This is the second in a series looking at positional needs for the Detroit Lions in free agency. Teams can begin negotiating with free agents on March 12. The signing period opens March 14 at 4 p.m.
Allen Park — Maybe we should start referring to the Lions’ anemic ground game as the curse of Barry Sanders. Following the Hall of Famer’s sudden retirement in 1999, the team has consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in rushing.
Detroit will continue its search for that elusive component of offensive balance, to complement quarterback Matthew Stafford, this offseason. And after not making a significant addition at running back last offseason, preferring to test what Ameer Abdullah could offer as a feature back, general manager Bob Quinn made it clear early this offseason he planned to bring in competition this year.
Last year’s group, which averaged a league-worst 3.4 yards per carry, largely remains under contract. Only Zach Zenner is set to hit the open market, with the Lions looking unlikely to extend a tender to the restricted free agent. Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Dwayne Washington and feel-good-story Tion Green remain on the roster.
Like defensive ends, which we wrote about in the first installment of this series, the draft might be the way to go to bolster the group. This class is chock-full of high-end talent who appear capable of contributing immediately — from LSU’s Derrius Guice or USC’s Ronald Jones as potential first-round choices to a slew of Day 2 options that includes San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, Oregon’s Royce Freeman or one of the two Georgia runners, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb.
But unlike edge rushers, free agency isn’t devoid of backs who could immediately make the Lions better.
The top of the class, with Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro Le’Veon Bell getting the franchise tag, is New England’s Dion Lewis. In his first season heading a backfield rotation, he shined in 2017, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. He also continued to serve as a capable receiving option out of the backfield, hauling in 32 passes, including three scores.
The downside with Lewis is his size (5-foot-8, 195 pounds) and injury history. He missed big chunks of the 2015 and 2016 seasons with knee injuries. If the Lions were looking for a little more bulk and durability, Isaiah Crowell would be an option.
The 225-pound Crowell has spent his entire career in relative obscurity while playing for the Browns, but he’s quietly put together a solid resume. His best season came in 2016, when he nearly broke 1,000 yards while averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He also scored seven times that year. His effectiveness dipped a bit last season, to 4.2 yards per carry, which would still be more-than-welcome production in Detroit.
Additionally, Crowell is only 25 years old and hasn’t missed a game in four professional seasons. And by averaging just 184 carries, the mileage on his legs remains low.
Carlos Hyde, 27, also has plenty of tread on the tires, but hasn’t been as durable. He missed time with ankle, foot and knee injuries his first three seasons before playing all 16 games for the first time last season.
That’s good timing for the 6-foot, 235-pounder who has averaged 4.2 yards per carry during his career and shown a nose for the end zone, scoring 24 touchdowns in four seasons.
And while it seems unlikely, if the Lions are looking for a veteran stopgap, there are a few accomplished options in the twilight of their careers. Frank Gore turns 35 this offseason, but like Anquan Boldin did for the Lions a few years back, Gore can set a tone for the young players on the roster beyond what he offers on the field.
There’s also the curious case of LeGarrette Blount, who has largely gone ignored in free agency the past two offseasons before signing a pair of cheap, one-year deals. He was stellar for the Super Bowl champions last season, bullying his way to 4.4 yards per carry for the Eagles.
Lions RBs under contract: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Dwayne Washington, Tion Green
Lions free agents: Zach Zenner
Top free agents: Dion Lewis, Isaiah Crowell, Carlos Hyde, Alfred Morris, Rex Burkhead, LeGarrette Blount and Jonathan Stewart.