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Durability, not talent, is Lions’ run game problem

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Kareem Hunt

Allen Park – Over the next several days, leading up to the NFL draft, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster situation and evaluate how the team might address these positions during the event. Today: Running backs. 

Current roster: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington and Mike James.

Top prospects: Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey and Joe Mixon.

Mid-round fits: Samaje Perine, Kareem Hunt, Jeremy McNichols.

Late-round options: James Conner, Brian Hill, Aaron Jones, Donnel Pumphrey.

Short-term need: 6 on a 1-10 scale

Long-term need: 6 on a 1-10 scale

Analysis: The Lions’ running game has been a sore spot for several seasons with the team finishing near the bottom of the league in most meaningful categories last season, including total yards and yards per carry.

But you could easily blame those issues on the team’s offensive line. For example, 23 percent of Detroit’s running plays resulted in no gain or a loss of yards. And in power situations – third and fourth downs needing two or fewer yards – the conversion rate of 56 percent ranked 26th in the NFL. That is highly indicative that the holes just weren’t there for the team’s backs.

But we’re not talking offense line today, we’re talking running backs.

Detroit actually has some decent talent in its backfield rotation, led by Abdullah and Riddick and supplemented by Zenner. Even Washington, a seventh-round draft pick last season, offers some significant upside if he develops better feel and vision.

Lions GM places premium on speed, athleticism

No, talent isn’t the biggest issue, it’s durability. Abdullah and Riddick looked like a potent dual-threat tandem early last season before injuries ended both their campaigns. This is new territory for Abdullah, who had never missed a game due to an injury, but after shoulder and foot surgeries the past two years, long-term concern is merited.

Zenner flashed at the end of the year, and it’s easy to love his approach on and off the field, but he struggled with early-season opportunities and it’s foolish to suggest the Lions shouldn’t seriously explore and upgrade.

The Lions could realistically consider a tailback as early as the first round. There’s almost no chance Fournette falls to the team at No. 21, but McCaffrey or Cook could be there. McCaffrey offers a similar skill set to Abdullah, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It would allow the team to maintain schematic consistency, no matter who is in the game.

If the Lions look for a running back on day two (second and third round), it’s a matter of whether the focus is that similar dual-threat skill set or adding a clear-cut power component, something they currently lack. Not willing to tip the team’s hand, coach Jim Caldwell said there’s merit to both approaches.

In those mid-rounds, Perine is the type of bruiser who will look to punish opposing linebackers in short-yardage situations, where Hunt gives you more versatility with a competent north-south running style. McNichols adds versatility with return game on the resume.

In the later rounds, you can roll the dice a bit more. You have Conner, who beat cancer; Jones, an oft-injured, yet productive small-school standout; and the undersized and highly productive Pumphrey, who probably reminds you of several players who have contributed in New England the past decade.

Regardless of where it is, expect the Lions to add a back at some point to bolster a ground game the team is anxious to get on track.