For the past few offseasons, the Detroit Lions have addressed the running back position in free agency to help build a running game. Be it LeGarrette Blount, C.J. Anderson, Stevan Ridley or Matt Asiata, it has never managed to work out—even a little bit.
It appears this year the Lions may be taking a different strategy. The Lions didn’t sign a single free agent running back this year despite it being a moderate need. It seems inevitable, then, that the Lions will target a running back in the 2020 NFL Draft. So let’s take a closer look at what this year’s class has to offer.
Under contract (last year under contract): Kerryon Johnson (2021), Ty Johnson (2022), Bo Scarbrough (2020), Tra Carson (2020), Wes Hills (2020), FB Nick Bawden (2021)
Level of need: 7/10
The Lions could go into 2020 with the Johnson duo and Bo Scarbrough as their top three, but that’s putting a lot of faith in players that haven’t proven the ability to stay healthy and efficient for a full season’s worth of games. Instead, the Lions will need someone who is durable.
Detroit’s seeks an offensive identity highlighted by a strong, hard-nosed running game. Think about the Tennessee Titans and Derrick Henry, or think about the running backs Darrell Bevell is used to having at his disposal: Marshawn Lynch, Thomas Rawls, Adrian Peterson. Therefore, it tracks that the Lions are likely looking for a big, durable tailback in this year’s class, and I would call it a moderate-to-high need.
Second-round options: J.K. Dobbins, D’Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor
I don’t believe there’s a first-round talent in this year’s draft class, and even picking a running back in the second round is a questionable strategy given the short shelf-life of a running back in today’s NFL.
That being said, of the top three options this year’s draft has to offer, none exactly are a traditional power back, but I don’t necessarily think that means the Lions would be completely out on them.
Ohio State’s Dobbins is the most well-rounded prospect in the draft, easily capable of being a three-down back. He not only could be a workhorse back, but he was relatively valuable in the receiving game.
Taylor is the closest thing to a power back of the top three, weighing in at 5-foot-10, 226 pounds. He’s got above-average patience and great balance, but fumbling issues in college may scare some off.
Georgia’s D’Andre Swift is the runt of the litter (5-foot-8, 212) and his size may scare the Lions away considering the issues they’ve had with Kerryon Johnson’s health (5-foot-11, 212). Still, he’s one of the most elusive backs this year’s class has to offer.
Mid-to-late-round options: AJ Dillon, Eno Benjamin, Joshua Kelley
Out of the later-round options, none fit what the Lions should be looking for more than Boston College’s AJ Dillon. Not only does he have the big, physical frame, but he’s actually surprisingly athletic, too:
A.J. Dillon is a RB prospect in the 2020 draft class out of Boston College.— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 7, 2020
He posted an elite #RAS with elite size, okay speed, elite explosiveness, at the RB position.https://t.co/S15L0soRXN pic.twitter.com/zOID307co8
Though he missed a game or two with an ankle injury, he was still relatively durable in college, logging 300 rushing attempts in two seasons and 220 in the other.
Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin is also a bit undersized for Detroit’s likings (5-foot-8, 207), but he runs like he’s 20 pounds heavier. As the Sun Devils’ starter for the past two seasons, Benjamin racked up 2,867 total rushing yards while adding another 610 through the air.
Finally, there’s Joshua Kelly, whom the Lions got to know as part of the Senior Bowl North team. Although the Senior Bowl wasn’t exactly filled with running back talent, Kelley came out of Mobile as the most impressive. He finished the game with 15 rushes for 105 yards, but also impressed during the week of practice:
Here’s a couple highlights from Joshua Kelley and Darnay Holmes at the Reese’s Senior Bowl today. #UCLA #SeniorBowl pic.twitter.com/bMmYZKUJbb— Matt Joye (@mattjoye) January 23, 2020
He doesn’t exactly fit that strong-runner type that the Lions may be looking for, but his size is good enough and he only seems to be getting better. He may have the highest upside of backs outside of the top tier.