It’s “What if” week around SB Nation again. It’s the one week a year in which we get to play hypothetical and dream of a scenario in which the Detroit Lions actually had some sort of success. To kick things off, let’s talk running back history.
The Detroit Lions have drafted a running back in the first or second round in five of the past 10 years. They have also had one of the worst running games in NFL history over the last 10 years. That decade of futility has driven fans mad with a constant churn of “This time it’ll be different” that, from the perspective of covering the team, it seems like we’d save time if we just created a cookie cutter article and plopped the new name in for the new batch.
As a fan, it’s easy to overlook the resources spent. Jahvid Best was exciting, if only for a second. Ameer Abdullah once clowned one of the best safeties in the NFL, but that was on one of his first carries and the rest were less productive. And now we have a new, shiny toy for the team to work with, a speedster who can be exciting with the ball in space.
You’ll have to forgive some of us that are a bit more jaded with the team’s new approach to fixing the run game, based on account of how similar it looks like their last attempts to fix the run game. But what if things went a little differently? What if, at any point, the Lions actually hit on one of their early-round gambles at running back?
D’Andre Swift is a rookie who hasn’t taken a single snap yet, so we’re not going to crucify the kid before he gets his shot. Since this week’s theme is “What If?”, however, we’re going to see the kind of ripples that may have made his selection unnecessary if the Lions had simply gotten it right for once with their previous attempts.
So let’s look at each of their last picks and see how things may have played out differently. Now, a running back is generally a four-year investment so we’re not going to pretend they got a Barry Sanders with every pick. But what if the team’s bi-yearly high investment at RB paid off even once?
What if the Lions hit on Kerryon Johnson?
Pretend for a moment the Lions, who traded up for Kerryon Johnson in 2018, landed a pre-eminent rushing threat with that pick. A baller who came out of college with a laundry list of injuries that would have made him a risky mid-round pick, let alone a second rounder who cost multiple picks, the Lions get lucky and instead get a powerhouse of a workhorse back who could put the team on his back and lead the team’s consistent run game.
Matt Patricia, the head coach who drafted him, would have started the first season of his NFL career with an actual running game. This leads to a couple legitimate wins against winning teams. This strong play raises the profile further of budding offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Cooter, who received head coach talk prior to seeing the real life dumpster fire of an offensive scheme, instead receives non-stop praise for revitalizing the Lions run game despite repeated failed attempts to fix the offensive line.
A new running back did it and a healthy Kerryon Johnson helps his offensive coordinator get picked up for a head coaching job in for the Cleveland Browns. By the time the 2020 NFL draft comes around, the Lions are coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons from Johnson and has no need to pick a RB highly once again. Instead, they take Louisiana-Lafayette offensive lineman Robert Hunt, a new toy for new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson, who takes on offensive coordinator duties after a career of trying to build a run game pays off.
What if the Lions hit on Ameer Abdullah?
We all know that Kerryon Johnson was injured early and often, contributing to the Lions taking another swing at RB early in the 2020 draft. But what if even earlier the Lions had hit on Ameer Abdullah? What if instead of a fumble-prone return specialist the team got the explosive, agile, all-purpose back that showcased his abilities at Nebraska?
Jim Caldwell, who oversaw Reggie Bush dropping from over 1,000 yards rushing to under 300 in his first season as head coach, tried to revitalize the run game by taking a risk on Abdullah, whose fumbling issues in college were pretty legendary due to a combination of small hands and poor technique.
Under Caldwell’s hypothetical tutelage, he was able to turn into a perennial Pro Bowl rusher. A dual threat both rushing and receiving, Abdullah provided a threat that caused opposing defensive coordinators to quiver. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi built a run game that rivaled the greatest show on turf, and since that type of offense allowed the wide receiver a little bit of respite from being the sole on field threat, the team was able to extend the career of future Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson and allow him to retire on much better terms.
