The NFL combine is less than two weeks away and days after that, the free-agency period will begin with the start of the new league year. So it’s time for the Detroit Lions – and every other team in the NFL – to begin to take stock of what they have and where they can upgrade.
With that in mind, we’ll do that as well with every position on the Lions' roster leading into next week’s combine. And just a reminder that things can change incredibly quickly over the next few weeks as Detroit decides which players to re-sign and let go.
Today we’ll look at a position of some question with Detroit, running back.
Free agents: Joique Bell
What are the chances the Lions bring back their own free agents here: Next to none. Bell barely played when he was with the Lions last year and appeared to have nothing left as a productive running back.
What do the Lions need between free agency and the draft: The Lions will likely add a runner somewhere between free agency and the draft. Abdullah is coming off a season-ending injury. Riddick dealt with injuries all of last season. Zenner showed some promise. Washington is very raw. James is an unknown. Plus, the Lions had one of the worst rushing offenses in the NFL again – a trend throughout Jim Caldwell’s head coaching career. But the Lions are going to be looking to upgrade their run game, so expect at least one back to be new to the backfield.
Three free agents to look at:
Rex Burkhead, Cincinnati: He had a breakthrough of sorts last year with 74 carries for 344 yards and two touchdowns. His 4.6 yards per carry last season were pretty strong. His numbers are a little deceiving, too, because for most of his career he’s been behind a combination of Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill. He would see a similar issue in Detroit with Abdullah, Riddick and Zenner, but he could be worth exploring.
Benny Cunningham, Los Angeles Rams: He won’t have numbers that will wow, well, anyone, but he is 26 years old and has been effective when he’s been given the ball. He has 171 career attempts for 748 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. He also has some return ability, averaging 27.1 yards per return in his career. He’s a bit of a bigger back who could be a rotational player.
LeGarrette Blount, New England: If Bob Quinn wants to bring in a true veteran, he could look to the former Patriots running back who had a career-best 1,161 yards last season. The issue with Blount is he doesn’t catch passes out of the backfield much and that’s a skill important for Detroit running backs. But he might be the best semi-affordable option for the Lions if you think Latavius Murray would get top dollar on the market (assuming Le’Veon Bell doesn’t reach free agency).
Three combine rookies who could get considered:
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford: If the Lions choose to go with an early-round running back, McCaffrey could be intriguing at No. 21 (or in a trade-back scenario). He is a dynamic runner with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons (including 21 career rushing touchdowns) and two seasons of at least 35 receptions. He’s a smart runner who should be available as Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette are likely to be gone before Detroit selects.
Samaje Perine, Oklahoma: If the Lions are looking to add a big back in the middle rounds who has the capability of turning into more, Perine could be a strong option. At 5-foot-10, 235 pounds, he is tough to bring down and has had great production with three straight 1,000-yard seasons and 4,122 career rushing yards and 49 touchdowns. He hasn’t caught a bunch of passes out of the backfield, which could be an issue, but if Detroit is looking for a different type of back, he could fit that mold.
James Conner, Pittsburgh: Most people know about Conner’s battle with cancer, but he returned to become one of the better backs in college football. He showed an added dimension to his game last season by catching 21 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns. But he had two 1,000-yard rushing seasons in his career and has averaged over 5 yards per carry every year of his career. His size – 6-foot-2, 235 pounds – makes him intriguing as a short-distance runner, too.