Lions 2019 draft preview: Running back remains a long-term need

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions running back Kerryon Johnson leaps over the top for a touchdown against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago on Nov. 11, 2018. The Lions lost, 34-22.

Allen ParkOver the next several days, leading up to the NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each position. Today: running backs.

►Current roster: Kerryon Johnson, C.J. Anderson, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Kerwynn Williams, Mark Thompson, Nick Bawden

►Short-term need: Two out of 10

►Long-term need: Eight out of 10

►Top prospects: Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris, David Montgomery

►Mid-round options: Montgomery, Darrell Henderson, Miles Sanders

►Late-round fits: Rodney Anderson, Alex Barnes, Trayveon Williams

►Analysis: One of the primary tenets of coach Matt Patricia's brand of football is being able to run the ball effectively. And in his first year with the franchise, the offense made significant strides in that department thanks to a revamped blocking scheme and the addition of Kerryon Johnson via the draft. 

Even with the lofty expectations placed on the second-round pick out of Auburn, Johnson managed to exceed just about all of them. He needed three games to snap Detroit's ignominious streak without a 100-yard rusher and finished the year averaging 5.4 yards per carry, second only to Green Bay's Aaron Jones. 

The only downside to Johnson's rookie campaign was his inability to finish it. Coming in with notable durability concerns, he lasted 10 games before a knee injury put him on the shelf.

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But there was a bright spot to the situation. It offered an opportunity for Zach Zenner to return to the roster and show he too could benefit from better blocking. The prolific college rusher put forth the most productive stretch of his professional career the final four weeks of the season, averaging at least 4.4 yards per carry in each of those games. 

For 2019, Johnson and Zenner are back. So is third-down back Theo Riddick, who remains the team's best pass-catching and pass-blocking option on the roster. 

New to the mix is C.J. Anderson, signed last week. He replaces LeGarrette Blount, who was largely ineffective during his one-year stint with the Lions, averaging a paltry 2.7 yards per carry, by far the worst in his career. 

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Anderson, at 5-foot-8, 225-pounds, is stout runner who has never averaged below 4.0 yards per carry during any of his six seasons. After five years in Denver, Anderson signed with Carolina, but was bounced mid-season, after nine unproductive games. He eventually landed with the Rams, where he shined down the stretch, including a 123-yard, two-touchdown performance in the postseason. 

The addition of Anderson lessens Detroit's immediate need for another running back. In fact, they could easily skip addressing the position in the draft and roll into the season with the group they have. 

But a long-term need remains. Anderson and Zenner each signed one-year deals, while Riddick is entering the final year of an extension he signed in 2016. That leaves only Johnson under contract in 2020 and beyond. 

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Taking a back in the first two days seems unlikely, unless the Lions are faced with a value option they can't pass up. Iowa State's David Montgomery is the three-down option, a back that lacks elite physical gifts, but runs well enough, is an advanced route runner for the position and should be adequate as a blocker. 

Memphis' Darrell Henderson has the potential to be the home-run hitter of his class. Taking advantage of a superb blocking scheme in college, he averaged 8.9 yards per carry each of the past two seasons and has shown the ability to house it from any distance if he gets a clear path into the second level. 

On Day 3, the Lions could roll the dice on a risk like Oklahoma's Rodney Anderson. He has an excellent frame, and produced when healthy, but had major durability issues in college. 

Another option, if his combine testing doesn't propel him into the Day 2 conversation, is Kansas State's Alex Barnes. At six-foot, 226-pounds, he has an ideal frame to go with his elite athleticism. 

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The Lions currently have nine selections, but it's still difficult to justify using one on a back. Zenner offers enough on special teams and as a security blanket that unless the Lions see a clear upgrade, taking a running back would probably be a wasted selection. Given the team is likely to carry a fullback, it would be difficult to fit a sixth backfield option onto the active roster. 

Year in and year out, running backs prove to be quick contributors. The Lions could just as easily address the team's long-term need at the position in the 2020 draft. 

Previous position previews

Lions 2019 draft preview: Despite offseason signings, Detroit still could be on edge

Lions 2019 draft preview: Taking interior O-lineman fits Bob Quinn's M.O., team's needs

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers