One Of The Primary Issues For The Lions To Address This Offseason Is The Running Game. This Is A Look At What Fans Should Look For In The Detroit Lions’ Running Back Targets In The 2018 NFL Draft.
The Detroit Lions’ running game in 2017 was a disaster. They struggled to establish the run in nearly every game. The Lions failed to convert in crucial short yardage situations, and once again failed to register a one hundred yard rusher.
The Lions’ running game is likely to see a full overhaul in the 2018 season, even with Jim Bob Cooter likely remaining the offensive coordinator. A new offensive line coach, a new head coach, and the near certainty of new faces in the Lions’ backfield will surely give fans a revamped rushing attack in 2018.
While it remains a distinct possibility that the Lions acquire talent at the running back position through free agency, it would be hard to imagine that general manager Bob Quinn have a few of the Lions’ running back targets in the 2018 NFL Draft. While bringing in young talent at the position will likely be a top priority for Bob Quinn and the Lions, it is tough to say where Bob Quinn values the position in the draft. Many teams have moved back toward spending top picks and premier draft capital on the position, while others have remained in the “late round running back” camp. Without a sample size from Quinn, we can’t really be sure where he intends to select one of the Lions’ running back targets.
This is the beginning of a series that I will be working on, taking a look at some of the various possible Detroit Lions’ running back targets in the 2018 NFL draft, their skill sets, where they excel, where they need improvement, and how they would fit with the Detroit Lions. I will be evaluating players from every area of the draft, from early round picks to potentially undrafted players that the Lions may add post-draft.
This first article is simply a look at what Lions fans should be looking for when determining who would be a good fit for the team in the 2018 draft. Like last year, there is a surplus of talent at the running back position in this year’s class, but not all of the running backs will be good fits for what the Lions project to do with their rushing game in 2018.
Detroit Lions Running Scheme
There is a good amount of projection involved in trying to determine what the Lions’ running scheme will look like next year. The Lions are bringing in former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as their 2018 head coach. As a defensive-minded head coach, it is reasonable to believe that the offense will change significantly less than the defense will next year.
Right now, we are left to assume that Jim Bob Cooter will remain the offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions in 2018. This is not a guarantee, but it is the most likely scenario right now. While things will almost certainly change with the running scheme next year, Cooter appears to favor certain styles of runs, certain formations to run from, and certain situations in which to run. I expect that these are things that will carry over into 2018, as long as Cooter retains his position as offensive coordinator and retains his play-calling responsibilities.
While the tendencies of Cooter will probably be evident in the play calling, the blocking scheme he will be working with is probably going to change. The most interesting change for the Detroit Lions will be the offensive line coach. As Geoff Schwartz points out, the running game and blocking scheme is very much a responsibility of the offensive line coach.
So? Every single OL coach designs the run game. “Run game coordinator” is a title to give you a raise and prevent another team from stealing you. https://t.co/tGCjmbBlqf
— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) January 10, 2018
Earlier this year, the Detroit Lions fired offensive line coach Ron Prince. The team hasn’t brought anyone else on to fill the position thus far, indicating that the Lions’ next offensive line coach will be tied to future head coach Matt Patricia. This may mean that the Lions will be bringing elements of the Patriots’ rushing attack over, which would make the projection of how the Lions’ run game will look next year a far easier task. He may also go outside of the Patriots organization completely, in which case, we have no idea what the offensive line coach will bring to the offense.
The New England Patriots run a lot of gap and power plays in the run game. There is a good chance that the Lions will deploy a more hybrid scheme that marries the Patriots’ scheme to the zone runs that Cooter favored in 2017.
At this point, predicting the Lions’ scheme in 2018 is pure speculation. With that in mind, there are specific traits that are either necessary for any Lions running back targets or will be helpful regardless of the scheme that the Lions decide to run in the 2018 season.
What To Look For In The Lions’ Running Back Targets
The ability to find holes in the defense, anticipate where holes are going to develop, and pick through traffic is going to be paramount for successful Lions’ running back targets in the 2018 NFL draft. Vision is important to all running backs, but it becomes exponentially more so when the run blocking isn’t creating yardage. When plays are blocked well, backs can gain yards with average vision and anticipation. This is where the idea of plug and play running backs come from. This is why some teams have immense success with late-round running backs and others have little-to-no success while investing significant capital into the position.
Vision and anticipation can counteract poor blocking. The ability to find running lanes where seemingly none exist is something that is important to transcending poor line play. Ideally, the line play and the blocking scheme improve for the Detroit Lions in 2018, but there are no guarantees, and it has been a long time since Lions’ fans have seen a competent running game. Vision is among the most important traits to be looking at with the 2018 running back class.
