Detroit Lions, NFC North positional previews: Running Backs

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 23: Dalvin Cook #33 of the Minnesota Vikings is tackled by Quandre Diggs #28 of the Detroit Lions in the third quarter at Ford Field on December 23, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 23: Dalvin Cook #33 of the Minnesota Vikings is tackled by Quandre Diggs #28 of the Detroit Lions in the third quarter at Ford Field on December 23, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Leading up to training camps, SideLion Report previews position groups for the Detroit Lions, and the rest of the NFC North. Today, we look at running backs.

Good NFL teams run the ball proficiently, something that the Detroit Lions have struggled to do for decades. Consider that seven of the top ten teams with the most rushing yards in 2018 qualified for the postseason, while only one of the bottom ten did.

The Lions and their NFC North counterparts all have big plans for their running games in 2019, with much of their offensive success likely tied to that unit’s performance. Here are the outlooks for each squad’s running back corps, starting with the Lions:

Detroit Lions

Key returning players: Kerryon Johnson, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner

New additions: C.J. Anderson, Ty Johnson (Rookie)

Key Losses: LeGarrette Blount

The Detroit Lions will run the football this season. A lot. At least that’s the general sense around the team, based on new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s track record in his previous stops with the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings. Whether the Lions are able to do so efficiently will go a long way to determining how much success they have in 2019.

For what seems like forever, the Lions have struggled to run the ball effectively and consistently. This decade has produced just one 1,000 yard rusher for the team (Reggie Bush in 2013). Second-year running back Kerryon Johnson could change that narrative, and he leads one of the deepest offensive backfields in Detroit in years.

Keeping Johnson healthy will be paramount in 2019. He likely would have surpassed 1,000 yards on the ground as a rookie had he not missed the final six games with a knee injury; he averaged an impressive 5.4 yards per carry. Johnson is on track to be ready for training camp, and he should have a big impact in year two. The Lions though, have taken steps to ensure that his workload remains reasonable with a diverse set of backup tailbacks.

Last year’s experiment with power back LeGarrette Blount flopped, to the tune of just 2.7 yards per rushing attempt. The Lions knew they needed a more productive short yardage bruiser, so they turned to C.J. Anderson late in free agency in hopes that he can repeat his excellent end to last year. After being signed late in the year by the Los Angeles Rams, Anderson contributed 63 yards per game on the ground in the playoffs, helping the Rams reach the Super Bowl and frequently spelling hobbled Pro Bowl back Todd Gurley.

Behind these two should be one of the most intriguing position battles in Lions training camp. Theo Riddick returns for year seven in Detroit, but his roster spot is hardly guaranteed. Long considered one of the best pass-catching backs in the NFL, Riddick did record 61 receptions in 2018, the second highest number of his career.

But he simply can’t be counted on to pick up yardage on the ground consistently. His 40 rushing attempts were his lowest since 2014, and he may not be a great fit in Bevell’s offense, particularly if Johnson gets the majority of the snaps on longer third downs. Without much of a role on special teams, Riddick will face competition from some younger players.

Zach Zenner, everyone’s favorite aspiring medical doctor, has been a fixture on special teams since his debut in 2015, and seems to always produce on offense when called upon. Rookie Ty Johnson has an uphill climb ahead of him, but he has tremendous speed and could make noise as a kick returner. Strong camps from these two could put Riddick on notice.

The Lions return Nick Bawden at fullback after he missed his rookie season with a knee injury. He needs to show that he is fully healthy, or he could be deemed redundant in favor of the committee approach that the Lions used at the position last year.

The Lions jumped up to 23rd in total rushing yards in 2018 after finishing dead last the year prior. Another similar improvement this season would be a major plus for the Lions’ offense, but will require a full season’s work from Johnson, and significant contributions from Anderson and whichever backs fill out the rest of the depth chart.