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Nate Burleson: Detroit Lions will have best running game in NFC North

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Bold prediction from the former Lions wide receiver, but is it plausible?

SEC Championship - Georgia v LSU Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions made some significant changes to their running game for yet another offseason. This time, the focus was primarily on the offensive line. The Lions moved on from Graham Glasgow and Rick Wagner and replaced them with rookie Jonah Jackson and and veteran Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Then to top it all off, they drafted Georgia running back D’Andre Swift with the 35th overall pick.

Given that this franchise has struggled to develop a consistent run game since Barry Sanders’ sudden retirement, it makes some sense that the team continues to pour resources at the necessary positions. Unfortunately, it just hasn’t worked out in the past two decades.

But one NFL analyst believes this may finally be the year they turn it around. Nate Burleson, a former Lions wide receiver turned “Good Morning Football” analyst on NFL Network, made the bold claim that the Lions will suddenly become the best running team in their division.

“I feel like this combination of running backs, along with the wide receivers and tight ends they already have—let me just make the statement: the Detroit Lions could have the best running game in the NFC North for a team that hasn’t had one in quite some time,” Burleson said this week. “I am a firm believer of what they’re building is going to show us that this season.”

Burleson concedes that this is a tough mountain to climb. The Vikings have Dalvin Cook. Aaron Jones is coming off an 1,000-yard, 16-touchdown season. The Bears... well, the Bears are still there, too. But the former Lions receiver thinks Detroit will come out on top.

“I feel like the Detroit Lions—the Detroit Lions—will do it this year and be the best running game in the North.”

Me, being a skepticist, wanted to look a little closer at how bold of a claim this really is. Over the past 20 years, we’ve all been duped by the Lions running game at some point. Ameer Abdullah, Kerryon Johnson, Jahvid Best, Kevin Smith, Kevin Jones, Brian Calhoun. They were all supposed to finally bring a running game back to Detroit, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’m not quite ready to believe that D’Andre Swift is finally the truth.

But let’s look at what the Lions are going up against in the NFC North, and how much they actually have to improve to reign supreme. Here are last year’s rushing stats from each team.

Vikings: 133.3 yards per game, 4.5 YPC, 16th in DVOA
Packers: 112.2 yards per game, 4.4 YPC, 4th in DVOA
Lions: 103.1 yards per game, 4.1 YPC, 27th in DVOA
Bears: 91.1 yards per game, 3.7 YPC, 29th in DVOA

Depending on which stat you value the most, the NFC North featured one or two top-10 rushing attacks. Both the Vikings and Packers had above-average yards per carry, but the Vikings’ rushing game simply looks more lethal because they ran the ball 476 times—the fourth-most in the NFL.

By Football Outsiders’ DVOA efficiency metric, however, it was the Packers that had a top five rushing attack with Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams leading the way.

As for the Bears, by pretty much any metric, they had one of the worst rushing games in the NFL, and there’s not much they did this offseason to think it will get significantly better.

The Packers drafted A.J. Dillon in the second round, while the Vikings pretty much stayed put in the running game.

Detroit’s running game wasn’t absolutely horrible last year, rushing for a respectable 4.1 yards per carry (t-21st) and 103.1 yards per game (21st), but their efficiency metrics were pretty awful. Without question, they were a firm third in the North last year.

To overcome two good rushing attacks in the division, they’ll need a lot of moving parts to all come together immediately. We’re talking about at least two new starters on the offensive line—one likely being a rookie. Throw in a new offensive line coach, an unknown commodity in a rookie running back, and there are a lot things that have to go right in order for the Lions to be successful on the ground.

That being said, the Lions have what could be a very talented group of young tailbacks. With Swift, Kerryon Johnson, Ty Johnson and Jason Huntley, that’s four draft picks selected in the past three drafts.

And it’s worth noting that the Lions could take a big jump simply based on the history of offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. While the rushing attack was basically the same statistically from 2018 to 2019, Bevell’s coaching history suggests Detroit could take a significant step in Year 2.

Year 1 with Vikings (2006): 113.8 rushing yards/game, 4.1 YPC, 22nd in DVOA
Year 2 with Vikings (2007): 164.6 rushing yards/game, 5.3 YPC, 3rd in DVOA

Year 1 with Seahawks (2011): 109.8 rushing yards/game, 4.0 YPC, 14th in DVOA
Year 2 with Seahawks (2012): 161.2 rushing yards/game, 4.8 YPC, 1st in DVOA

Now, there are mitigating factors to both scenarios. In 2007, the Vikings drafted a guy named Adrian Peterson, and in 2012, the Seahawks gave their rushing game an additional dimension by adding Russell Wilson. Still, the Lions went through some pretty drastic changes this offseason, and now Bevell has his running back and a couple of his offensive linemen. In other words, Detroit has a few mitigating factors of their own.

Could the Lions really make the jump to first in the North? There’s certainly precedent, but I’m still a bit skeptical.