Previewing the Detroit Lions backfield in January, things seemed pretty clear-cut as to who would be with the team when the regular season rolls around. Since then, however, things have shaken up with several additions in free agency and the draft. The Lions backfield is as crowded as ever and it’s time to take another look at who can be expected to make the cut for the 53-man roster come September.
Reexamining the Detroit Lions Backfield
Since January, the Lions backfield has changed quite a bit. Free agent signee LeGarrette Blount is a big-name fan favorite who’s sure to shake up the lineup. In the draft, the Lions added Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson as well as San Diego State fullback Nick Bawden. Let’s take a look at where each back stands going into training camp.
The further this team remodels their running game, the more bleak things look for Ameer Abdullah. Trading up in the second round for a running back all but closes the door on whatever hopes the Lions had of Abdullah ever reaching his RB1 potential. Abdullah’s style of quick, cut-heavy running that often goes outside the tackles is being replaced by a hard-nosed, up-the-middle style.
Nonetheless, Abdullah’s shifty nature and pass-catching abilities still have circumstantial value and separate him from most of the backfield competition. With one year left on his rookie deal, Abdullah will come relatively cheap. Expect him to hang around in what is anticipated to be a reserve role.
Like Abdullah, Theo Riddick‘s style of running is heavily dependent on dancing around defenders, catching passes, and running outside the tackles. Injuries to the Lions backfield the last two seasons have forced Riddick into the role of a workhorse back too many times, and it has become painfully evident that muscling his way up the middle simply isn’t Riddick’s niche.
With the Lions’ transition to more between-the-tackles running, Riddick’s style is little more than a part-time role. He and Abdullah, however, offer similar services and will not both be needed. Riddick’s cap hit comes in over $4 million each of the next two seasons after signing a three year, $12.75 million extension prior to the 2016 season. The Lions would only face about $2 million in dead cap should they cut ties with him before the season.
With Abdullah offering similar services at a much cheaper price, don’t be surprised if Riddick isn’t around by the end of training camp.
Johnson is an all around, excelling in everything from vision to pass catching. Although Bob Quinn said in a press conference after the draft that Johnson will likely be used to run outside of the tackles, he’s perfectly capable of running up the middle and plays bigger than he actually is.
Little needs to be said here, as the Lions traded up for Johnson in the second round — he’s going to make the team, and with his diverse skill set he’ll make an immediate impact.
In 2016, Blount played for the New England Patriots, who went on to win the Super Bowl. In 2017, he played for the Philadelphia Eagles and they went on to win the Super Bowl. In 2018, he is playing for the Detroit Lions and… well, you see where this is going.
That pattern aside, Blount is a great short-yardage back who is actually pretty fast for his size. His career highlight reel consists of filthy stiff arms and trucking a number of helpless defenders. As such, Blount is the exclamation point on the Lions’ commitment to running between the tackles.
Blount’s probably not the guy you want trying to beat defenders to the edge and he’s anything but a natural pass-catcher, but the Lions have plenty of other options when it comes to doing those things. Blount has a clear-cut role in Detroit and with $2 million on the books for the year, it’s safe to say he’ll be on the roster come September.
Washington has been on the roster bubble since he was drafted in the seventh round of 2016 NFL Draft. His skill set just about reflects where he was drafted, as he’s shown flashes of potential running outside the tackles and gaining yards after the catch, but with little to no vision running up the middle.
Bob Quinn announced after the draft that the team will be using the rookie in Johnson to run outside the tackles, while Abdullah and Riddick will offer much more reliable options when it comes to getting yards after catch out of the backfield.
While Washington’s name always seems to gain a fan following during the preseason, he has yet to consistently produce when given the chance, and it could prove to be his downfall this year. It is worth noting, however, that Washington remains eligible for the practice squad, where he has spent a lot of his time with the team.
Like Washington, Zach Zenner always seems to be a preseason fan favorite. He’s a pretty straightforward runner, with good vision and an ability to run between the tackles but not much else. He has occasionally been the guy to get the Lions first downs on short-yardage situations but has proven incapable of doing so on a regular basis. With that being the case, Zenner seems destined to be the number two man in LeGarrette Blount’s role.
Unlike Washington, Zenner has three accrued NFL seasons under his belt (seasons in which a player is on the roster for at least six games) and thus is not practice squad eligible. If Zenner and Washington find themselves in a close battle for the last spot, as has been the case for the last two seasons, expect the Lions to take advantage of Washington’s last season of practice squad eligibility.
Nick Bawden (fullback)
There isn’t much to be said here: the Lions are rebranding their style of running the football, and drafting a fullback in Bawden emphasized that. The Lions are going to need formidable services at the position this year, and Bawden is the guy to do it.
While the Lions backfield has gotten extremely crowded this season, expect the Lions’ commitment to fixing their running game to shape the way the roster shakes out.