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Katzenstein: Lions' future backfield remains murky

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

How the Lions use their running backs remains one of the great mysteries of the 2015 season.

Lions running back Ameer Abdullah breaks up field after avoiding a tackle in the second quarter.

And because the coaches haven't really given any player a chance to be the primary back in a game this year, it's incredibly hard to project what the backfield will look like beyond this year.

Entering the season, it looked like the Lions found their running backs of the future by drafting Ameer Abdullah in the second round and adding undrafted rookie Zach Zenner. But with Zenner on injured reserve and Abdullah in the doghouse — despite Jim Caldwell denying that last week — the Lions could turn to the draft yet again.

Even after a shocking win in Green Bay Sunday, the Lions are just 2-7, and most of the players are competing now to keep their jobs for the future. While there are questions at several other positions, determining the potential of the running backs on the roster ought to be a top priority for this team moving forward.

Can Joique Bell be more than a short-yardage back again? Is Theo Riddick capable of being a reliable runner? How much of a workload can Abdullah handle?

The most carries a Lions back has had in a game this season is 14, which Bell and Abdullah each had once. Obviously, trailing early in games and having unreliable run blocking have contributed to the measly number of rushes each game, but the coaches have made it incredibly hard to evaluate the backs.

Despite the recent trend of teams going to a backfield-by-committee approach, most of the top teams still have a player they trust with 25-plus carries. The Lions, meanwhile, were enamored with big-play threats — Jahvid Best, Reggie Bush and Abdullah — under former general manager Martin Mayhew.

And although Mayhew took a back that looked like a potential workhorse, Mikel Leshoure quickly became a bust.

Bell has been the closest thing the Lions have had to a reliable, every-down back in recent years, but anyone with a basic understanding of NFL contracts should understand his status for 2016 is in question. Although he played better in Weeks 7 and 8, Bell had just 17 yards on 14 carries Sunday and is down to a 2.6-yard average this season, which is production unworthy of the $3.5 million he's owed next year.

Lions had just 10 on field for two Packers FG attempts

With Bell's ties to Detroit, he might be willing to take a pay cut to stay with the Lions, but that's a decision the new GM will have to make next winter.

Clearly, Abdullah is the most talented back on the roster, but the rookie has struggled to maintain the trust of coaches as he's fumbled four times. On his 104-yard kickoff return Sunday, which tied an NFL record for the longest non-scoring play, Abdullah showed the big-play potential that he'd flashed a few other times this season, and that alone should be enough for him to receive more carries soon.

Although he's 5-foot-9, Abdullah is a sturdy 203 pounds, so he can handle more carries than the 8.5 a game the Lions are giving him on average this season. The question is how much he'd be able to thrive with the increased workload, and hopefully, the coaches will give us a chance to see the answer this year.

Abdullah is clearly safe with regards to a roster spot next season, but looking around the league and seeing the production of late-round running backs — fourth-rounder Jeremy Langford (Michigan State) averaged 162 yards from scrimmage the last two games for the Bears, for example — the Lions could certainly bring in another back if they want.

Riddick should be around next year, too, as he's a true threat in the passing game, but he's never had more than seven carries in an NFL game. Unless the Lions give him a chance to prove himself as a runner, it looks like Riddick won't be a solution to their lack of a feature back.

Out of all the backs, Zenner actually is best suited to handle a heavy workload because of his combination of vision, power and speed. But it's hard to imagine anyone saw enough in his 17 carries to trust him with a large role entering 2016.

If the Lions keep playing like they did in Green Bay, they should have more opportunities to run the ball. If that happens, perhaps the future of their backfield — whether it's a current back or the need for a new one — will become clearer.

Around the NFC North

■With the Packers losing, the Vikings (7-2) are now alone in first place for the first time since 2009. Minnesota won in Oakland Sunday, 30-14, as Adrian Peterson ran for 203 yards and touchdown and now leads the NFL in rushing.

■After losing to the Lions Sunday, 18-16, the Packers (6-3) have now lost three straight. Despite having quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay's offense ranks 21st in the NFL.

■The Bears (4-5) upset the Rams in St. Louis, 37-13, and ended a streak of five games decided by three points or fewer.

Around the NFL

■Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey told reporters Monday that Panthers quarterback Cam Newton violated the league's "code of ethics" by dancing after scoring a touchdown. Hey coach, if you don't want him to celebrate, don't let him score. And aren't there already enough cockamamie rules that make the NFL less fun than it should be?

■The Saints (4-6) gave up 47 points to Washington Sunday. Allowing 31.5 points and 424.7 yards per game, it's safe to say New Orleans' defense is horrendous.

■Meanwhile, the Cardinals (7-2) are just a really good team with playmakers all over the field and should be exciting to watch in the postseason.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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