Running back committee will carry load for Lions
Allen Park — Ameer Abdullah feels ready to be a starting running back in the NFL. Although he's 5-foot-9, he's a rock-solid 203 pounds and endured plenty of hits with at least 250 offensive touches each of the last three years at Nebraska.
Yet, regardless of how well Abdullah has played this summer, the Lions plan to use a committee of running backs in 2015, whether Joique Bell is ready to play Week 1 or not.
"Whenever we get (Bell) back, it's going to be a committee," quarterback Matthew Stafford said Monday. "Joique, Ameer, Theo (Riddick), all those guys; they're talented players, top to bottom in that lineup right now. We've got a lot of talented running backs, so we'll find ways to utilize all of them."
For the Lions, using multiple backs will be nothing new. The past two years, Bell and Reggie Bush shared the duties, and Mikel Leshoure and Bell split them in 2012. Bush had 223 carries in 2013, Bell had 223 last year, and Bush's 1,006 yards two years ago made him the Lions' first 1,000-yard rusher since Kevin Jones had 1,133 yards in 2004.
So, don't expect the Lions to feed any of their running backs close to 300 carries, which is the mark for many of the top rushers. But Bell has increased his carries each of the last three years, and despite him nursing offseason injuries since January, coach Jim Caldwell said the team expects a lot from him in 2015 and called him a "bell cow."
And, Caldwell said, Bell feels like he's close to returning, and any time working with the new-look offensive line before the regular season could be a boost to the offense, though Stafford said he expects to be comfortable with Bell as soon as he returns.
Even if Bell can't return, there are contingency plans in place. In addition to Abdullah, Riddick has worked a lot on his running skills this year after proving to be a successful passing option in 2014.
When Bell missed a game last year, George Winn filled his role as the downhill, between-the-tackles option, and Winn said he's ready to hold that job again. Undrafted rookie Zach Zenner could play himself into a role, too.
If Bell can't play Week 1, Riddick's 29 carries in the NFL would be the most among the group, but Caldwell isn't worried about the overall lack of experience in the backfield.
"Probably the same reason last year when we talked about inexperience with our coordinators. You know when guys can do the job," Caldwell said. "And we'll have guys in there that can do the job if he can't go."
Caldwell said Abdullah's role "remains to be seen," but he thinks the rookie will "be able to do what we ask him today. Exactly what that is likely won't be clear until after the preseason, but it could include punt or kickoff returns in addition to the offensive duties.
"I'm comfortable playing by committee or being the starter," Abdullah said.
And even though Bell thinks this year's second-round pick is "the real deal," he quickly included Riddick's name when asked how much Abdullah can handle if he misses time.
"I think our whole committee can hold it down, period," Bell said.
For the Lions, Bell proved to be a better fit last year than Bush, gaining hard yards through the middle while contributing 34 catches for 322 yards, a 9.5-yard average that led the team's running backs a year ago. Even though Bell averaged just 3.9 yards per carry last year, he averaged 4.4 yards per carry in the second half of the season while playing through the knee and Achilles tendon injuries he had surgically repaired.
The Lions could also consider that the 29-year-old Bell is going into the second year of his three-year, $9.3 million deal. The financial impact won't be the determining factor, but the Lions might want to get their money's worth from Bell in 2015 before handing the reins to Abdullah.
"(Bell is) one of those guys that's always been a workhorse, and we fully expect him to come back and be what he was last year for us — and that was a bell cow," Caldwell said. "He was a tough, hard-nosed guy that set a great tone for us, so we're anticipating that exact same sort of effort."