The Lions are in a predicament. Last year they got an absolute steal, talent-wise, when they traded up into the bottom of the first round to select Cal running back Jahvid Best. The rookie rusher showed flashes of brilliance in 2010, especially early in the season, but a nagging turf toe injury slowed the speedster dramatically and lent credence to the durability concerns surrounding Best at the draft. Detroit’s other young running back, Kevin Smith, will be allowed to walk into free agency after playing just six games and not looking 100% in 2010 after an ugly non-contact knee injury ended his 2009 season.
In recent years, NFL teams have swung dramatically in the direction of employing two-player tandems at running back. This is in large part due to the extremely short average career — let alone peak — of a running back in today’s game, making this strategic shift as much an effort to preserve the talent on the team as to find ways to maximize that talent.
Detroit has a heckuva talent in Jahvid Best. Unfortunately, Best hasn’t shown an ability to stay healthy, and with the aging (but still serviceable) Maurice Morris as the team’s only insurance policy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Martin Mayhew draft a running back this year to split time with Best. In fact, I’d be sorely disappointed if Mayhew didn’t take that route.
The Lions certainly won’t be drafting a skill position player in the first round — the needs on both lines and in the secondary are far more pressing — but fortunately for the Lions this draft is deep in the offensive backfield. Zac has already profiled Illinois’s Mikel Leshoure, a bruising back who would perfectly complement Best but will likely be off the board when the Lions pick in the second round, and Demarco Murray, a probable second-day pick whose skill set overlaps Best’s a little too much for my liking. While those two should be among the first four running backs off the board, there’s some potential middle- and late-round gems that I expect Mayhew will strongly consider.
UConn’s Jordan Todman is one such player who intrigues me. After breaking the 1,000-yard mark despite splitting carries as a sophomore, Todman amassed 1,695 yards and his second straight 14-touchdown season on the ground as a junior before declaring for the draft. Todman was barely involved in the Huskies’ passing game, gaining just 283 career yards through the air, but the Lions wouldn’t need him in that role regardless — Best has the potential to be one of the best pass-catching backs in the league. At 5-9, 203 pounds, Todman certainly has the size to be an NFL running back, and his speed and vision are both very strong. I think Todman has starting potential, and he should be available in the third round — ESPN has him as their No. 8 running back ($).
While grabbing Todman would be nice, this team has major holes to fill in the first few picks that could (and probably should) take precedence, and there’s a back projected in the later rounds that I think has far greater potential. Nebraska’s Roy Helu is ESPN’s No. 15 running back and will likely fall to the mid-to-late rounds, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. I mean, just look at the guy’s highlights.
At 5-11, 219 pounds, Helu resembles a bowling ball coming out of the backfield, only if that bowling ball was shot through a cannon. Despite spending most of his career at Nebraska splitting carries (with both their other tailbacks and, last year, quarterback Taylor Martinez), Helu rushed for over 1,000 yards and ten touchdowns in each of his last two seasons, averaging 5.86 yards per carry over that span. His straight-ahead approach to running the football is the perfect complement to Best’s hit-the-corner-and-go style, and the Lions could easily find a way to get both players time in the backfield, potentially at the same time. That combination could be dynamite for years to come, or Helu could become the team’s feature back down the road if Best can’t overcome his propensity for injuries (and please don’t take this as an expectation that Best will wash out — I’m only looking at this from the standpoint that running backs get injured often and on average have short careers and so far Best hasn’t broken that mold).
There are several other productive collegiate runners in the draft who could prove to be late-round steals, including Pitt’s Dion Lewis, Cal’s Shane Vereen, Penn State’s Evan Royster, West Virginia’s Noel Devine, and Wisconsin’s Jon Clay. Not all may fit the mold for what the Lions are looking for, but with so many quality backs in the draft field, some team is going to end up with a starting-caliber tailback in the later rounds.
We’ll see what Mayhew has up his sleeve come draft day, but here’s at least one fan hoping he takes a running back, and that he waits until the value is maximized to do so.