Lions should have power-running options in middle rounds of NFL Draft
Allen Park — The Detroit Lions found a cornerstone piece in Kerryon Johnson via last year's draft, but the team's backfield rotation could look far different next season.
Veteran LeGarrette Blount, who led the team with 154 carries in 2018, is a free agent. So is Zach Zenner, who was productive down the stretch after returning from a pair of broken bones in his back. And Theo Riddick, the team's best third-down option the past few seasons because of his pass-catching and pass-blocking ability, is a potential cap casualty with a $4.4 million cap hit for the upcoming season.
With a month before the opening free agency and a little more than two months until the draft, the Lions are still evaluating their options. Coach Matt Patricia notes the team isn't zeroing in on a specific type of back to complement Johnson.
"As we push forward into this year, we're still trying to always evaluate those players who can help us," Patricia said at the team's season ticket holder summit last week. "Certainly, if we can get anybody with that kind of talent that can be a home-run hitter, at any point in time, we're obviously going to take advantage of that when we can. But there's also something to be said about that guy that can kind of just grind it out, be that powerhouse back."
Patricia noted the running back position has become highly specified in the NFL. While three-down players remain the preference, they've become tougher to find. General manager Bob Quinn chimed in saying the three-down options also cost more, both in free agency and how early they need to be taken in the draft.
"To get another Kerryon would be great, but it's a matter of cost," Quinn said.
There's a perception the Lions will be looking to add a power option to the roster to replace Blount, one who can reliably convert short-yardage and goal line carries. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper, during a Tuesday conference call, highlighted a number of options who fit that bill the Lions could look at beyond the first round.
"Well, I think when you're looking at somebody that's a powerful option, Rodney Anderson, from Oklahoma, coming back from the injury, Elijah Holyfield from Georgia, Benny Snell Jr. from Kentucky," Kiper said. "Those are some guys. And Damien Harris (of Alabama), in the second round."
Kiper seemed particularly keen on Anderson as a mid-round option.
A year removed from an 1,161-yard campaign where he averaged 6.2 yards per carry and scored 13 times, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Anderson suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game last season.
"He would be a guy you roll the dice with, and if he can stay healthy, would be really a nice pick at some point in the middle of the draft," Kiper said.
Meanwhile, Snell was a workhorse for a surprising Kentucky team, carrying it 289 times for 1,449 yards. Holyfield, son of former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, rushed for 1,018 yards on 159 carries while splitting time in the Georgia backfield.
But it might be short-sighted to suggest Johnson isn't capable of being the team's short-yardage option. After all, he showcased the ability to reliably run more north-south than any back on the roster, including Blount.
Still, the Lions won't overwork Johnson, who missed the final six games of his rookie year with a knee injury and had some durability issues through high school and college. Adding another piece to an offense that should be committed to the run with new coordinator Darrell Bevell is a near certainty.