Fixing the Detroit Lions Running Back Problem

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CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 26: Adam Jones #24 of the Cincinnati Bengals chases down Isaiah Crowell #34 of the Cleveland Browns during their game at Paul Brown Stadium on November 26, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Bengals defeated the Browns 30-16. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
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The Detroit Lions’ running game has been a mess for years. Just about everyone has seen the blame, from former head coach Jim Caldwell to former offensive line coach Ron Prince to running back Ameer Abdullah and everyone in between. However, since the team hasn’t had a 100-yard rushing game from a back since Reggie Bush on Thanksgiving day of 2013, it doesn’t matter who the blame is on; it needs to get fixed.

General manager Bob Quinn has made a commitment to fix the running game in his two seasons with the team, drafting left tackle Taylor Decker, left guard Joe Dahl, and center Graham Glasgow, in addition to signing right tackle Rick Wagner in free agency last off-season. Nonetheless, Quinn put the blame on himself in a February press conference, promising he would lead the charge to fix the running game.

Fortunately for Quinn and the Lions, there will be numerous veteran running backs hitting the free agency market and the draft has one of the deepest running back classes in years. Quinn indicated that there would be change in the backfield; let’s see who his options are.

Fixing the Detroit Lions Running Back Problem

Isaiah Crowell

The first of four veteran free agents on this list, Isaiah Crowell is an option many may overlook. Coming from the Cleveland Browns’ putrid offense may make him a diamond in the rough, but one worth looking at nonetheless.

In four years with the Browns, Crowell has averaged over four yards per carry all but one year, even after seeing his carries increase as he became the Browns’ feature back. Crowell is very sure-handed too, fumbling only three times in the last three years despite carrying the ball almost 600 times over that span.

Crowell’s resume doesn’t stop there, however. He checks the box for arguably the most important skill for a Lions running back: pass catching. Crowell has caught more than 68 passes for over 500 yards the last two seasons in an offense that posted some of the lowest passing numbers in the league.

There’s a lot to like about Crowell, and his under-the-radar status may make him a cost-effective option for Detroit.

Dion Lewis

This is not really to make the argument for Dion Lewis to come to Detroit, but rather the reasoning as to why he should not. It seems his Patriots ties have linked him to Bob Quinn and the Lions more often than necessary.

With 896 rushing yards and 214 receiving yards, Lewis had the best season of his career in 2017, but that’s not saying much. It took him three years to cement himself in a relatively unskilled backfield, and only managed to do so after bruiser LeGarrette Blount left in free agency last off-season.

Dion Lewis has also missed significant time with injuries, including a torn ACL in 2015, playing only a combined 23 games over the three seasons prior to his career year.

While Lewis had a great year, his history of missing time and failing to cement himself in competitive backfields may not make him the best option, even if he has Patriots ties.

Jonathan Stewart

The long-time Carolina Panther was released from the team last week in search of younger options. Jonathan Stewart will be going into his 11th season in the league and has started to show signs of slowing down, with his carries and yardage decreasing over the last three seasons. On top of that, Stewart has been relatively fumble prone with three fumbles each of the last three seasons. Nonetheless, he could still be effective in a situational role if the Lions can get him for cheap.

Adam Schefter reported that Stewart was visiting the Lions this Monday.

DeMarco Murray

DeMarco Murray‘s story seems almost identical to Stewart’s. The Tennessee Titans released him last week, opting to go with the younger Derrick Henry as their feature back. Murray has not been his former self recently, and after suffering an MCL tear late in this season, he could really show signs of slowing down next season.

Fans have shown lots of enthusiasm on social media, but this could be a case of them getting overly excited by a name and then predictably disappointed, much like the fan base did when the team signed running back Reggie Bush in 2011.

Adam Schefter has reported that Murray will also be visiting the Lions on Monday.

Derrius Guice

Many mock drafts have been clamoring for the Lions to select a running back in the first round, and if the Lions choose to go that route, the LSU man will undoubtedly be their favorite option.

Guice has a strong build for his size at 5’11” and 212 pounds and it shows when he breaks tackles and bowls people over. He rushed for over 1,200 yards this season, averaging just over five yards per carry. What’s remarkable is that those numbers are down from a year ago, when he posted almost 1,400 yards at well over seven yards per carry despite sharing the backfield with Leonard Fournette.

The only possible knock on Guice is his lack of receiving experience, with only 32 receptions in his three years at LSU. If the Lions feel that won’t be an issue, however, Guice could very well see his name called at 20 come draft day.

Ronald Jones

Jones was the premiere back at USC for much of his career, passing USC legends Reggie Bush and O.J. Simpson, among others, to reach fifth all-time on the list of USC’s leading rushers.

Jones has a solid burst and runs quite vertically compared to other running backs. Scouts have begun to see more and more of it on film leading up to the draft, and Jones has seen his draft value skyrocket as a result. Like Guice, Jones is not very experienced as a pass catcher but checks all the other boxes.

Many were looking to see how he performed at the combine, but Jones injured his hamstring in the 40-yard dash and was forced to sit out. If he performs well at his pro day, don’t be shocked if the Lions call his name in the first round.

Rashaad Penny

Twitter has been clamoring for scouts to pay more attention to Rashaad Penny recently. The man who led the NCAA in yards from scrimmage last season did so for good reason, showing incredible balance and burst on tape.

Penny may not be as much of a fit for the Lions as many think, with a lack of pass catching experience and one of the highest fumble rates of this draft class really not helping his fit in Detroit. On top of that, he has a tendency to try and force a big play, with one of the highest negative rush rates of the draft class with 8.8 percent of his rushes going for negative yards.

Nonetheless, if Detroit finds themselves having not selected a running back by Day 2 of the draft and Penny is available, they may make it happen.

Sony Michel

Michel co-led the Georgia backfield this season alongside fellow draft prospect Nick Chubb, both of whom have been mocked to the Lions on many occasions.

Michel is a very complete back with good acceleration and solid hands, and many have pegged him to be the next Alvin Kamara. He shows all the similarities on tape, only in a limited role.

Michel’s biggest knock is his fumble rate, with a fumble approximately once every 60 carries. That may not sit well with the Lions fan base after the angst that Ameer Abdullah’s fumbling issues have brought them in recent years.

As a whole, Michel is a do-it-all running back, but it’s yet to be seen if he’ll shine in a feature role.

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