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Size, speed at RB available for Lions in free agency

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

This is the second in a series looking at positional needs for the Lions in free agency.

Allen Park — It seems like every year the Detroit Lions talk about the importance of a balanced offense only to have its ground game fall short of holding up its end of the bargain.

Last season was no exception as the team finished 30th in rushing yards and 27th in yards per carry.

Things started so promising. The tandem of Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick looked more than capable after combining for more than 200 yards and three touchdowns from scrimmage in the season opener, but injuries ultimately decimated the unit.

Abdullah was lost for the year with a broken foot in Week 2. Riddick, after battling through a high-ankle sprain in the middle of the year, missed the final four regular-season games with a wrist injury.

The backups proved inadequate, incapable of doing much behind admittedly spotty run blocking. Rookie Dwayne Washington wasn’t ready to shoulder the load, veterans Justin Forsett and Joique Bell contributed little, and Zach Zenner was inconsistent, struggling to gain positive yards early in the year before a pair of impressive first halves at the end of the season.

General manager Bob Quinn believes his current group is adequate, but he won’t hesitate to add an upgrade in the draft or free agency. In his first year, he learned the hard lesson of counting on durability from the position, even if a player has a positive track record.

Once a strength, linebacker becomes need for Lions

For Lions fans who have watched the Steelers, or regularly glanced at the team’s box scores, Le’Veon Bell likely causes involuntary salivation. The former Michigan State standout is one of the league’s premier ball carriers and would be the crown jewel of this market if he were to make it to free agency. But no reasonable person expects that to happen. If the Steelers can’t work out a long-term deal with the 25-year-old sensation, expect the franchise tag.

The next tier of backs is filled with flaws, but a far lower price tag.

If you’re looking for power, Eddie Lacy and LeGarrette Blount are clear options. But Lacy has consistently battled weight issues and is coming off ankle surgery. Blount, who Quinn knows well from his time in New England, is 30 years old and his yards per carry dipped below four last season, despite a league-leading 18 touchdowns.

A better insurance policy might be adding another back to the roster with a similar skill set to Abdullah and Riddick. That strategy worked well in Atlanta, where Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman could do similar things.

Jacquizz Rodgers and Darren McFadden both have speed and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. And neither should put too much strain on Detroit’s cap space.

Maybe Abdullah, Riddick and Zenner will be fine. Maybe the injury bug won’t bite as hard this year and Zenner, who deserves a long look at an increased role, can build off his strong finish from last season. But if the Lions’ offense is ever going to realize its potential, it has to find a competent ground game to complement quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Lions RBs under contract: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, Mike James

Lions free agents: Joique Bell

Top free agents: Le’Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy, LeGarrette Blount, Latavius Murray, Jacquizz Rodgers, Rex Burkhead, Darren McFadden