Unless Fournette Falls, Lions Should Pass on First-Round RB

Mar 3, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette runs the 40 yard dash during the 2017 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 3, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette runs the 40 yard dash during the 2017 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

After years of poor offensive line play, the Detroit Lions made two big moves to improve their talent up front in free agency. First, they upgraded right tackle by adding Rick Wagner. Then, a few days later, they came to terms with former Packers Pro-Bowl guard, T.J. Lang. Just like that, Bob Quinn took the Lions from having one of the worst offensive lines, to potentially one of the best in football in 2017.

Detroit’s leading rusher in 2016, Theo Riddick, rushed for just 357 yards. The ineptitude of Detroit’s run game wasn’t entirely the fault of the offensive line, though. The running back position was decimated with injuries to Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, and rookie Dwayne Washington. So just how bad was this group?

Well, quarterback Matthew Stafford was the fourth-leading rusher (with 207 yards), and he isn’t exactly known for his scrambling ability. Take a look at the season stats below and you can see just how ineffective the Lions were when running the ball last season.

After such an unproductive year out of the position, you might be wondering why the title of this story suggests the Lions should stay away from getting a shiny new running back? The answer is because Detroit has an offense predicated on the short passing game. The team’s current trio of Zach Zenner, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, can effectively run Jim Bob Cooter’s quick-passing offensive system.

Riddick is great at catching the ball out of the backfield. Abdullah offers that, plus a little more between-the-tackles ability. Then, Zach Zenner is a true power back. The Lions made the playoffs last season with these three, and they weren’t even healthy together for more than two full games.

Taking that into consideration, I just don’t see any of the likely available halfbacks — outside of L.S.U. star, Leonard Fournette — worth considering in the first round. Now, it’s not that I have anything against Christian McCaffrey or Dalvin Cook, but Fournette is the only one that offers something that the Lions’ current stable does not have. Fournette is a big, physical back with an elite gear of speed that Zach Zenner simply does not possess.

Could Fournette Fall?

Now, I know you’re thinking Fournette will be long gone by the time the Lions pick at 21. However, reports are coming out that Christian McCaffrey could go higher than anticipated, which could knock all of the other halfbacks farther down the draft. Plus, if you look at how few running backs have been drafted in the first-round in recent years, it wouldn’t be crazy to assume one or more of these guys will fall into the twenties.

NFL teams don’t like to use extra resources on players when they don’t have to. In this case, the Lions and many other teams could opt to address a more pressing need with such fantastic depth at the running back position in this year’s draft. A lot of folks out there believe the best back in this draft could be controversial Joe Mixon, a player with whom Lions have met with. Mixon isn’t considered an option at that 21st-pick, though, due to past transgressions off the field.

If you have a little time on your hands, you can run your own mock at Fanspeak.com –a cool site that my friend and SideLion Report contributor, Ryan O’Bleness, introduced me to. The site attempts to let you see where your favorite players are most likely to be selected by providing the most updated draft information out there. With said information, fans get to conduct their own realistic seven-round mock draft.

A trend I noticed was that Fournette continued falling to, or near the Lions’ 21st selection in these simulated mocks. I highly recommend running a couple mock drafts if you are a fan of all of this NFL Draft stuff.

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Now, there is a good chance that Fournette probably won’t be there, which means the Lions would likely have to settle for Dalvin Cook — an extremely talented player, but someone that doesn’t add anything to Detroit’s offense in my opinion. He’s certainly better than any prospect the Lions currently have at the position. But another smallish, speed back doesn’t really make the Lions better since they already have two in Abdullah and Riddick.

Lastly, something nobody seems to be considering is that one the Lions’ biggest problem in recent years has been a lack of push up front, generating very few holes to run through. With a much improved offensive line, that should change next season. Last year’s first-round pick, Taylor Decker, has become a potential franchise left tackle. While center, Travis Swanson, really blossomed in 2016, prior to his season-ending concussion.

The Lions will be better across the board up front. That’s why they shouldn’t take the third of fourth best running back in the first round. They have many other more pressing needs, such as linebacker and defensive line. Adding a Taco Charlton, Haason Reddick, or even Malik McDowell up front could go a long way to improving what has become an average Lions front seven.

So unless Detroit can stand pat or possibly even move a few spots up and land Fournette, it just doesn’t make sense to draft another scat-back type of runner in the first. I would suggest waiting to grab Joe Mixon in the second, or a late-round power back, such as Michigan’s De’Veon Smith.

Whether Detroit upgrades the halfback position in the draft or not, in all likelihood, their running game will be improved in 2017, due to the offensive linemen they have added in free agency.

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