Detroit Lions Positional Analysis – The Running Back Committee

We’ve reached the end!! Hurray, its football time! By football time I mean four weeks of watching the real players for a couple of snaps and then a bunch of special teams players and jersey filling imposters the rest of the game, but still football – yay! By the time this is published you’ll have watched a whole Lions game, and who can complain about that? Instead of my usual current events opening, I would like to give you an overview of what I think of the unit as a whole. I figure I’ve dragged you all this way across ten thousand words of light analysis and general bull crap, might as well round it all out for you.

Long story short I am really happy about this unit as a whole and the moves that have been made over this off-season. Do a lot of things need to go right for my predictions to come true? Of course. Stafford needs to prove his consistent play and development from last season wasn’t a fluke, the receiving corps all need to be firing and prove they’re all dynamic weapons worth worrying about, the o-line needs to step up in a better fitting scheme and with added talent, and the running backs need to capitalize on their opportunities more often and grind out the tough yards they couldn’t last year. I believe though that the likelihood of most of these things happening though is higher then the likelihood of them not happening. It is my synopsis that the Lions organization has set their offense up for success in the best way possible. Now it is the players’ jobs to step up and prove what they are capable of on the field. I’m kind of banking on them proving me right here or looking back on my first major series is going to really suck…. but no pressure guys. Now lets finish this thing off with the last unit remaining:

The Running Back Corps

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Ameer Abdullah

We drafted the hopeful future of our running back position last year and it got off to a mixed start in year one. Abdullah broke off a phenomenal long touchdown run against San Diego to start the year that made you think he was going to have a massive season. From that point on though he came back to earth, suffering from typical rookie mistakes while mixing in a few flashes of brilliance along the way. He was plagued by ball security issues and didn’t deal with breaking through the line when the o-line failed to open holes for him. To be fair he’s a speed back and needs the line to open holes for him. They weren’t exactly great at that last season. With improved blocking and another year of NFL seasoning and coaching on the fumbling issue, we should see more of the good stuff and less of the bad. While we do not need to lean on our run game in our offense, we do need it to be respected, ideally capitalizing on smaller defensive packages and non-stacked boxes. Ameer Abdullah can certainly do that and year two is the time to end the rookie mistakes. With Joique Bell gone look for Abdullah to firmly take over the lead back role in this running back committee.

2016 projection: 750 yards rushing, 250 yards receiving, 6 total TD’s

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Theo Riddick

Theo Riddick somewhat came out of nowhere last year to become an extremely productive player last season. To give you a sense of just how good he was last year he finished 19th in receiving yardage and he’s a running back that almost exclusively caught passes from inside 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. He was incredibly dynamic, in my opinion without question the most exciting player on the Lions’ offense. At the same time though he got so much work because there was a fatal flaw with the offense and he needed to be used so much, not simply because he was good. The primary problem that has plagued Riddick to date is that he’s almost a slot receiver that you’re trying to make into a running back. He has been a phenomenal receiver at times but a terrible runner. What a lot of people haven’t noticed though is that he’s slowly but surely improved his run game. Every season he’s increased his yards per attempt and he’s improved noticeably as a runner since getting to Detroit. While improving the offense as a whole should lead to a limiting of his role in the passing game, it could very well make him a more dangerous all-round player. As Case has noted in the podcast, when Riddick was out on the field in the past everyone and their grandma knew the Lions weren’t going to run the ball. With an improved o-line and Riddick’s improved rushing skills though he would no longer be so one dimensional, making defenses take the run into account when he is on the field. He doesn’t have to be amazing at it, he just needs to be competent which I think is achievable. While as a whole I see his role shrinking slightly, I don’t see it completely falling off the map. He should still be a valuable asset making good football players look like beer leaguers next season.

2016 projection: 250 yards rushing, 350 yards receiving, 2 TD’s

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Stevan Ridley

Brought in to replace Joique Bell as the primary power back, Steven Ridley will be the veteran presence among the running back corps next season. After some very successful years in New England, Ridley hasn’t really been able to tap in to that great play of the past, facing injuries and some sort of loss of mojo that made him look like half the guy he used to be. Based on what has been seen in camp though, a healthy Ridley is a good Ridley and he seems to have started to turn the corner towards more of what he was doing in his prime. If he does reach his known potential, he offers an exciting, versatile combination of inside rushing ability and receiving ability out of the backfield that should really go a long way to making up for Joique’s loss. In fact it would fill a major hole that really hurt the Lions last season, as failing to pick up tough yards and put games away killed them in several key moments. This is by no means a given though, and last year’s UDFA darling Zach Zenner will be breathing down his neck trying to take on that role as they share a very similar skill set. Look for Ridley though to return to form and take on a significant role in Detroit’s offense this season.

