In the days leading up to the start of Lions training camp, Justin Rogers of The Detroit News will highlight the key position battles. Today: Running back depth.
Allen Park – Barring injury, the top of the Detroit Lions’ running back depth chart is clear. Ameer Abdullah is the starter and Theo Riddick, a matchup nightmare coming out of the backfield, is the change-of-pace option.
Abdullah offers tantalizing potential anchored by uncertainty surrounding his health. A highly durable workhorse in college at Nebraska, he needed an offseason shoulder surgery that limited his practice time leading up to the 2016 campaign, only to see a Week 2 foot injury sideline him for the rest of the year. Those were the first times he’s missed a game, at any level, due to injury.
Prior to going down, Abdullah looked like an electric playmaker, capable of breaking free for a big gain on any given touch. On the play he hurt his foot, he twisted free from a would-be tackler for a 24-yard pickup.
The sample size is admittedly small, but he finished his abbreviated season with 18 carries for 101 yards and five receptions for 57 more. He scored one touchdown and had a second, a 14-yard run, called back on a holding call.
If he can manage to stay healthy this year, it should provide a jolt to Detroit’s long-anemic ground game.
As for Riddick, he’s working his way back from his own injury, a wrist issue that required surgery and cost him the final three games last season.
Before the injury, Riddick had shown improvement as a ball carrier while continuing to thrive as a passing weapon. Already the franchise’s single-season record holder for receptions by a running back with 80 in 2015, he was actually averaging more catches per game last year.
But there’s still room for touches beyond Abdullah and Riddick, especially if the injury bug bites again, and the Lions have several contenders for roster spots and playing time.
The popular choice will be fan favorite Zach Zenner, who has some momentum from the end of last season. His overall numbers have been average, at best, but his 202 yards and three touchdowns from scrimmage in the final two regular-season games suggests he merits a longer look.
Also returning is 2016 seventh-round draft pick Dwayne Washington, who possesses impressive physical gifts, but demonstrated underdeveloped vision and feel as a rookie. The 230 snaps he logged in that first season likely will prove valuable to his development entering his second year.
Anyone who watched Washington in college, and to an extent, the preseason last year, knows he offers serious big-play potential when he finds a seam. That’s why Detroit is also continuing to test him as a kickoff returner.
In addition to the incumbents, the Lions added an experienced veteran in Matt Asiata. The long-time Adrian Peterson backup in Minnesota never impressed as a rusher, averaging 3.3 yards per carry during his career, but Asiata’s versatility – as a blocker, receiver and on special teams – make him a strong contender for a job.
The longshots are veteran Mike James and undrafted rookie Tion Green.
James, who spent some time on Detroit’s practice squad last season, has appeared in 23 games for the Tampa Bay Bucs since 2013, averaging a respectable 4.2 yards per carry.
Green, a 230-pound power back out of Cincinnati, can make an impression special teams and short-yardage situations, an area where the Lions have struggled. Even if he doesn’t crack the 53-man roster out of the preseason, he’s a strong candidate for the team’s practice squad.
Lions camp battles
Day 1: Left tackle
Day 2: Nickelback
Day 3: Fourth, fifth receivers
Day 4: SAM linebacker
Day 5: Left guard
Day 6: Defensive ends
Day 7: Running back depth
Tuesday: Backup defensive tackles
Wednesday: Backup quarterback