No position on the Detroit Lions roster promises to look more different at the top than running back. The team went out and immediately added two players who are almost certainly going to the top of the depth chart, but what will that do to the Lions’ runners from yesteryear?
Let’s take a look at our next key training camp battle: Running back depth.
Roster locks: Kerryon Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, (FB) Nick Bellore
Second-round draft pick Kerryon Johnson and LeGarrette Blount will be your 1A and 1B running backs, assuming no injuries happen before the regular season. At this point, I’m labeling Bellore as a roster lock, as well, considering the Lions have clearly committed to using a fullback more often this offseason. Since Nick Bawden was placed on injured reserve this week, Bellore is currently the unopposed candidate to take that spot.
On the bubble: Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, Zach Zenner
I’ll be honest, I really wanted to put Theo Riddick in the roster locks category. He’s one of the best third down backs in the league due to his phenomenal skills as a receiver and well above-average pass blocking. However, with a pretty lofty $4.1 million cap hit in 2018, there is a greater than zero chance the Lions decide to go the economical route and move on to save over $3.1 million in cap space.
With Ameer Abdullah and Zach Zenner, however, it’s clear they’ll have to fight for their jobs. Abdullah is hoping to put a rough 2017 season behind him and show that he still has the potential we all saw early in 2016. Still on his rookie contract, Abdullah poses no financial burden, and brings special teams value. Many forget that when the Lions used Abdullah as their primary kickoff returner during his rookie year, he ranked second in the NFL in yards per return (29.1).
As for Zenner, his argument is a little tougher to make. While his physical running style may be more in accordance with what Matt Patricia wants out of the running game, Zenner wasn’t apparently talented enough to earn a restricted free agent tender. The Lions did decide to re-sign Zenner, but they didn’t show a lot of faith in him last year, giving him just 65 total offensive snaps. Granted, the Lions have a brand-new coaching staff this year, and Zenner’s contract is even less expensive than Abdullah’s (with nothing guaranteed), but Zenner is still firmly behind Abdullah on the depth chart,
Longshots: Dwayne Washington
Washington’s best chance at making the roster is expanding upon his special teams skills. In his Lions career, he has only returned four kickoffs for a total of 77 yards, but he has looked passable as a kick returner in the preseason over the past couple seasons.
Who has the lead going into training camp?
I think it’s pretty clear that Riddick is the best among the bubble players listed above. What he’ll have to prove, however, is that his talent matches his price. Is Riddick more valuable than Abdullah and Zenner in a vacuum? Certainly. But is Riddick at $4.1 million worth it over Abdullah at $1.3 million? That question is a little tougher to answer, especially since both of them bring similar skill-sets to the table.
How many to keep?
Of course, there’s a very realistic possibility that the Lions keep both Abdullah and Riddick. Last year, the team kept five running backs on the roster, not including Nick Bellore as a fullback.
The Patriots, however, kept five running backs including a fullback last season. If the Lions are serious about including a fullback into this year’s plan, that seems like the more realistic route the Lions will take with this roster.
So let’s assume the Lions keep five total backs. With Johnson, Blount and Bellore locks, that leaves the Lions with an interesting conundrum. They could keep Abdullah and Riddick, but those talent-sets are very similar. Or, they could keep one of Abdullah/Riddick and stash Zenner on the roster as a potential physical back to relieve Blount.
Of course, all of this posturing is for a player that likely won’t have much of an impact on the roster at all. As pointed out by our own Kyle Yost last week, the No. 3 and No. 4 running back positions don’t factor into the offense much at all.