After an extremely disappointing 2016 season in regard to the run-game (30th in rushing yards), the Detroit Lions look to improve in that category 2017 behind a bolstered Offensive Line. The Lions managed to win 9 games last season, which was enough to get one of the Wild Card spots. As Lions fans know, however, the Lions were up two games over the Packers with three games remaining, and they proceeded to lose their last three games of the season to blow their division lead.
Had the Lions won the Division, it would have been their first division title since 1993. Seemingly, the missing link from 1993 until now has been a solid running game. The 1993 Lions had Barry Sanders, and while I’m not proposing that the Lions need another Barry Sanders to be successful this season, they certainly need to have some way of taking pressure off of Matthew Stafford. This begs the question, who will step up this season and what can be expected from the Lions backs?
Abdullah was a second round draft pick by the Lions (pick #54) in 2015 out of the University of Nebraska. While at Nebraska, Abdullah put together very solid numbers and really broke out in his junior year. During that year, Abdullah had the most rushing yards in the Big Ten with 1,690 while averaging 6.0 yards per carry. He continued that success into his senior year, averaging slightly more yards per carry with 6.1, and rushing for 1,611 yards and also 19 touchdowns. His college excellence has translated to mere flashes of success in the NFL, but if he is able to stay healthy, he could be poised for a solid year.
Going into his third year in the NFL, Abdullah no longer has the excuse of lack of experience. In his rookie campaign Abdullah posted decent rookie numbers, running for 597 yards on 143 attempts (an average of 4.2 yards per carry), however, his main issue was fumbles. Throughout the season, Abdullah fumbled on four different occasions.
In Abdullah’s sophomore campaign, he came out strong. Between the first two games of the season, Abdullah ran for 101 yards on 18 carries, and tacked on another 57 yards on 5 receptions. Unfortunately, his sophomore campaign ended there. In the second game of the season against Tennessee, Abdullah tore his Lisfranc (injury in the foot), sidelining him for the rest of the season.
The University of Nebraska product will look to pick up where he left off by showing explosiveness in the backfield and receiving the ball well. If Abdullah learns from his rookie season and limits fumbles this season while running the ball with the consistency at the level he has shown flashes of in the past, the Lions can count on improving upon their 9-7 record of last season.
Also worth noting: USA Today placed Abdullah on the 2017 All-Breakout team (along with Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron, for what it’s worth)
Riddick was a sixth round draft pick by the Lions (pick #199) in 2013. Riddick is going into his 5th NFL season looking to replicate his past successes. Despite missing six games last season due to wrist surgery, Riddick was able to prove his value to the Lions. Across the ten games he played in the 2016 season, he posted 357 rushing yards on 92 attempts (an average of 3.9 yards per attempt) and 371 receiving yards on 53 receptions (an average of 7.0 yards per reception). Looking back one season further to the 2015 season, in which Riddick played in all 16 games, Riddick had an even better year receiving the ball. Averaging 8.7 yards per reception, Riddick had 697 receiving yards on 80 attempts.
Theo Riddick may not provide the same running games that Abdullah provides, but he has proven to be extremely strong receiving the ball. If Detroit Lions Offensive Coordinator Jim Bob Cooter can find the happy-medium of snaps for Abdullah and Riddick, the Lions running game can take a big step forward and surprise a lot of teams this season.
It is clear that the Lions’ top two runners are Abdullah and Riddick, but the battle for the third spot is something to keep a close eye on. Zach Zenner proved he is a worthy candidate with the knock-up job he did closing out last season. Dwayne Washington also is an option after holding that number three spot a couple seasons back. Matt Asiata will also be vying for the spot after getting starter experience with Minnesota last season.
Ultimately, I believe it will be Zenner who wins over the third man spot, and that he will be the back that gets the ball on third and short and also on goal line situations. It will be a fun battle to watch throughout preseason, and these three guys have the potential to take the Lions from a team that barely squeaks into the postseason, to a team that is a formidable threat in January.
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