It is hard to tell the recent history of the Detroit Lions without mentioning the exploits of running back Theo Riddick. He has played 84 games over the past six seasons, earning over 3,200 yards and 19 touchdowns. Riddick has been one of the team’s more reliable playmakers over the past few season as well, and it feels that he has been a safety blanket for quarterback Matthew Stafford since 2013.
In 2018, the running back clearly regressed, though. He was not the ever-present threat like he was in years past, and it felt like he was not making as many plays when he had the ball in his hands. The regression, combined with the addition of Kerryon Johnson, marginalized his role in the middle parts of the season.
While he is not the player he once was, Riddick still can bring a lot to an NFL roster. He is still a top-end receiving threat out of the backfield. His route running is not as crisp as it was in previous seasons, but his ability after the catch still makes him a threat for opposing defenses.
Detroit is faced with a third-and-long on this play from their Week 2 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers. Riddick is lined up alongside Stafford in shotgun. The running back’s assignment is to block any interior blitz and then break for a quick out-route if he is clear. Stafford eludes pressure and quickly whips the ball to Riddick as he breaks out on his route. The running back beats the first tackler, then turns up field and beats the closing defenders to the first down marker.
Riddick has never been a speedster but plays like this are where he makes his money. His ability to beat the first tackler and quickly burst upfield for a good gain is what truly makes him dangerous after the catch. He is incredibly slippery and hard to bring down. He is shifty enough to catch linebackers when they have leveraged their weight the wrong way.
The running back has lost a bit, though. He was caught by the first tackler more often this season than in years past. Also, his burst and change of direction have lacked a bit this season, hurting his production overall.
One narrative that has surrounded Riddick his entire career is that he is not a good runner. While he clearly lacks the power and long speed to be a reliable every down back, the idea that he can not be depended on to get carries out of the backfield is false. Many of the skills that help his route running and ability after the catch translate into a standard running back role. He has great vision as well and is also a pretty decisive runner once things open up.
His burst and great change of direction mean that he does not need a gap in the defense to be open very long for him to take advantage of it. Riddick is also great at making himself small and slipping through gaps without having to decelerate much.
This run against the Buffalo Bills is Week 15 is a good example:
Riddick is in the backfield with tight end Luke Willson lined up in front of him as a fullback. This is a gap run, where the defense has one single blocker for every individual defender in the box. While Willson delivers a great block in the gap, the linebacker he is blocking also does enough to force Riddick to have to cut left on his run. This cut puts the running back right in front of a defensive back, but another quick cut back upfield gets him into space. He then runs upfield before he is finally chased down inside the 5-yard line.
While Riddick can do some damage out of the backfield, he is not perfect either. He is occasionally indecisive and stutters before making cuts. This seems like more of a mental issue than a physical one, though, as there are many plays were he has made beautiful cuts to throw off defenders. Take, for example, this play against the Los Angeles Rams from Week 13:
While the running back does a great job hitting the hole and turning it into a big gain, he also could have done more. First, he stutters once he takes the initial hand off despite an open gap being in front of him. Once he is at the second level, he has a chance to make a hard cut and turn upfield to create a big play. Instead, he stutters again and even loses his balance. He makes a rounded turn back inside and gets tackled.
The play still went for a good amount of yardage but it could have gone for more. If Riddick had made a hard cut at the second level then he could have taken advantage of the great block by wide receiver Kenny Golladay. There was a space between the two defenders that tackled him, and while he probably would not have torched them, he could have earned a few extra yards with more decisive running.
There are also a few other flaws in his ability as a running back. While he can do a great job taking advantage of holes when they open up, he can not make a play when he is not given space. In a way, he is the opposite of teammate Zach Zenner. While Zenner can take a play that should be stuffed for no gain for a few yards, Riddick often loses yardage when the run blocking is not good. On the contrary, Riddick can hit holes and create big gains when he is given any sort of space, while Zenner usually needs acres of space to create a big play.
