Detroit Lions: Drafting a RB Early Is the Wrong Way to Improve the Running Game

James Van Etten@jbvanettenContributor IApril 12, 2012

Going into the 2012 NFL draft, the Detroit Lions will probably draft another running back, but they do not need to waste another high draft pick on the position.

The front office has done a spectacular job in gutting the roster over the last three years, eliminating the fat and releasing underachieving players that dominated the sidelines for too many seasons.

But with the influx of young talent procured by Martin Mayhew and his staff, the only obvious blemish on his draft weekend track record is the selection of running backs.

The Lions have used a first-round and second-round pick in the last two drafts on running backs while giving up three picks in the process.

When the Lions moved up four spots, from 34 to 30, in the 2010 draft to get Jahvid Best, they gave up their fourth and seventh-round selections.

Last year, Detroit moved into the second round to select Mikel Leshoure and gave up another fourth-round pick.

The results from these two aggressive jumps up the draft board, in my opinion, have left the Lions with buyer’s remorse.

Although he is an explosive talent, Jahvid Best has suffered multiple concussions, and it’s not a matter of if, but when, his next helmet-to-helmet contact sends him back to the doctor.

Unfortunately, it appears his professional football career will be more Billy Sims than Barry Sanders in length.

Leshoure has had an even less auspicious start to his career.

With a torn Achilles last year and a potpourri/hippie lettuce buffet in the passenger seat of a rented SUV in March, Mikel is making no friends with the NFL offices in New York, and now, the braintrust in Allen Park has to be scrathing their collective head.

Is it possible those two fourth-round picks could have produced an heir apparent to Dominic Raiola and/or another interior lineman prospect? Maybe they could have found value with that seventh-round pick; they did get Willie Young in the seventh, remember?

With a nod to Axl Rose and the defunct group Guns N’ Roses, going into this year’s draft, all the Lions need is just a little patience.

Given, it’s pretty easy to play devil’s advocate after the fact and say the Lions did not optimize their selections, but when a team is rebuilding, isn’t the idea to collect draft picks as opposed to giving them away?

I’m not opposed to moving up in the draft if you see undeniable talent, but Best did have a history of concussions, and today’s NFL does not put a priority on the running back position.

Running backs are now no different than sugar packs at the restaurant. They come in many different package varieties, but they all ultimately provide the same result, a sweeter cup of joe, or in the case of the RB, a rushing attack only as good as the line he runs behind.

Yes, the quality of coffee is not found in the sugar, but rather, the beans it is produced from, and the five hogs up front are the Arabica seeds needed for a burgeoning ground game.

If you disagree, just take a look at this year’s draft and where the running backs are being projected.

Trent Richardson is the only running back projected to be taken in the first round. Last year, Mark Ingram was the only ball carrier worthy of an opening night selection, with the 28th pick.

But take a look at how many offensive linemen are projected to go in the first round, and you’ll see the premium has shifted to the men who crush a Taco Bell 12-pack as an appetizer.

There’s nearly a half dozen offensive tackles and guards projected to be taken within the first 32 selections inside Radio City Music Hall this year and eight offensive lineman went off the board last year on opening night.

The mindset has shifted from finding the running lanes to making the running lanes and the rationale has been proven on the field.

In the 2010 draft, the Houston Texans selected Ben Tate with the 58th-overall selection in the second round.

The pick returned no immediate returns, as Tate broke his ankle in the preseason. Oh no, what were the Texans to do?

They replaced Tate with a second-year, undrafted running back from Tennessee, Arian Foster. He made the most of his opportunity by leading the league with 2,200 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns.

An amazing stroke of luck for the Texans, right? Nope, just a different sweetener.

Tate proved this by coming back last season and rushing for nearly 1,000 yards and over five yards per carry while sharing the backfield with Foster.

These two running backs showed the position is interchangeable. Whether it was a second-round pick or an undrafted feel-good story, they are both good running backs that benefit from a superior offensive line.

The NFL landscape is littered with quality, late-pick running backs that have provided productive contributions to their teams. Beyond Foster, here’s a sampling of some late round (fourth or later) that have had success despite being passed up for several rounds. 

LeGarette Blount, undrafted in 2010

Ahmad Bradshaw, seventh round in 2007

Michael Bush, fourth round in 2007

Brandon Jacobs, fourth round in 2005

Michael Turner, fifth round in 2005

Fred Jackson, undrafted in 2003

How about this: Who currently sits atop the RB depth chart in Green Bay? Alex Green? John Kuhn? Try the name James Starks.

James Starks was a sixth-round pick from Buffalo University who was the starting running back, as a rookie, in Super Bowl XLV when the Packers brought the Lombardi Trophy home to Lambeau.

The Lions' new regime has preached they will rebuild this franchise from the inside out, and have done so on the defensive side, but on the other side of the ball, aside from the trade to bring in Rob Sims, the offensive line has been neglected.

Expecting vast improvements in the running game with new running backs and the same offensive line is similar to the guy at your local golf course who breaks out a fresh box of Titleist Pro V1 and then proceeds to spray them around the course like it’s his own private Easter egg hunt.

He’s better served buying a bag of refurbished balls and getting some lessons to correct the true problem: his swing.

It would be a tremendous luxury to have a superstar at the QB, WR and RB position, replicating the Cowboy "Triplets" of Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith. With Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, the Lions are two-thirds there, but with today’s salary cap era, that allocation of funds is nearly impossible.

Further, my memory might be a bit hazy, but I seem to remember the Cowboys having a dominant offensive line that allowed Smith to get up-field three or four yards religiously before he was even touched.

To improve the running game, as well as protect Stafford, the focus should be on improving the offensive line.

Drafting another running back this year is probable, but it would be in the Detroit Lions' best interest to invest early picks in their offensive line while showing some restraint and take their running back later in the draft.


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