By Brandon Knapp
The running back competition just got a little easier for the Detroit Lions. Joique Bell was cut Tuesday February 16 after having a down year filled with nagging injuries and a significant drop in production.
Looking back at Joique’s Lions career
Joique Bell came to the Lions in 2012 at the third string spot behind Kevin Smith, and Mikel Leshoure and he had his lowest amount of carries with just 82 for 414 yards for three touchdowns. 2013 was a big step forward for Bell. Mikel Leshoure barely played for the team as Reggie Bush was signed and was the starter. With Leshoure down in playing time, Bell stepped up and showed Detroit what he could do. His production doubled, moving up to 166 carries for 650 yards for eight touchdowns. It looked like a good one-two punch with Bush and Bell. Detroit saw the possibilities and signed Bell to a two year, $7 million contract extension to keep him in Detroit until 2016. 2014 was Bell’s best year as he only missed one game, but the carries kept coming with 223 for 860 yards for seven touchdowns.
2015 was a different story for Bell though. He missed three games due to injuries and they held his production back all season. In the 2014 offseason, Bell had three surgeries, one on his knee, another on his Achilles tendon and a final one on his ankle. The injuries for Bell in the 2015 season seemed to take a toll on him as his ankle and Achilles tendon issues seemed to resurface. His production reduced significantly – partially due to poor offensive line play, and situations where Detroit needed to pass more than run – but he went down to 90 carries for 311 yards, the lowest in his career, for only four touchdowns.
With Joique Bell out of Detroit, they have freed up $2.5 million in cap space. The running backs still on the roster are Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, and George Winn. Detroit will not go out and find a free agent back to replace Bell, nor will they make a trade with a team for one or draft a young big back to do the same – the man that they are looking for is already on the roster. Zach Zenner is that man.
While his season was cut short due to injury, Zenner played in only six games and had 17 carries for 60 yards. He was the fourth string back so these numbers don’t really represent what he can do. The preseason was where Zenner made heads turn as he ended with 35 carries for 183 yards and two touchdowns. He can be the power back Detroit needs and with a cheaper contract and with less injury issues than Bell. Zenner has the quick feet to make a guy or two miss, along with trucking guys over and when he gets free, he can put himself in that second gear and have that speed to get away from defenders.
With Theo Riddick coming up huge in the 2015 season, it’s reasonable to expect his production will go up as well, but more on the receiving side. He can run on the ground if needed, but that job will be up to Abdullah and Zenner. If Abdullah keeps having fumbling issues, don’t be shocked if Zenner could take some of his carries. George Winn is on the roster too, but he has always been a preseason back with very little playing time in the regular season. He could make the roster for the 2016 season as a fourth string back, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up on the practice squad once again.
Overall, many people saw this move coming with Bell having injury issues, taking up too much cap space relative to his production, and better backs behind him on the depth chart. On balance it was the right move by Detroit. Bell did have a good career in Detroit overall, coming from Wayne State and playing professionally for his home state is impressive in itself, and possibly a dream come true. He gave the Lions fans something to remember with his signature touchdown celebration as well. Thank you Joique.