Riddick’s worth to Lions' offense is growing

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Running back Theo Riddick readies for a reception during drills.

Allen Park — When the Detroit Lions drafted running back Theo Riddick in 2013, the addition was largely met with a shrug. The team had just signed Reggie Bush in free agency, still had former second-rounder Mikel Leshoure on the roster and had poached promising local product Joique Bell off the New Orleans Saints practice squad at the end of the previous sesaon. Few could conceive what role Riddick would have early in his career.

Three years later, Bush, Bell and Leshoure are gone and Riddick has developed into one of the most critical components on Detroit’s offense.

After splitting his time between running back and wide receiver at Notre Dame, Riddick almost played exclusively on special teams as a rookie, but when coach Jim Caldwell took over in 2014, he recognized the running back’s speed, elusiveness and effort almost immediately after the coaching staff began scouting the roster.

Caldwell and company immediately expanded Riddick’s role with the offense, and in his second season, he caught 34 passes and four touchdowns, including clutch fourth-quarter grabs in comeback victories over Atlanta and Miami.

But last season is when everything clicked. Riddick exploded for 80 receptions, a franchise record at his position, and he proved to be one of the league’s most elusive players in the open field, accounting for an NFL-leading 36 missed tackles in the passing game, according to analytics site Pro Football Focus.

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“He presents a very, very tough issue for people that want to cover him,” Caldwell said. “Any time you catch 80 balls out of the backfield and do what he does once he has the ball in his hand, I think you certainly have to plan for him. He’s added another dimension where he’s created some focus, and if you don’t focus in on him, he’s going to put some explosive plays on you.”

A charismatic teammate, Riddick tends to clam up when a microphone is put in front of him. But those around him every day are in awe of his talent and production.

“He brings a different dimension than a lot of backs do in the NFL,” fellow running back Ameer Abdullah said. “We do a good job spreading the field enough to create those one-on-one matchups that we want. Running backs, we need to win those matchups against the linebacker or defensive end and Theo does every time. Every time.”

That’s barely an exaggeration. Riddick has been staggeringly efficient as a receiver. In catching those 80 passes last season, he was targeted just 99 times by quarterback Matthew Stafford. That speaks volumes for Riddick’s ability to consistently get open and the rarity of him letting a throw slip through his grip.

Now that he’s firmly established as a lethal receiving option out of the backfield, the Lions are looking to get Riddick more involved in the run game. That’s something offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter expressed this offseason.

“You have to have balance,” Caldwell said. “That’s extremely important.”

To date, Riddick has averaged a meager 2.9 yards per carry on 72 career attempts. But he’s shown slight improvement, averaging 3.1 yards per attempt last year.

It’s an area in which new teammate Stevan Ridley is willing to help out, as long as Riddick shares some of his tricks in the passing game.

“His routes, it’s almost unfair when you get him in a one-on-one,” Ridley said. “I got to spend some time with him during the offseason and I told him I’d help him with running between the tackles if he helps me with my route running.”

The Lions and Riddick are nearing an important crossroads. He’s entering the final year of his rookie contract, and after the team locked up cornerback Darius Slay on Friday, Riddick is arguably next in line for a contract extension. To this point, both sides have been unwilling to comment on whether there have been any contract talks this offseason.

“I’m not focused on that right now, bro,” Riddick said. “I’m really not even thinking about things of that nature. I’m happy for Slay and his family and whatever happens (with me), happens.”