Detroit Lions: Parsing the running back position, determining roles
The Detroit Lions will feature a new rushing attack in 2018. What does the preseason tell us about the position and their roles within the offense?
The Detroit Lions have been a historically bad rushing team for several years now. In fact, in the past three seasons, the Lions’ rushing attack has ranked 32nd (last), 30th, and 32nd (last) respectively.
To address the issue, the Lions’ front office signed veteran running back LeGarrette Blount via free agency this offseason. They also drafted Arkansas center Frank Ragnow in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft and traded up to select Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson in the second.
Ragnow has shined this preseason, playing at left guard between former first-rounder Taylor Decker at left tackle and center Graham Glasgow. The versatile rookie actually started at right guard against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in replacement of All-Pro T.J. Lang who was out due to a nagging lower-leg injury.
In fact, Ragnow held his own against the Buc’s six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in the Lions’ third preseason contest. The rookie appears to already be living up to his lofty draft status as the 20th overall pick.
Parsing the running back position, it’s clear that Blount should be the Lions’ day one starter once the regular season kicks off on September 10th against the New York Jets. The 31-year old started in two of the Lions’ preseason matchups including the dress rehearsal game against the Bucs Friday night. Blount finished the night posting 45 yards on 11 carries.
Ameer Abdullah‘s role is more of a mystery. After a solid performance in the first preseason game against the Oakland Raiders, Abdullah got the starting nod versus the New York Giants in the following exhibition. But his two fumble performance in that matchup undoubtedly killed most of the momentum he had going.
It was actually rookie running back Kerryon Johnson who was the first out to spell Blount against the Buccaneers on Friday night, although he was motioned out as a receiver on his first play and didn’t get a carry until Detroit’s third offensive series.
Abdullah did open the game in Tampa as the team’s primary kick returner. He then came in on offense during the Lions’ second series and finished the game with seven carries for 30 rushing yards. Johnson’s four rushing attempts for 25 yards yielded an impressive 6.3 yards per carry.
As a dynamic receiver out of the backfield, running back Theo Riddick should be a lock to make the final roster as well. Riddick proved his worth against the Giants in the Lions’ second preseason game recording an impressive 42-yard reception on Detroit’s second offensive series.
The exact rotation behind Blount on the depth chart is still unclear and will likely change from week to week, with new head coach Matt Patricia going with the back that makes the most sense at the time. If Patricia wants a speedster, he’ll turn to Abdullah. If he needs a big reception, it’s Riddick. And if he simply wants an offensive spark, it’s the rookie Johnson.
That appears to leave veteran running backs Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington on the outside looking in. Both are likely destined to be cut on September 1st unless an injury occurs or a trade is made.