'Deep' running back class offers Lions draft options

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Royce Freeman

Indianapolis — At the end of last season, Lions general manager Bob Quinn said he “absolutely” expects to add another running back to the Lions’ roster this offseason.

And after getting another glimpse at the running backs at the NFL scouting combine, he certainly likes what he sees.

“It’s a deep class,” said Quinn, whose team ranked last in the league in rushing in 2017. “It’s guys that have different skill sets. Guys that can carry the ball, guys that can catch.”

But will one of them catch the Lions’ attention enough that Quinn decides to use one of his draft picks on him? That remains to be seen.

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History suggests it might not be an early pick. In Quinn’s 16 years in New England, the Patriots selected a running back in the first round only once, drafting Lawrence Maroney in 2006. And only three other times did Bill Belichick draft one in the first three rounds: J.R. Redmond in 2000, and Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in 2011, all in the third round.

Quinn, who didn’t sound ready to give up on starter Ameer Abdullah when he met with the media Wednesday, has taken just one running back in his first two draft classes in Detroit, using a seventh-round choice on Dwayne Washington in 2016.

He may not feel the need to use a high pick on a running back if he opts to go the free-agent route, either. The Patriots’ Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead are pending free agents, as is LeGarrette Blount, another player with ties to New England who drew some interest from the Lions last year. Based on the comments of San Francisco GM John Lynch at the combine Thursday, it sounds as if the 49ers’ Carlos Hyde may hit the free-agent market as well.

But the Lions might not have to use a high pick to grab a productive back in this year’s draft, anyway.

“I think you’re still going to see some really good players at the running back position come out of this draft in the third, fourth, fifth, sixth round,” Colts GM Chris Ballard said. “There’s a lot of depth at O-line and running back.”

Still, there may be some enticing options when the Lions are on the clock on the first two nights of the draft. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is expected to be a top-10 pick, but LSU’s Derrius Guice, USC’s Ronald Jones and the Georgia backfield tandem of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb all are projected to go in the first few rounds.

NFL analyst Mike Mayock compared Michel to Alvin Kamara, last season’s rookie sensation with the New Orleans Saints, and he raved about Chubb, who matched Barkley with a position-best 29 reps in the bench press Thursday, as “one of the toughest running backs in this class.”

And while Jones, whose explosive ability draws comparisons to his childhood idol, Jamaal Charles, said he wants to “make sure teams know I’m an every down back,” Guice had an even stronger message Thursday.

“If you don’t draft me,” Guice said, smiling, “I’m going to give your defense hell.”

Rashaad Penny

Aside from that group, there are some other intriguing options, and it sounds as if the Lions are exploring many of them. Oregon’s Royce Freeman said Thursday he’d already had formal meetings at the combine with the Lions and 49ers. And San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, who led the nation in rushing last season, said he’d also met with the Lions.

Freeman piled up 5,621 rushing yards over a four-year career at Oregon, and at 5-11 and 230 pounds, he could be a good complement to the backs currently on the Lions’ roster. He spent much of his career running out of shotgun formations, much as the Lions do. And he said he enjoyed his meeting with members of Detroit’s coaching staff.

“We chopped it up and talked football,” Freeman said. “I feel like it went really well.”

Penny, who checked in at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, said he expects to run his 40-yard dash in the low 4.4s today at Lucas Oil Stadium. He’s also out to show NFL scouts and personnel executives that he can be a receiving threat out of the backfield as well, something he didn’t do much of at San Diego State.

And as for the questions about the level of competition he faced in a non-Power 5 conference in college? Penny points to the success former Toledo standout Kareem Hunt had last year as a rookie for the Kansas City Chiefs.

“But I really have no comeback for it,” he added. “I just have to go out and prove it at the end of the day. I know people are going to say that, so I really don’t focus on all that.”

Asked for his thoughts on whether he’d fit the Lions’ scheme, Penny said he wasn’t concerned about it.

“Honestly, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “I think I can go to any system and play anywhere, and that’s how I feel.”

We’ll have to wait a couple more months to find out just how the Lions feel, however.