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2018 Detroit Lions roster review: Theo Riddick’s ‘bad year’ was overstated

The Lions’ third-down back actually played quite well in 2018.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps more than any other player under contract, Detroit Lions running back Theo Riddick looked to be on thin ice heading into the offseason. After a year in which his iconic shiftiness after the catch looked to diminish, many believed Riddick would become a cap casualty, freeing up a significant amount of cash for the Lions.

But as we head towards training camp, Riddick is still on the roster. Will he stay there or is his Lions career in jeopardy? Let’s take a look at our Theo Riddick roster review.

Theo Riddick

Expectations before 2018

After the team drafted Kerryon Johnson and added LeGarrette Blount in free agency, Theo Riddick was firmly the third back on the depth chart. Coming off a pretty average 2017 season, Riddick was expected to perform at his usual level: a very good third-down back capable of pass blocking well and being a great receiving threat.

Actual role in 2018

2018 stats: 14 games (3 starts): 171 rushing yards (4.3 YPC), 61 catches, 384 yards (6.3 YPR)
PFF grade: 72.3 (29th among HBs)

The narrative of Theo Riddick’s 2018 season doesn’t really match the statistics. Riddick set a career mark for yards per carry—albeit on just 40 rushing attempts. His PFF grade of 72.3 was actually an improvement from the preview two seasons. And he caught the ball 61 times—the second most in his career. All of that despite the fact that Detroit focused its running game on Kerryon Johnson and LeGarrette Blount.

That being said, there was an area in which Riddick did see a very significant decrease in productivity: yards per catch. Riddick averaged just 6.3 yards per catch, which was not only the lowest of his career, but a full 2.1 yards less per reception than his 2017 output. That is huge and likely the source of why many people think he’s “done.”

However, a lot of Riddick’s value comes from places you can’t find in the box score. His pass blocking remains elite (81.2 PFF grade, third among RBs with 50+ pass blocking snaps).

Outlook for 2019

Contract status: Signed through 2019 season

Since the 2018 season ended, Theo Riddick has been at the forefront of trade or release talks by fans and analysts. Back in April, only 43 percent of fans wanted to keep him around.

It’s easy to understand why. Once known for his ability to break out big plays in the receiving game, Riddick looked like he took a big step back in 2018. Additionally, Detroit would incur less than $1 million in dead cap if they moved Riddick, while freeing up over $3.6 million in cap space. Riddick’s base salary of $3.45 million will actually be the 10th highest among all backs in 2019.

But that $3.6 million is much more valuable to the team in March than it is in July. The Lions didn’t cut or trade Riddick back then, why would they bother to do so now? One answer is having that extra $3.6 million to roll over next year could be very valuable to Detroit, because several players are due for big jumps in pay next year. One deadline to pay attention to is Week 1. That’s the point in which Riddick, a vested veteran, will see his $3.45 million base salary become fully guaranteed if he remains on the roster.

Much like last year, Riddick is currently in line to hold that RB3 position, a spot that he has become more than familiar with. But is an RB3 worth his salary amount, or will the Lions go younger and cheaper with a guy like Zach Zenner or sixth-round rookie Ty Johnson? The Lions like Zenner a lot, and while he’s on the better end of the spectrum as a pass blocker, he doesn’t come anywhere close to providing the same spark in the receiving game. Johnson is pretty much a one-note back: speed. That could be valuable on special teams, but probably not anywhere else in his rookie season.

In my opinion, Riddick is still too valuable to let go and pass on his duties to Zenner and a non-versatile rookie. His 2018 season wasn’t nearly as bad as some people make it out to be, and one poor receiving season shouldn’t be enough to believe he’s done in Detroit. He’s still shifty, he’s still speedy, and I still think he can be a valuable third-down back, even at his increased salary.

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