The Lions defense, fearsome in 2014, was able to remain rested so while there was a bit of a drop off in 2015 they didn’t crumble to dust the moment the season started. The team doesn’t start 1-7, but instead goes a healthy 4-4 on their way to Caldwell’s second winning season. Since drafting Taylor Decker or Ryan Kelly was out of the equation, the team ended up drafting Kenny Clark with their first pick in the 2016 draft and settling for Deion Jones with their second, having missed out on A’Shawn Robinson. The selection of Jones made their 2017 selection of Jarrad Davis unnecessary, allowing them to take Tre’Davious White out of LSU instead. That, in turn, changed their second-round pick to Raekwon McMillan, who would play Will or Sam with Jones playing Mike.
What if the Lions hit on Reggie Bush/Joique Bell?
We all know that Abdullah didn’t work out. Injuries, like many of the others here, played a part, but Abdullah was also notoriously unreliable with the ball. He simply couldn’t be relied upon to keep the ball in his hands. But Abdullah wasn’t a necessary pick if the Lions’ free agent acquisitions of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell paid off.
So what if that all worked out? Reggie Bush rushed for over 1,000 yards in his first season as a Lions running back and paired with Joique Bell to be a dangerous duo of pass catchers out of the backfield. That was 2013, the final year of Jim Schwartz and Scott Linehan, and the arrival of Jim Caldwell and Ron Price completely dismantled that rushing attack that was a decent 17th in the league. They dropped to 28th in 2014, which would end up being a high point of Jim Caldwell’s tenure in Detroit.
What if, instead, that momentum carried for at least another year? Could the Lions have won a playoff game in 2014 if their run game hadn’t fallen apart? On January 4, 2015, the Detroit Lions were leading the Dallas Cowboys 20-7 midway through the third quarter. The team would never score again, but the defense allowed a 17-point rally from the Cowboys to see the Lions exit the playoffs winless once again.
Would a run game with some teeth have won the game for Detroit? Are the Lions running to the podium to take Ameer Abdullah if the run game wasn’t such a mess in 2014? Honestly, those draft picks probably remain the same. The Lions would have had less draft resources, because they wouldn’t have been in position to trade down with Denver, but they used those resources to pick up Antwione Williams, who they jettisoned after only a single season, so it probably ends up very similarly.
What if the Lions hit on Mikel Leshoure?
We all know that Reggie Bush and Joique Bell couldn’t hang, but what if they weren’t even necessary to have relied upon? In 2011, the Lions spent a second-round pick on standout Illinois rusher Mikel Leshoure. If that pick had hit, the team is sitting in 2013 with a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher, so no need to overspend in free agency for the ghost of Reggie Bush.
Better still, the team still probably signs Joique Bell, who was brought in as a street signing who cost next to nothing. The team may also have been able to bring back standout pass rusher Cliff Avril, who would depart for Seattle when the Lions couldn’t pay him. It probably wouldn’t have impacted their next drafting of a RB in 2015 (again, four year players), but it could have set the team up a little bit better than spending the time and resources on Reggie Bush. In addition to all of that, the Lions finished 7-9 in Jim Schwartz’s final season, but the division was won by the 8-7-1 Packers, who the Lions trounced 40-10 in their last meeting. Had the Lions beaten them in their first meeting, or had a more dangerous run game that season, they had a shot to win their division for the first time ever.
What if the Lions hit on Jahvid Best?
We all know Leshoure would tear his Achilles in training camp as a rookie, sapping the explosiveness that made him so successful in college. The team leaned on him heavily in year two, grinding out nearly 800 yards and nine touchdowns before he was a complete non factor the following season.
But would they have drafted him in the first place if Jahvid Best had both remained healthy and been effective? I know fans have fond memories, but if Best rushes for more than 3.2 yards per carry, are they looking for a complement for him early in the draft?
In 2011, Leshoure was on IR with a torn Achilles and Best was on pace for over 1700 all purpose yards before he, too, went down with injury. Imagine that kind of production at RB with someone like Torrey Smith sharing the field. Smith was taken a pick after Leshoure, and put up more yards in his rookie season than Best would have all purpose for the rest of his career. Now, maybe the Lions don’t go with Smith since they had taken Titus Young earlier in the round, but they just as easily could have taken Justin Houston to augment their pass rush. Imagine that.