A Look At Why Recent Moves at Running Back Are A Cause For Optimism Approaching The 2018 Season
Thursday afternoon, the Detroit Lions released running back Tion Green, a depth running back who gained playing time toward the end of last year. When the news was announced, I understood why the decision was made but also felt the sadness that comes with the release of a player that I was actually quite fond of. This decision was made because of what was becoming a quite crowded 2018 Detroit Lions backfield, a situation the team hasn’t been in for many years.
At this time last year the Detroit Lions backfield consisted of pass catcher Theo Riddick, and a slew of running backs vying for the top two spots (Ameer Abdullah, Zach Zenner, Matt Asiata, Dwayne Washington, Mike James, and Tion Green). I remember convincing myself that Abdullah could be the guy, rationalizing based on his strong pre-injury start to 2016. I remember trying to believe that Asiata could be a viable short-yardage back, given his success in that realm for the Vikings, and I remember thinking that the offseason competition would facilitate the elevation of one of Zenner or Washington’s game. Ever since the end of the Reggie Bush Joique Bell era, this has been an annual tradition. The front office brings in lack-luster talent, and I think “ehh, I’m sure it’ll work out”. This year feels different though. This year my optimism may be justified.
During free agency, the Lions brought in LeGarrette Blount, one of my favorite early down running backs in the NFL. He excels at running on 1st and 10, averaging 5.6 yards per carry in those situations last year (5.1 over his career). The Lions comparatively averaged 3.4 yards per carry, often leaving Stafford in tough 2nd down situations. He also is a stud when it comes to running the clock with the lead in the 2nd half (4.6 yards per carry), something the Lions haven’t had the benefit of in quite some time (2.7 yards per carry). While its true that he’s one dimensional, he absolutely adds an element that the Lions have been sorely missing for a while now. The Lions also added Kerryon Johnson in the draft, which I could not be more excited about. His combination of patience, power, vision, pass-catching ability and pass-blocking skill will make him a great compliment to Blount and Riddick in the Detroit Lions backfield.
Altogether the Lions running back group now includes Theo Riddick as a pass-catcher, Blount and Johnson as the lead backs, and a group of running backs fighting for the 4th spot (Ameer Abdullah, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington). This means that the running backs that were fighting for the lead spots last year are now fighting to be change-of-pace or injury depth. While this can be accurately viewed as a side-effect of having such a weak group last year, I think its also a testament to the work Bob Quinn put into bringing in starting caliber talent at the running back position. How great is it to only have to rely on Abdullah as a 4th back given his extensive injury history? How great does it feel to have Washington and Zenner compete for the 4th spot and be potentially used on special teams? If you’d told me in January that the Lions would be releasing Tion Green by May, I’d have been really disappointed. Now, however, it feels like a tough decision that simply had to be made. The Lions are now a team that has the benefit of having tough decisions to make at the running back position.
When contextualized with the addition of new offensive line coach Jeff Davidson and the injection of new blood into the offensive line (rookies Frank Ragnow and Tyrell Crosby, free agents Kenny Wiggins and Wesley Johnson), I am extremely optimistic about the potential of the Detroit Lions backfield. And for the first time since Reggie Bush was wearing Honolulu blue, I feel my optimism is not simply a masquerade for naivety.