Wojo: Lions need to fill big hole with LeGarrette Blount
Bob Quinn doesn’t appear to be a gambling man, at least not yet. So why would he risk getting caught short at one of the Lions’ glaring positions of need?
He can’t, not when there’s a ready remedy. LeGarrette Blount is the best free-agent running back available and the Lions should sign him, for obvious reasons. He’s large, he’s productive, he might be reasonably priced, and oh, he scores touchdowns.
This is an easy call, to be blunt. The Lions had the 30th-ranked running game in the NFL, continuing a pattern that has lasted for about 15 years. Their top two backs, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, are coming off injuries that rendered them non-factors much of the season. When the Lions played their toughest opponents in the closing weeks, they were down to Zach Zenner, a sturdy backup, and the old strategy of hoping Matthew Stafford can fling some magic.
The Lions have been one-dimensional way too long, and that includes their style of backs — an abundance of quick, shifty guys and a puzzling lack of power runners. It creates inflated numbers and demands for Stafford and makes it easier for opponents to defend. Quinn, the second-year GM, recognized it immediately and rebuilt the offensive line. He identified the running game as a major priority, and now he’s going to sit back and just hope Abdullah and Riddick — still intriguing talents, by the way — can carry the load?
Not a risk worth taking. Not with Blount, who rushed for a career-high 1,161 yards and an NFL-best 18 touchdowns for the Patriots last season, still looking for a job. And let’s get this out of the way before you start yelling at me. I know Blount is 30 and was highly productive partly because he played for the Super Bowl champs. I’m aware careers generally spiral when a running back hits that age.
No one is suggesting Quinn spend a ton, in money or contract years. This is a stop-gap need too gnawing to ignore, with a realistic antidote. The Saints spent a mere $7 million over two years for Adrian Peterson, while the Seahawks landed big Eddie Lacy for one year at a guaranteed $3 million, both worth the gamble.
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If Blount has priced himself too high, the Lions can hold off until the cost drops, and it probably will based on limited competition. According to a Yahoo Sports report, the Lions and Giants are the primary teams interested in the 6-foot, 250-pound bruiser. But the Giants just drafted Clemson running back Wayne Gallman in the fourth round and declared Paul Perkins their starter. The Lions inexplicably didn’t draft a running back, and Quinn declared Abdullah the starter.
That’s fine to say in May, but Quinn’s public stance might be different than his real stance. Before the draft, he touted the deep crop of backs, and then one by one, bypassed them. Florida State’s Dalvin Cook? Not in the first round. Then a whole batch of sizable runners went in the third and fourth rounds – D’Onta Foreman, Kareem Hunt, Samaje Perine, James Conner.
So why did Quinn tout all the playmaking backs and the importance of improving the Lions’ running game, then decline to add one? Maybe he thinks the additions of Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang to the line will make a bigger difference, and they might.
Or maybe he knows from his old Patriots compatriots Blount is worth a shot, and is waiting to strike the right deal. New England reportedly was willing to bring him back, but Bill Belichick rarely overpays a veteran, and the Patriots went with younger Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead. Blount has displayed periodic weight and attitude issues, but Belichick liked him enough to sign him for two different stints, which included two Super Bowl victories.
Of the Lions’ nine picks, six were on defense, a necessary tactic that might have preempted a move at running back. Once it did, Quinn was forced to sound as if he’s content with his backfield. Abdullah played in only two games before suffering a foot injury and Riddick missed seven games, then underwent surgery on both wrists. Injury-prone or bad-luck prone? In the NFL, the distinction doesn’t matter. If you’re not available, the job is open.
“I feel pretty good about the position,” Quinn said. “There were a couple of running backs we looked at in the middle part of the draft, but no one we felt was going to come in and unseat any of the guys we have. … I think Ameer’s injury was sort of a fluke thing, and he’s back 100 percent.
Theo’s dealing with a few things, but we think he’s going to be ready to go. You can’t carry 10 running backs.”
No, but you can increase your odds by adding depth and durability, considering rookie Dwayne Washington wasn’t dependable either. It’s not like the Lions would ask Blount to carry the ball 25 times or be a breakaway threat, which is what Abdullah and Riddick are supposed to be.
Threat is needed
I’ll say this until I’m Honolulu Blue in the face. The Lions desperately need a banging back for grind-it-out situations so Stafford can wield one weapon he’s never had — unpredictability.
The Lions have had precisely one 1,000-yard rusher (Reggie Bush in 2013) the past 13 years. Even the pass-happy Packers have done it five times during that stretch, and were particularly effective when Lacy wasn’t too large. Tom Brady uses the play-action pass as much as anybody because the Patriots at least have a running threat.
In Stafford’s eight seasons, a Lions rusher has topped 100 yards in only nine games, and incredibly, none since 2013. It’s not like 100-yard and 1,000-yard rushers are marquee milestones anymore, but the Lions have failed with the smaller numbers too. Although they converted a respectable 43 percent of third downs, they were woeful in short-yardage situations. According to Football Outsiders, the Lions’ “power success” — conversions on third and fourth downs with 2 yards or fewer to go — was 56 percent, 26th in the league.
Blount only averaged 3.9 yards per carry, below his career mark of 4.4, which should indicate an acceptance of the short-yardage role.
That’s also why the Lions are looking at former Vikings back Matt Asiata, who scored six touchdowns in limited action last season.
Quinn’s quest for a cruncher was fruitless in the draft, but it can’t end there. Blount’s game matches his name, and in the short term, he would bring a brand of bluntness the Lions long have lacked.