Allen Park — Over the next several days, leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each unit. Today: Running backs.
► Current roster: Kerryon Johnson, Bo Scarbrough, Ty Johnson, Wes Hills, Tra Carson
► Short-term need: Four out of 10
► Long-term need: Seven out of 10
► Top prospects: D'Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, Clyde Edwards-Helaire
► Mid-round options: AJ Dillon, Zack Moss, Antonio Gibson
► Late-round fits: Joshua Kelley, James Robinson
► Analysis: Do the Lions really need a running back? In the face of the franchise's other roster issues, you can make a strong case the position is pretty far down the list. That said, an opportunity to upgrade shouldn't be ignored.
The chicken-or-egg argument that persists is whether the Lions' struggles on the ground are more symptomatic of subpar blocking than the backfield talent. Kerryon Johnson, the lead horse in the stable, averaged 1.6 yards before contact last season. Only five backs across the NFL had it worse.
Scarbrough, the north-south option who emerged after Johnson's injury, mustered 2.1 yards before contact. That's better, in part because of his running style, but still below league average.
Speaking of Johnson's injury, it's the second time in two years he fell well short of playing a full season. Plus, Scarbrough also has a history of durability issues. Those lingering concerns, more than anything, are the strongest argument for bolstering the backfield via the draft.
If the Lions are looking for an obvious, long-term solution, they might have the option of snagging either Taylor or Dobbins at the top of the second round. It's admittedly a steep cost for a position that's been devalued across the league the past several years, but it's also the market rate for top-tier productivity. In 2019, 12 of the league's top-15 rushers were drafted in the first two rounds of their respective drafts.
There's an understandable skepticism surrounding Wisconsin runners, after a string of disappointing results in the NFL, but Taylor's physical gifts are on another level. Beyond the huge rushing totals he posted at the school — like several Badgers before him — he has an entirely different gear. Remember, Melvin Gordon was a first-round pick in 2015 and Taylor ran a significantly faster 40, despite weighing 11 more pounds.
But no one could fault Detroit for passing up a running back early in the draft to address a more-pressing need. If that's the case, there are some middle-round options who could still improve the team's current situation with immediate production.
Because of less-than-ideal measurables and some injury concerns of his own, Moss figures to provide a team with good value in the middle rounds. The violent Utah runner, who spoke at the combine about liking to force defenders into making a business decision every time they attempt to tackle him, averaged 5.7 yards per carry during his college career and found the end zone a combined 41 times in four seasons.
Dillon has been a popular name since the combine. Tipping the scales at 247 pounds, you'll find few bigger prospects at the position. But it's the athleticism for his size that's the real selling point. He showcased explosive leaping ability while running his 40 in 4.53 seconds.
That's like Jerome Bettis' body with Alvin Kamara's straight-line speed. Good luck to any safety who has to fill those run lanes.
Another option for Detroit, after letting J.D. McKissic depart in free agency, would be finding a complementary pass-catching piece to the Johnson-Scarbrough tandem. Gibson carries some high-ceiling intrigue, splitting his time at Memphis between the slot and the backfield.
At 228 pounds, with sub-4.4 speed, Gibson knocks the measurables out of the park. As a low-use weapon in college, he averaged 11.2 yards per carry and 19.0 yards per receptions, scoring a touchdown on 14 of his 77 touches. With the right offensive mind, he could be a true matchup threat.