up the workload.

Average RB Breakdown

Role Rush Rush Yd Tar Rec Yd
Role Rush Rush Yd Tar Rec Yd
RB1 42.9% 45.0% 27.3% 20.6%
RB2 24.3% 23.4% 61.9% 64.6%
RB3 11.9% 11.7% 9.0% 13.3%
RB4 5.2% 4.0% 1.8% 1.6%
Other 15.7% 15.9% 0.0% 0.0%

These numbers help lay out a few clear roles. For example, focal point of the backfield has seen just under half of the team’s carries, while also getting a quarter of the position group’s receiving targets. The second role is more of a third-down back, seeing the majority of the targets while only a quarter of the carries.

The third man of the ensemble is slightly involved in both areas, while the fourth role is mostly an afterthought. In past seasons, over 15 percent of the team’s carries went to players such as Matthew Stafford, so the top four rushers will never take 100 percent of the attempts. For context, the Lions had team carry totals of 354, 350, and 363 the past three seasons and running back targets of 167, 110, and 110.

In summary, the Lions have essentially used three roles:

  • a primary rusher who gets almost half of the team’s carries
  • a third-down receiving specialist who sees more targets than rushes
  • a backup who has limited playing time

Each role has a mix of rushing and receiving involved, while the fourth running back is only around in case of emergency.

The 2018 roster

The biggest question when translating these existing roles into the current roster revolves around who will be the lead back. Both Johnson and Blount should see a good number of carries, but it feels like Johnson will be the primary rusher for the Lions in 2018.

The main reason for this is his versatility. Blount has 21 total receptions over the past three seasons; Johnson had 24 targets last season alone. The Auburn offense is not the same as the one in Detroit, but there is no question who the better pass catcher is. For that reason, Johnson will be easier to keep on the field. Pencil him in for a team-leading 43 percent of the carries and 27 percent of the running back targets this season.

Blount should take rushes typically assigned to the second running back, while leaving most of the targets on the field. Seeing him record around 30 percent of the carries in 2018 with around nine percent of the running back targets is a realistic expectation given his skill set.

The most obvious role at the position is Riddick’s, which has been pretty well defined at this point. He will serve mostly as a receiver, and a 62 percent share of running back targets is not out of the question. Traditionally, Riddick has earned around a quarter of the Lions’ carries, but with both Blount and Johnson around, that number will probably fall closer to 12 percent.

Unfortunately, this leaves very little room for Abdullah, who has not panned out as hoped in Detroit. The fourth running back has seen the field for the Lions, but his impact is very limited. Abdullah seems destined for just five percent of the carries and around two percent of running back targets. He is the clear loser in an offseason full of positional changes.

Doing the math

Consolidating all of the numbers shows a similar picture to the one with which we started. Expect the RB2 and RB3 roles to be slightly combined, with the rushes and targets being swapped. Calculating the final totals gives a distribution like this:

  • Kerryon Johnson: 43 percent team carries, 27 percent running back targets
  • LeGarrette Blount: 30 percent team carries, 9 percent running back targets
  • Theo Riddick: 12 percent team carries, 62 percent running back targets
  • Ameer Abdullah: 5 percent team carries, 2 percent running back targets
  • Other rushers: 10 percent team carries