Could the Detroit Lions field NFC North’s best rushing attack in 2020?

Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images) /

After years of ineptitude, can the Detroit Lions’ running game rise to the top of the NFC North in 2020?

It never gets old, right? Year after year for the better part of this millennium, someone, somewhere predicts that this will the season when the Detroit Lions’ rushing offense becomes a serious threat. Well, why should this year be any different?

After an offseason with much focus placed on constructing a powerful running game to balance their aerial attack, the Lions will look to finish in the top half of the NFL in rushing yardage for the first time since 1998. Will it be enough to overtake the other dangerous ground games in their division?

Aside from the addition of rookie running back D’Andre Swift, widely recognized as the best all-around tailback in this year’s draft class, the Lions also drafted a pair of bruising guards and signed a hulking right tackle, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, with a reputation as a proficient run-blocker.

Those two rookie guards, Jonah Jackson of Ohio State and Logan Stenberg of Kentucky were some of the nastiest interior offensive linemen in this year’s draft class. Chances are one of them becomes a starter early, and teaming them with rising center Frank Ragnow, the Lions could finally be onto something as they try to lift their ground game out of the mud.

It also doesn’t hurt to have a deep stable of running backs, something that Lions general manager Bob Quinn has coveted since he took the job in 2016. The Lions seem to have gathered a solid collection of backs, with Swift joining the talented yet oft-injured Kerryon Johnson and the bruising Bo Scarbrough, who showed some promise in an extended audition late last year.

How does the Detroit Lions running game compare to the rest of the NFC North?

Elsewhere in the division, rushing attacks could be in for some changes. Reigning division champs, the Green Bay Packers, were a middling team in terms of both total rushing yardage and yards per carry in 2019. The Packers also watched as the San Francisco 49ers trampled them to the tune of nearly 400 rushing yards in two losses last year, including the NFC Championship game.

Their draft strategy this past April may have been influenced by those defeats, as they look to achieve a more balanced offense akin to the 49ers. Selecting tank-like tailback A.J. Dillon and tight end/H-back Josiah Deguara in the second and third rounds, respectively, may have signaled that they want to help support lead back Aaron Jones with a more rugged support framework.

How smooth will that transition be in a pivotal year for starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers? With his presumptive replacement now on the roster in rookie Jordan Love, could Rodgers ignore run-heavy game plans to prove that he can still sling it with the best of them?

With the Minnesota Vikings, owners of the sixth-most rushing yards in the NFL last season, one would think that they would be on track to remain one of the league’s best running teams in 2020 with a revamped offensive line. It could get complicated though.

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Reports surfaced last week of star running back Dalvin Cook’s desire for a new contract, or a holdout could ensue. Despite the risks involved for any running back threatening missed time for more pay and the fact that the Vikings have a capable stand-in in Alexander Mattison, not having Cook in the lineup would make Minnesota less far imposing on the ground.

Lastly, the Chicago Bears experienced a serious regression last year after winning the NFC North in 2019. Totaling the sixth-fewest rushing yards in the NFL with a shaky quarterback situation will have that effect. They will be relying on tailback David Montgomery to take big steps in year two after an uneven rookie campaign. He’ll need to be up to the challenge too, as the Bears’ depth at the position is worrisome.

Do these developments mean that the Lions could lead the way in the division in the rushing department in 2020? They’ve been unable to do so for what seems like an eternity, but good health for Johnson, quick acclimatization for Swift, and positive gains from their perpetual offensive line tinkering could help them break through and become a legitimate threat on the ground this year.

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They’ll likely need to as well to become a playoff contender. Seven of the top ten teams with the most rushing yards were postseason participants in 2019, while only one team in the bottom ten was.

How do you think the Lions’ running game will compare to their division rivals’ in 2020? Let us know in the comments section below.