2016 projection: 500 yards rushing, 150 yards receiving, 6 rushing TD’s

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Zach Zenner

Number one Lions friend of (because he came on our podcast and was super nice) Zach Zenner without question has the highest fans to playing minutes ratio of any Lion bar none. I dare someone to find a way to not get behind this guy. Coming out of little South Dakota State University few believed he could be a good college player after dominating high school, so he went out and straight up dominated FCS football. After all his hard work few thought he could be a good NFL player, so he of course came to Detroit and made himself absolutely impossible to cut after putting together an excellent preseason, winning over the Lions’ fan base in the process. Then he suffered multiple cracked ribs and a partially collapsed lung last year after finally making it to the NFL, making him unable to capitalize on the opportunity he opened up in the preseason. I’m not going to doubt Zach Zenner and his ability to make a comeback. While I have Ridley winning the battle for #3 running back/power back, I have the battle being very close and fully expect Zenner to take right over if Ridley stumbles in the preseason. The way I see it this is a great opportunity for Zenner to get some more seasoning out of the limelight if Ridley produces next year. Then once Ridley’s deal is up next off season, Zenner can come in and fully take over the power back role, dawning the age of the AA to ZZ rushing attack! By the way if anyone tries to steal that nickname from me you heard it here first folks.

2016 projection: 100 yards rushing, special teams play

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George Winn

I don’t know why but I always feel bad for George Winn. To me he is the literal definition of a fringe player, forever doomed to be slightly too interesting to want to leave on your practice squad but just not good enough to justify keeping on your active roster. He’s a very solid guy who can produce exactly what you need in a pinch as an inside runner; if you need 3 yards he can get you 3 yards. The problem is though he just has nothing left to develop. If he was just that little bit better he could be in a great fight for a roster spot, but unfortunately he’s not and I fear he is doomed to be just barely on the outside looking in wherever he goes. Expect to see him in the future somewhere but as that guy who travels around to desperate teams that just lost an interior running back to injury mid season.

2016 prediction: Cut

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Dwayne Washington

To be honest when I heard we took a running back in the 7th round of the draft this year it was a bit of a head scratcher. I get the intangibles are there, it’s rare to find a 6’2″, 226 lb running back that runs a 4.44s forty. I get that he’s got great hands as a receiver convert like Theo Riddick. I get that he was nice value at the end of the 7th but did we not have other needs, namely tight end? The pick makes sense though when you think about what it represents. Essentially if you read into this selection the Lions could have been just loving the value in that situation and absolutely had to jump on him, or they could have been preparing for Theo Riddick’s departure. Riddick put up some huge stats last year, and with his contract ending next off-season, this combined with another solid year will probably lead to his asking for more money then Detroit can afford to give him. Washington gives us an option at running back that we can sit down and work with for a year and then hopefully plug into that role in 2017. He’s definitely a raw player, but he has all the traits that could make him something special.

2016 prediction: Practice Squad

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Michael Burton

The last player of the series, big Michael Burton is a human wrecking ball and arguably the single most underrated player on this team. You could make a sound argument that Michael Burton was a top 3 fullback last season, and he was only in his rookie year in the NFL. I would not be shocked in the slightest if he became the best in the league in 2016. While fullback, especially a blocking fullback, is not the most valuable position on the field, its certainly important, especially when you have a bellow average offensive line. Burton will continue to help make up for any flaws the line may produce and open up big holes for our runners. He is also a key special teams contributor, which is a big emphasis of the new front office staff.

2016 prediction: Knocks the crap out of everyone

Running Back Final Depth chart: (5) Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Stevan Ridley, Zach Zenner, Michael Burton (PS) Dwayne Washington

Well folks that’s all for this series. On behalf of Brandon and myself thanks for following us along, we really appreciate the support.

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About the Author

Chris is the founder of everything you see here. A former radio presenter and Detroit native, he now resides in sunny California – and like so many of us, he found himself marooned on an island devoid of other Lions fans. After spending a few years in the Detroit Lions Reddit community he decided to start the Detroit Lions Podcast. Its become the #1 Detroit Lions podcast, and regularly ranks with the top podcasts in Detroit. With a mixture of pre-recorded shows, live & recorded phone-ins, and live post-game broadcasts - this is his slice of Honolulu Blue heaven.