The Lions draft strategy took a hit this fall with a single pop of an Achilles tendon. Mikel Leshoure, who had looked so good in training camp, went down in a heap, along with the Lions plan for their running back rotation. The Lions originally wanted Leshoure for two reasons: as an alternate to injury-prone Jahvid Best, and as a powerful between-the-tackles running back able to help the Lions with their four minute offense – that critical time in the game where the Lions are ahead and need to run out the clock.
With the Leshoure injury, Martin Mayhew and company started “scanning the savanna” looking for another running back to replace Leshoure, and soon signed both Mike Bell and Jerome Harrison. While both have played in the preseason, neither one has shown the ability in the preason to fulfill the role the Lions envisioned for Mikel Leshoure. While the Lions are famous for picking up last minute waiver wire additions, it is unlikely that they will get an impact running back in this way. The remaining free agents (Tiki Barber and others) seem past their prime, if they ever had a prime.
One name that has been bandied about in trade rumors is that of San Francisco’s Frank Gore. While not a free agent, Gore is entering the final year of his current contract, and is unhappy that the Niner’s haven’t extended him (at a price that he feels is reasonable). If an agreement on a contract extension can’t be reached, he will be an unrestricted free agent in 2012, unless the team decides to franchise him. Obtaining him would probably cost the Lions a player (or two) off the current roster and a mid to high round draft pick.
This is where things get interesting for the Lions. The pressure to win is so great this year that the fans will push for an immediate solution to the perceived hole at running back. Even Martin Mayhew – the king of “sticking to the plan” – is bound to hear the chatter. He is also under pressure to perform. But it is his job to ignore the fans and maintain the long term focus.
Running backs notoriously have short shelf lives (averaging around 4 years in the league). Running backs are highly dependent on their offensive line for their production – and the line isn’t changing for the Lions (no matter how much the fans clamor at Peterman and Raiola). And running backs, given the passing attacks prevalent in the league, have seen their production and importance drop over the past years. Sure, the occasional player, in the right system, can shine (Chris Johnson comes to mind.) But gone are the days of having a single running back carry the load. Gone are the days where the running back outperforms the quarterback. And while Gore would be a great fit – he is a former pro bowl player on a team that had only an average quarterback – he is 28 and already considered an “older” running back. Injuries have also started to mount for him in the past few years.
The Lions have spent two early draft picks in the past two years – a low first round pick for Best and a low second round pick for Leshoure. Both times the Lions traded up to obtain these players. The Lions saw a need and an opportunity to fulfill that need. But draft picks are the ultimate prize for teams nowadays – even more so given the rookie salary cap. Good teams stockpile draft picks. The Lions, in the next two years, will have likely have holes at right guard, center, left tackle – and that is just the offensive line. The linebacker corps is not signed long term (other the Levy), and KVB isn’t getting any younger. And the Lions have already lost a late round pick in next year’s draft due to the tampering charges. To spend another pick to trade for a running back is investing too many picks on a non-premium position.
The Lions need to stay the course, and run (so to speak) with the players they have. They need to hope that Best can stay healthy and Morris can be as steady as last year and that one of the new free agents can step up. But most importantly the Lions need to remember their long term plan, and stick to it.