Lions must dive in deep draft pool for running backs

Justin Rogers

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 back

■ Current roster: Ameer Abdullah, LeGarrette Blount, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, Tion Green

■ Top prospects: Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice

■ Mid-round options: Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, Kerryon Johnson, Ronald Jones, Rashaad Penny, Royce Freeman

■ Late-round fits: Kalen Ballage, Mark Walton, Bo Scarbrough, Ryan Nall

■ Short-term need: Six out of 10

■ Long-term need: Nine out of 10

■ Analysis: Many observers falsely assumed the Lions would select a running back last year, but general manager Bob Quinn expressed confidence with the group he had after opting not to make an addition via the draft.

That faith proved misplaced as the team finished last in the league in rushing, both yards per game and yards per carry. Ameer Abdullah struggled in his first full season as the lead back, averaging a career-low 3.3 yards, ultimately leading to a decreased role down the stretch.

Shortly after the conclusion of the season, Quinn vowed to add competition at the position. He did so in free agency, picking up 250-pound LeGarrette Blount. The accomplished veteran brings a short-yardage element the Lions have lacked in recent years, but at 31 years old, probably isn’t going to be a guy taking 20 handoffs per week.

Given some of the other issues in the ground game, namely the blocking, and upcoming adjustments to the scheme, it’s not inconceivable the Lions attempt to make it work with the tailback collective they currently have under contract. But with such a deep, talented prospect pool, and little long-term security at the position beyond this season (Abdullah and Blount’s contracts expire at the end of this upcoming season), it wouldn’t be the best approach.

There’s only one back in this class the Lions essentially have no shot of scoring, at least without paying the steep price to significantly move up the board. Saquon Barkley, the seemingly can’t-miss Penn State standout, has been called the draft’s best player by several analysts and is all but guaranteed to be a top-10 selection.

Everyone else remains in play for Detroit, including LSU’s Derrius Guice, if he’s still on the board when the Lions are on the clock at No. 20.

The 5-foot-10, 224-pounder is a violent runner who racked up more than 1,200 yards each of the past two seasons with the Tigers. He was better in 2016, when his tape rivaled Barkley’s, but some nagging injuries in 2017 only mask the elite skill set.

Beyond durability, the additional concerns with Guice’s game are his abilities in the passing game, both as a receiver and protector.

But taking a back in the first round, especially when you have a league-low six selections in the draft, might not be the best strategy, especially given this year’s wealth of talent at the position. Look at the mid-round options listed above, and there’s a slew of talent who could help the Lions long-term, each with featured-back potential.

And even if the Lions wait until Day 3, there’s a chance they could snag someone like Kalen Ballage, a bigger back with an advanced receiving skill set that would work well in the team’s offensive scheme. Even later, a versatile option like Ryan Nall could be in play. The Oregon State product weighs north of 230 pounds and is a competent short-yardage option who can catch passes and also line up as a blocking back.

This is a draft where the Lions have an opportunity to turn a weakness into a strength. In hindsight, Quinn made a miscalculation not drafting a running back last year, notably trading the No. 85 pick to the Patriots instead of taking Kareem Hunt. Not drafting a running back this year could be compounding that mistake.