The Detroit Lions running back roles are not set in stone

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 10: Running back Theo Riddick #25 of the Detroit Lions avoids middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith #51 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during a carry in the second quarter of an NFL football game on December 10, 2017 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 10: Running back Theo Riddick #25 of the Detroit Lions avoids middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith #51 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during a carry in the second quarter of an NFL football game on December 10, 2017 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Lions running back situation is murky. Who will make the roster seems locked, but what roles they might play is a bit more questionable.

The Detroit Lions roster is an interesting one. It isn’t because we don’t know who will make the team. The writing is on the wall for most of the players, there are few mysteries left barring a rash of injuries. It’s the jockeying for position within the players who are all but guaranteed to make the 53 man roster that I think will be so interesting. Matt Bosko has been doing a great position by position series about who will make the team at each spot. Zack Moran has gone through which players he thinks will make the 53 man roster as well. This series is neither of those things. This is a look at the battles within the battles for roster positions. I may cover the battle for the last roster spot, but that is not the focus.

The first installment of the series looks at the Lions running back group. I believe that the Lions will keep Kerryon Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, and Nick Bellore (who converted to fullback this offseason) on the 53 man roster.  There is also a possibility that Zach Zenner or Dwayne Washington manages to earn enough special teams roles to justify a roster spot as well. They are not going to get offensive snaps barring that rash of injuries I was talking about earlier. I will leave them out of the conversation regarding running back roles.

The Detroit Lions lead back

Every committee has a chairman. Even if the Lions do not jump on a single ball carrier’s back for the vast majority of their snaps, there will be one player who emerges as the most often used. This player will be getting the majority of the all-important first down carries. The single most important thing about this ball carrier is that he needs to be able to get to the line of scrimmage.

Johnson is the best choice for a primary back. He has shown a variable running style in college that doesn’t rely on him being in top physical condition to be successful. If he needs to push through a pile he does it. If he needs to dart outside he does it. He plays within the situation virtually every time. He makes his linemen look good by taking two yards, and then working to get a bigger gain from there. That trait alone is the single most important thing about Johnson for the 2018 season.

The only real contender for this role is Blount. On first and ten over his career he averages 5.1 yards per carry. It is difficult to argue with a decade at that level of success in a situation. Not every team he has played for was spectacular at running the ball. He has figured out a way to get the job done on a sample size of 706 first down and ten carries. Blount has shown signs of slowing down in this regard. Over the last three seasons, he has averaged 4.7 yards per attempt on first and ten. That is still a great number, but possibly a sign of aging.

I have read in numerous places that Abdullah had the worst yards before contact in the NFL, and that it means his blocking was terrible. It was, but it was not the worst blocking in the NFL. His “cut at least twice before getting back to the line” running style did not earn him any friends along the line I am sure. Riddick has always seemed terrified of getting within a yard of a would-be tackler. Neither is a fit for a large number of first down carries.

The Detroit Lions short yardage back

Blount is the obvious choice for a short yardage specialist. He has a career’s worth of work in the role. The problem with that is that he has not had elite or even good short-yardage production. Blount is a large, powerful runner, he fits the archetype. He has converted only 64% of his opportunities with under three yards to go, however. The NFL average in 2017 was 72%. Last season for the Eagles Blount converted only 37%. Blount’s numbers are also boosted by a single good season. In 2016 he converted 82%. More than 25% of Blounts career attempts came in that that one season. That one good year boosts his career number significantly and it is still well below league average.

The first contender for this role is Johnson. Frankly, Blount should only be utilized in this role only as a means of giving Johnson a breather and to protect him from injury. Johnson was more deadly in college the closer his team got to the end zone. He certainly should not be spelled mid drive just to line up the bigger Blount for a run at a third and inches. This role should go to Johnson unless he proves incapable of the job.

Abdullah is a dark horse for this role. He has converted a staggering 82% of his carries with fewer than 3 yards to go over his career. This is a sample size of only 35 carries, but he has made the most of the opportunities he was given. The small sample size speaks more about whether or not his coaches believed he could do the job than to his actual abilities. Most of those coaches have been fired. Abdullah may get an opportunity to prove his greater worth in short yardage.

The Detroit Lions Passing situations back

The passing situations role is the only thing Riddick is good at, and he is only good at half of it. With that said, he is unbelievably good at that half of it. If you want a receiver lined up in the backfield, Riddick is your guy. If you want someone to block on a passing play, there are better options. Over the years, Lions fans have watched Riddick extend countless two-minute drills with a timely catch and run. Riddick is one of the best receivers out of the backfield in the league.

Abdullah is the first contender for the role. His mix of open field elusiveness and his burst out of cuts make him an ideal candidate. Were it not for Riddick’s presence on the roster, this role would almost assuredly be Abdullah’s for the taking. He may eat some of Riddick’s snaps in situations where the team want to keep the threat of running the ball alive, but he is clearly second fiddle to Riddick.

Johnson has merit here as well. He needs to bring his pass blocking up to an NFL level to take the job over full time, however, and that usually takes a couple years. With the ball in his hands, he is a more than capable weapon for Matthew Stafford to rely on.

Next: Lions defense roster predictions

The Lions should use Johnson early and often in all three roles. Blount and Riddick should spell the rookie as needed, but only as a breather or in obvious situations for their roles. Abdullah is the third best option for every role on the field and should feature prominently on special teams. There is a place for each of these players on the Lions final 53 man roster.