Detroit Lions 2020 NFL Combine preview: Running backs

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

This is the fifth installment of a multi-part series previewing the NFL Scouting Combine. The event will be broadcast over four days on the NFL Network, Thursday, Feb. 27 through Sunday, March 1. Today, we'll look at the running backs.

Georgia running back D'Andre Swift [piled up nearly 2,800 yards from scrimmage the past two seasons.

Lions pre-free agency needs

Running back is a tricky offseason assessment for the Lions. In an ideal world, they could get by with the group they have. As a starter, Kerryon Johnson has a well-rounded skill set with plus vision, balance, speed and open-field elusiveness. And Bo Scarbrough emerged last year as a capable north-south power complement. 

The issue is durability. Johnson has missed extensive time each of his first two seasons and Scarbrough has had his own problems saying on the field. So if the Lions find themselves in a situation where they're on the clock, and a running back is clearly the best player on their board, they shouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger. 

Metrics to monitor

► 40-yard dash, broad jump, three-cone drill

With running backs, there's a lot of value breaking down the 40-yard dash into segments. The first 10 yards tells you about a player's acceleration, which is valuable to assess their ability to cut and hit a hole. At the back end of the 40, the final 20 yards tells teams about a prospect's breakaway speed and how likely they're to get caught from behind in the open field.

The broad jump is the combine's best indicator of lower-body strength, which should tell you about a back's ability to break tackles, while the three-cone drill gives you an idea of how agile a back can be in tight quarters. 

Top prospects

► D'Andre Swift, Georgia

After piling up nearly 2,800 yards from scrimmage the past two seasons, Swift is trending toward being the first back selected in this draft. Given how well he burst through lanes for the Bulldogs, he lived up to his last name. Listed at a stout 215 pounds for his 5-foot-9 frame, he might not post a top-end 40 time, but the 10-yard split should look pretty good. 

Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins shouldered a huge workload last season, carrying the ball 300 times on his way to 2,000 yards on the ground.

► J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State

Dobbins shouldered a huge workload last season, carrying the ball 300 times on his way to 2,000 yards on the ground. Paired with his above-average receiving ability, he found the end zone 43 times in three seasons for the Buckeyes. To post those kind of numbers, a back has to be skilled across the board, but don't be surprised if his agility numbers stand out from the pack. 

► Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin 

Tread life might be Taylor's biggest concern heading into the next level. Wisconsin handed him the ball 926 times over three seasons. That's a grueling workload, but he responded by averaging more than 2,000 yards per season. He was a state champion track athlete in high school, so it wouldn't be surprising to see a strong 40 time.  

► Cam Akers, Florida State

Playing in a far less successful offense at Florida State, Akers didn't post gaudy numbers like his Big Ten counterparts on this list, but he was still productive in 2019, racking up 1,369 yards and 18 touchdowns from scrimmage. Fun fact — he also attempted eight passes over three seasons, completing five. A good combine should lock him into being a Day-2 selection. 

Sleepers to watch

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU

Is a Day-2 pick really a sleeper? Probably not, but Edwards-Helaire's resume is short and sweet and his stock is understandably on the rise after thriving in the featured role in 2019.

In addition to averaging 6.6 yards per carry and scoring 16 times on the ground last season, he impressively contributed 55 receptions. Listed at 5-foot-8, 209 pounds, he's on the smaller side, but he runs with good power and balance. His straight-line speed might be the only thing keeping him out of first-round consideration. 

► Joshua Kelley, UCLA

Kelley didn't exactly wow for the Bruins, posting solid, but far from spectacular numbers the past two seasons as the team's lead back. Known for his tough running style and ability to push piles forward, he would seem to have the makings of a short-yardage back. But at the Senior Bowl, he was consistently bursting through holes into the second level during the practice week, hinting there might be some untapped potential as a late-round selection.


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► Defensive backs

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Twitter: @Justin_Rogers