Lions should draft big-play running back to complement LeGarrette Blount

By Kent Lee Platte
Special to The Detroit News
Sony Michel

The Relative Athletic Score (RAS) system was developed by Kent Lee Platte in 2012 to provide a contextualized score on a scale of zero to 10 to make it easier to understand how athletic NFL draft prospects are compared to their position dating back to 1987.

The Detroit Lions’ running game woes can be blamed on a number of factors, but one that has stood out the past couple of seasons is the lack of a truly dangerous back who threatens defenses.

No running back on the roster has shown the combination of above-average vision and athleticism that often sets apart lead backs in the NFL, the type of traits that can mask an underperforming scheme and inconsistent blocking.

Vision and football intelligence can be gauged from scouting a player’s tape, but teams use the combine and pro days to measure athletic ability. This year’s running back class has not disappointed in either area.

If the Lions want to take their ground game to another level, they’re almost certainly going to draft a running back who can complement the recently signed LeGarrette Blount. With so many promising prospects on tape, the team would be well served to select a player who, like Alvin Kamara last year, possesses the elite athleticism needed to break big plays.

RAS is a simple way to take a high-level look at a player and identify who possesses elite tools, without relying on a single measurement like the 40 time. Players like Le’Veon Bell often get dinged for being a poor athlete, but it’s unfair since they often only underperform in a single area while excelling overall. Bell had a poor 40-yard dash and vertical, but measured so well in every other area that his RAS of 8.91 out of 10 shows the elite athlete he was coming out of Michigan State.

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It isn’t just Bell, though. More than half of running backs drafted in the past three decades who ran for 750 yards or more in a season at least once in their careers measured above 8.0 RAS, with a whopping 82 percent measuring above 5.0. It’s a great way to improve the odds of selecting a top-tier performer after weighing their game films and team fit. The Lions should have their choice of this year’s top athletes, with the noted exception of Saquon Barkley, whose 9.96 RAS rated top-five out of more than 1,000 RBs since the late 1980s.


Ameer Abdullah: 8.86

Theo Riddick: 3.32

Dwayne Washington: 9.83

Tion Green: 1.12

The Lions haven’t shown any recent trends with athleticism at RB, but the larger trends for NFL success shouldn’t be ignored.

The graphic shows RAS of Pro Bowl running backs since 2010.

With receiving ability likely a premium after signing Blount, the Lions could look to Georgia’s Sony Michel (8.81 RAS) to fill that void in the early rounds. His teammate Nick Chubb (9.03) is no slouch in terms of athleticism either, though he isn’t as much of a receiving threat. Each of those scores compare favorably to DeMarco Murray (9.20) and Ezekiel Elliott (8.67) in recent drafts.

LSU’s Derrius Guice didn’t score as highly (7.21), but his angry running style and speed would make a strong tandem with a powerful runner like Blount. Guice’s score was only a little shy of the player he idolizes, Marshawn Lynch (7.84). Like Guice, Rashaad Penny (7.20) is another big and fast option in the early rounds. It should be noted, both have a shot to raise their scores further if they complete agility drills at their pro days.

If Detroit doesn’t land a top back in the early rounds, later-round options include Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage (9.10 RAS) or Fordham’s Chase Edmonds (7.84). Both are solid runners who bring a dynamic element in the passing game. Previous mid-round picks, like Jay Ajayi (8.65) and Michael Turner (7.67), have turned their tools into strong NFL seasons.

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N.C. State’s Nyheim Hines only posted a 6.63 RAS, but his speed scores are some of the best in the class after running a 4.38 40-yard dash at the combine. That’s both more speed and more relative athleticism than Tarik Cohen (3.84), who used his speed to carve out a role for the Bears as a rookie last season.

The numbers will never replace good old-fashioned scouting, and even composite metrics like RAS will never tell you the whole story. They help provide context when looking at likelihood of an NFL prospect to succeed at the highest level, something needed to assess risk in the NFL draft.

The numbers alone would push you away from players like Devonta Freeman (2.34) and Mark Ingram (2.58), for instance, but also help identify players like Lamar Miller (9.38), Curtis Martin (9.35), and David Johnson (9.85) outside of the first couple rounds.

There’s a glut of talent in the 2018 draft and the Lions are in prime position to find the best rusher in Detroit since Barry Sanders. He had a 9.74 RAS, by the way.

Kent Lee Platte is a freelance writer.