Riddick can still be valuable as a runner, though. Many of the narratives surrounding his running ability stem from the fact that he was initially only used by the Lions as a receiver. This makes sense when you consider the awful run blocking Detroit has had for years. Riddick could not create when the blocking failed him and since there was a pretty good chance the run blocking was going to fail him, then why even bother? Why not just save him for the passing game where he can make a huge impact?
Detroit has also had decent talent at running back over the course of Riddick’s career. Reggie Bush could do everything Riddick could as a runner, but had better long speed. Ameer Abdullah could do the same things that Riddick could, but since he gave less utility in the passing game he would get the work in the run game. Recently, Kerryon Johnson is an absolute star running back, but since he cannot do as much as a receiver, their roles became separate early in the year.
One of Riddick’s greatest skills over the years has been his ability as a pass blocker. The running back was once heralded among the elite blocking talents at running back, and it quietly may have been his greatest skill. However, it seems that there has been a slight regression here as well.
Riddick occasionally struggled in pass protection in 2018. The issue did not seem to be the running back’s actual blocking, though, but rather his recognition of who to block. He sometimes seemed blind to his assignment and would either pick up the wrong guy, or not see the guy he was supposed to block at all.
This was illustrated against the Rams:
Riddick is lined up alongside Stafford in shotgun here and his assignment is to pick up any free blitzers. The running back gets zeroed in on the edge defender who is playing contain and entirely misses a linebacker flying in. The Rams linebacker gets a clear run at Stafford and Riddick does not even get a hand on the player he was supposed to block.
The running back did make a few mistakes like the one above in 2018. His vision as a blocker seems to have deteriorated a bit, and because of these errors, it is impossible to say that he is still a top-level pass blocker.
While Riddick whiffs on his assignment at times, he still did make a positive impact as a blocker. When he could find his assignment, his pass blocking was typically great. He got low and was able to drive defenders back. Riddick was rarely beat on plays where he was actually able to engage the defender he was responsible for.
When he found the right guy, he was able to cover distance fast and stop them from getting to Stafford. He would occasionally pancake defenders and did a great job sustaining blocks when Stafford needed him to.
Does Riddick have a future with the Lions?
Riddick is an interesting situation for Detroit. He was the second best running back on the roster in 2018 and definitely has a lot to offer. His ability as a receiver is unmatched by any other running back on the team, and while he is not a perfect runner out of the backfield, he is still worth keeping around.
The running back is 27, though. He already showed regression in 2018, and it is likely that a running back of his age will further regress as times goes on. There is also a real chance that, like many other running backs, his play drops off a cliff entirely after this season.
Riddick is entering the final year of his contract and will count for $4.3 million against the cap. Detroit has the option to release the running back this offseason and save around $3.4 million.
With Johnson set to return from injury and the Lions insistence on using players who were brought in during the Bob Quinn regime, it is easy to see how the Lions can move on from Riddick. Johnson does everything that Riddick does as a runner, and then some. While Riddick is a great receiver it may be smarter to bet on a younger player like Brandon Powell to absorb his role going forward.
On the other hand, Riddick is still a good player. The only two real options to replace him in free agency would be signing either T.J. Yeldon of the Jacksonville Jaguars—which would be a slight downgrade—or hoping Chris Thompson is a cap casualty in Washington and signing him. Drafting another running back before the sixth round would be irresponsible, and it is rare young running back talent actually becomes available in free agency. It could be beneficial to just hold on for Riddick for one final year while Johnson develops as a receiver and then let him hit the market after 2019. By cutting Riddick, the Lions could just be creating another hole on the roster for no reason.
The fate of Detroit’s long-time receiving back will be one of Quinn’s toughest decisions this offseason. One on hand, the Lions do not want to make the mistake of releasing a great player too soon and creating a hole on their roster. On the other, sometimes holding on to a player for too long can turn around and bite you if they regress.
What should the Lions do with Theo Riddick this offseason?
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