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Draft a running back early? Lions are OK with Riddick

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Caldwell were careful to avoid heaping praise on some of their players last week at the NFL combine, particularly those who are set to become free agents.

One player about whom they spoke glowingly, though, was running back Theo Riddick, who broke out with 34 catches for 316 yards and four touchdowns in his second season.

Whether or not the Lions keep Reggie Bush, a decision Mayhew said had not been made as of last Wednesday, Riddick is in line for an increased role in 2015 after averaging 9.3 yards per reception. And even though running back seems to be a draft need for the Lions with Bush turning 30 and Joique Bell turning 29 before next season, it's unlikely the Lions will pursue a running back early in the draft because they trust Bell and Riddick to shoulder the load, as Bush and Bell did the past two years.

While the idea of adding Georgia's Todd Gurley or Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon will be popular in mock drafts, the Lions will likely use their earlier picks to fill more pressing needs at defensive tackle, along the offensive line and in the secondary, though Mayhew will still employ his "best player available" policy.

"I like guys with different traits," Mayhew said when asked what he looks for in a running back. "As you can see, the guys we have now have different strengths, and I want to build our roster with guys that can do different things in the course of the game. An all-around back is good, obviously, but when you have a guy like Theo Riddick who can make a difference in the passing game, that brings value to your team. Joique Bell -- an in-between-the-tackles runner for us is big -- and he does a good job catching balls out of the backfield, as well.

"I like guys that are versatile, but you've got to have a guy that can run between the tackles and you've got to have a playmaker who can do some stuff in space."

The Lions have both of those guys in Bell and Riddick, and even though Bell turns 29 in August, he doesn't have as much wear and tear as other backs his age because he didn't have any carries in the NFL in 2010 or 2011.

Bush, meanwhile, has been featured in some capacity in the NFL the past nine seasons and had 216 carries in 2011, 227 in 2012 (both with the Dolphins) and 223 in 2013 before dealing with a lingering ankle injury in 2014. Cutting Bush, who signed a four-year, $16 million deal in 2013, would save $1.7 million for the 2015 salary cap, and the cash-strapped Lions might need that money to pursue free agents at other positions.

In addition to Bell and Riddick, the Lions are confident they have depth at running back with George Winn, primarily a special teams contributor who flashed potential on offense much like Riddick the year before. Though Winn was in his second NFL season, he was effectively a rookie after not playing in 2013, and finished with 19 carries for 73 yards as a between-the-tackles option behind Bell.

But Riddick is the most likely guy to see an increased role in 2015 if the Lions release Bush and wait until the later rounds of a deep running back class to add more depth.

"You need guys like Theo Riddick, who offers you something special in a number of different areas, or a guy who can get on the outside and do some things in a one-on-one situation," Caldwell said. "You need also guys who can get you that tough yard (and) can do the dirty work."

With Riddick thriving at times in 2014, Caldwell's best answer during the season on why he wasn't featured more was that Bush had more experience. At the combine, Caldwell provided some clarity.

"We're probably not going to throw the ball much more than we threw, maybe a little bit more if we can extend some drives, so you have to make a determination on where that ball goes," he said. "So look at what you have and then say, 'Are we going to take a few more from Theo? Are we taking some from Golden (Tate)?' I don't think so. 'Are we taking a few from Calvin?' I don't think so. So you have to just make certain that you're not unrealistic in terms of what's going to happen in that sense."

The one thing Riddick has yet to prove he can do in the NFL is be productive as a rusher. He's averaged just 2.6 yards on his 29 carries the past two years with a long run of 9 yards.

"It depends on what we want to do, but he's capable of carrying it more than what we gave it to him," Caldwell said.