As long as Matthew Stafford is the quarterback of the Detroit Lions, the passing game will probably always be the priority. While a running back that can catch passes out of the backfield is always useful, the Lions already have players that can do this, and receiving-focused running backs are relatively cheap to acquire. Of course, it is nice to have that added versatility, but it is more of a luxury than a requirement for the Lions’ running back targets in both free agency and the NFL draft, in my opinion.
The often overlooked area of a player’s game is their ability in pass protection. For me, this is the much more important trait for the Detroit Lions. Stafford performs exceptionally when he has a clean pocket, but faced absurd amounts of pressure in 2017. This can be largely contributed to the injuries across the offensive line, but better pass protection out of the running backs would have certainly helped the situation.
Pass protection is often a projection from the college level because so few backs are polished in this area. Size, strength, and willingness in protection are all important areas to look at for this projection.
Power, Leg Drive, Balance, and Body Control
These are all separate traits for runners, but they work as complements or in absence of the others. Players win between the tackles in different ways. Some players generate power by getting a head of steam and utilizing their forward momentum. Other players are strong enough through their lower body that they can fight through contact and generate yards with pure leg drive and determination. Some players are good at slightly contorting their bodies to avoid heavy hits, and fall forward. Other players just have really good balance and are able to absorb hits and stay on their feet. The best downfield runners can win in multiple ways.
The Lions desperately need a player that can run between the tackles and can get consistent yards after contact. The team hasn’t had a player that could be confidently relied upon in clutch short yardage situations for some time. A back with tools to win between the tackles would do wonders for their ability to convert short yardage opportunities, their ability to play with a lead, and their ability to open up the passing game. Any of the Lions’ running back targets needs to excel between the tackles and in gaining yards through contact.
Speed is always coveted in NFL players. The combine comes around and player’s draft stock skyrockets and plummets with their 40-yard dash times. It offers tantalizing potential and the threat to take a play to the house at any given moment. Running backs don’t have to be fast to be successful in the NFL. There are plenty of NFL running backs that are evidence of this across the league. To me, the more important trait for the Lions’ running back targets is their lateral agility.
How quickly can a running back change direction? How explosive is a player in his cuts?
Lateral agility is more than just a player’s ability to make people miss in the open field. It is fundamental to making cuts across multiple gaps, working through traffic, bouncing runs outside, cutting runs upfield, running routes, making the most of blockers at the second level. It is one of the most important physical traits for a running back.
With the Lions’ running scheme up in the air for the moment, it is important to look at traits that are vital to all running schemes. Lateral agility is among the most versatile of these traits. Whether running a power scheme or a zone scheme, ability to cut upfield or cut outside, work back behind blockers, and change direction are necessary.
This is a difficult trait to scout. The “Leveon Bell” patience is raved about across broadcasts, draft twitter, among analysts, and basically anywhere that anyone has an opinion on a running back. The problem is that there is a very fine line between a patient runner and a tentative runner. Often the difference in the eyes of the public is simply whether or not a player is successful.
Patience is a good quality in a runner if used in conjunction with situational awareness. On third and one, you want your running back to hit the hole, get the yards, extend the drive and come back on first down. Being patient and waiting for a better lane that may create more yardage can often be counterproductive in situations like this.
Likewise, patient running is often not as translatable to teams with poor run blocking. Joe Mixon was a good example of this from the 2017 class. He is a very talented back, but his patient running style hurt him when thrown into a Bengals offense that allowed defenders to penetrate and often failed to create the “better lanes” that he was waiting for.
Decisive runners, while often not as flashy, are much more translatable in a universal sense. The Detroit Lions’ running back targets should lean more toward the decisive side. The offensive linemen haven’t shown the ability to generate push up front, and they routinely allow penetration. Having a runner that gets upfield quickly would help minimize the deficiencies that we have seen from the offensive line in the running game.
A Look To The 2018 NFL Draft
Everything starts with the scheme. From there, the offensive line play needs to better execute the scheme. Without improved blocking, a new running back may not solve the problem.
There aren’t many backs that excel in every one of these areas. The hope is that the Detroit Lions find a running back in the draft that is strong in enough of these areas that he can contribute to an improved 2018 running game.
There are a lot of different talented backs that offer a wide variety of skill sets. The Detroit Lions will have the opportunity to handpick a running back that best fits what they are trying to accomplish in the running game within their new scheme. Keep an eye out for the prospect previews that I will have coming out examining many of these incoming running backs and how they may or may not fit with the Detroit Lions.