Phoenix – Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell is playing it cool about the status of the team's ground game.
He isn’t pretending the Lions don’t have to improve in that area, but he’s also not committing to needing to bolster the team’s running back depth.
During the NFC coaches breakfast at the league meetings on Tuesday, Caldwell said every position remains open to upgrade, but expressed confidence with the group he has.
Ameer Abdullah, who was primed for a breakout season as the lead option last season, suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 2. Despite newfound durability concerns, Caldwell still sees the former second-round pick as a capable workhorse going forward.
“I believe so,” Caldwell said. “He’s coming along, been rehabbing and he’ll be able to, at some point in time, be able to work on the field in spring. We’ll see where he is. Obviously, we know what he can do when he’s got the ball in his hands – create. He’s tough, he’s effective.”
Abdullah isn’t the only one working his way back from offseason surgery. Theo Riddick, the dynamic pass-catcher, is rehabbing after offseason wrist surgery. The hope is he’ll also be back for a portion of the offseason program.
“That’s one of the things, with what he had done, he’ll work through it and see where he is when we get going,” Caldwell said. “One thing is for certain, we’ll let the doctors let us know, lead the way in that regard.”
An offseason debate has been whether Detroit needs to add a power component to the mix or stockpile another shifty, dual-threat runner who can provide the Lions’ schematic insurance if Abdullah and/or Riddick struggle to stay on the field.
“Yeah, I think you can look at it both ways really,” Caldwell said. “You can argue both points pretty well, but I also say, don’t forget about Dwayne Washington. He’s a big back, he’s strong, he’s developing, he’s coming. There are a lot of things in there you have to take a look at and evaluate. Really, you can argue both ways.”
Washington, a seventh-round pick last season, stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 223 pounds. He showed a propensity for big plays in the preseason, but also struggled with the vision and patience required of an NFL back.
The Lions have been aggressive on the pro day circuit and have been especially tuned into slew of running back prospects expected to be drafted next month. Position coach David Walker has been racking up frequent flyer miles in recent weeks, getting a first-hand look at a wealth of options, including troubled but talented Oklahoma rusher Joe Mixon.
At the combine earlier this month, the Lions left the door open to adding Mixon, but have declined to update that statement after further investigation into the player who punched and broke a woman’s jaw in a 2014 altercation.
Even if the Lions don’t swing for the fences and select a running back in the early rounds, the team believes it should be better moving the ball on the ground next season based upgrades up front. The team revamped the right side of its offensive line, signing tackle Rick Wagner and guard T.J. Lang, widely viewed as upgrades over last year’s tandem of Riley Reiff and Larry Warford.
Wagner and Lang both have reputations as stellar pass protectors, but Caldwell vouched for the duo’s chops creating running lanes.
“Both of them are effective in that area, strong guys that do a nice job,” Caldwell.
Additionally, Detroit inked 6-foot-7, 281-pound tight end Darren Fells, giving the team a better blocking option at the position than they’ve had in recent years.
“Fells is one of those guys who has the bulk and power you’re looking for,” Caldwell said. “Even though he’s an ex-basketball player, he has the ruggedness for in-line blocking.”
The puzzle isn’t complete. We’ll have to wait for the remaining free agents to find homes, plus the NFL Draft, to see how the Lions piece this thing together. But if the offense is going to improve, the team has to run the ball more effectively than it has in recent years. The Lions have finished in the bottom five in rushing yards each of Caldwell’s three seasons as coach.
“Without question, we have to keep trying to improve in that area,” Caldwell said. “We haven’t been nearly as good as we’d like to be and we keep trying to make adjustments to improve in that area. That’s something we talk about consistently and we haven’t gotten there yet. Do I think we can get there? Absolutely.”