Wojo: Lions still need bulldozing running back

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

It’s a good first step, an assertive first step, the type of step the Lions have to make. At the opening bell of free-agency, they moved in on the top offensive tackle, the latest clue GM Bob Quinn is serious about addressing a pressing, longtime need.

The Lions are determined to fix their running game, at whatever cost it takes. That’s one message in their reported agreement with Ravens 6-6, 311-pound right tackle Ricky Wagner, who should immediately replace free-agent Riley Reiff. The Lions apparently made their choice before Reiff could make his choice, and with an annual salary of $9 million, they paid handsomely.

It’s a proactive move that fits the plan, and by most accounts, they upgraded. The next proactive move? They still need a running back, which is why they’re connected to all sorts of big names, from Adrian Peterson to Eddie Lacy to Latavius Murray. Some of it could be smokescreens and rumors, sure. But the Raiders’ Latavius Murray, a 230-pound bruiser who’s only 27 and rushed for 12 touchdowns last season, would provide the kind of punch the Lions have lacked.

Lions agree to terms with ex-Falcons LB Paul Worrilow

Now to be clear, I didn’t bump my head and forget about the other side of the ball. Of course the Lions need to shore up their defensive line and find another linebacker or two. Upgrading the defense is a given, and it wouldn’t be a shock if Quinn used six of his eight draft picks on defensive players.

But the running game is a stated priority, and frankly, an underrated priority. It’s ridiculous to invest so much money in Matthew Stafford — assuming Quinn wants to extend his contract — and not provide a quarterback’s most-important strategic weapon. The play-action pass is never a threat for the Lions because they’re never a threat to run, and you can spend the next two months debating whether the problem is the offensive line, the running backs or mere misfortune.

On the run

Do the Lions need a 1,500-yard rushing star in a league geared toward the passing game? No. But should they be able to run for a first down on third-and-1 at least once in our lifetime? That’d be nice. They ranked 30th in the league in rushing last season and have had one 1,000-yard rusher (Reggie Bush in 2013) in 14 years.

The Lions have tried to get by on a series of Bush Lights, from Jahvid Best to Ameer Abdullah to Theo Riddick — quick, shifty and talented, and also smallish and injury-prone. Relying on Stafford and signing touted receivers such as Marvin Jones and Golden Tate is an incomplete strategy, and in slightly more than a year on the job, Quinn knows it.

The Lions reportedly are on a list of teams that could entice Peterson, 32, an all-time great who shouldn’t cost a ton and wouldn’t need to carry 30 times a game. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock suggested a couple weeks ago the Lions need a big banging back, and he’s right. I know he’s right because even dopes like me have hammered the point for years.

I also know he’s right because Quinn, with his Patriots pedigree, would appear to agree. It’s not just because he’s about to sign Wagner, 27, and likely will have to pay for a guard, with Larry Warford seemingly poised to depart.

A quick check of the track record reveals New England often complements Tom Brady with bruising veteran backs such as Corey Dillon, Stevan Ridley, and this past season, LeGarrette Blount.

After the Lions lost their wildcard game to the Seahawks, Quinn was asked why they fell short in the playoffs.

“You can go right to the league stats and say, ‘Where did we finish in running?’” Quinn said at his wrapup news conference. “It’s frustrating when you sit in my seat and you build a team, and then you have your starting running back go down in the second week. At the end of the season you look back and you say, ‘Why didn’t we run the ball?’ We tried to improve the offensive line, which I think we did to a degree.

“We did our best, and that’s not an excuse because every team goes through injuries.”

Thinking outside the box

Running backs get injured as frequently as anyone, and the Lions can’t get caught short again, with Zach Zenner their only option at the end. The franchise was spoiled by 10 years of excellence from Barry Sanders, whose style can’t be recreated.

Reports: Lions agree to terms with OT Ricky Wagner

So instead of simply hoping for rebound seasons from Abdullah and Riddick, Quinn should explore Murray, Peterson and Lacy, more capable of getting tough yards in tough games. Instead of grabbing for Stanford’s showy, versatile Christian McCaffrey in the draft, you investigate controversial Oklahoma back Joe Mixon.

Or perhaps you look at mid-round backs such as 235-pound Oklahoma teammate Samaje Perine, or Pittsburgh’s James Conner.

The Lions reportedly were one of four teams to meet with Mixon, who was banned from the NFL combine because of an assault conviction.

The videotape of Mixon punching a woman two and-a-half years ago is horrific, and no team should treat the matter lightly. Quinn might merely be conducting due diligence on Mixon, who ran a swift 4.43 in the 40 at his private workout. Or it might be a sign of how deep the GM is willing to dig for talent. He recently backed off on his “no-tolerance” edict for players who commit violent crimes. I don’t think that means the Lions suddenly will court high-risk guys, but that Quinn will be more realistic in his evaluations.

The reality is, the Lions need help in lots of places. No one is blinded by a playoff appearance and first-round exit. No one was deluded by Calvin Johnson’s singular brilliance. No one should be mesmerized by Stafford and his passing prowess.

To bounce back, the Lions eventually will have to bash back. Landing Wagner, the best of the bigs, is a good place to start.