Why Is Mikel Leshoure Still with the Lions?

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Why Is Mikel Leshoure Still with the Lions?
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Spor

Detroit Lions running back Mikel Leshoure was the starter for the team throughout 2012. Yet the former second-round pick was a healthy inactive for the opening game in 2013.

What happened?

Leshoure wasn't all that bad in his de facto rookie season. After missing all of the 2011 season with a torn Achilles, wiping out what should have been his first year in the league, Leshoure rushed for 798 yards on 215 carries, scoring nine touchdowns. He also caught 34 balls for 214 yards.

Those numbers aren't great, but his 3.7 yards per carry bested celebrated rookie Trent Richardson and notable veterans Darren McFadden and Michael Turner, among others. Leshoure was very effective in the red zone, scoring all nine of his TDs from inside the 20-yard line. The nine touchdowns ranked 10th in the league. For a 4-12 team which shattered the record for most passing attempts in a season, that's a pretty impressive feat. 

The problem for Leshoure is that he lacked explosiveness. One of the reasons why all his touchdowns came from within the red zone is that Leshoure couldn't pull away from the pack. His longest run for the season went for 16 yards. 

Leshoure's inability to break off big runs or get into open space were a major reason why the Lions coveted Reggie Bush. When the team signed Bush, it was widely expected that Leshoure would still have a significant role as the change-of-pace back, the between-the-tackles grinder. Backup Joique Bell was seen as the loser in the equation.

Yet I saw it differently. Signing Bush was a sign that Jim Schwartz had lost faith in Leshoure.

As effective as Leshoure was in short-yardage situations, the Lions personnel I talked with seemed obsessed with getting more dynamic and explosive. Big plays were the focus, and Mikel Leshoure just doesn't make big plays. 

Bell doesn't have Leshoure's lofty draft pedigree, but he showed more shiftiness in his backup role. He's also a better receiver with more creativity after the catch. Let's look at their 2012 stat lines:

 

  Yards Per Carry Longest Run Receptions Yards Per Catch Yards After Catch
Mikel Leshoure 3.7 16 34 6.3 7.2
Joique Bell 5.0 67 52 9.3 8.4

Bell was more effective and dynamic across the board, albeit in a more limited role than Leshoure

Fast forward to the preseason. In an open competition for the complementary role behind Bush, Bell was once again the better player. There was never a clearer illustration of Bell's potential and Leshoure's limitations than in the final preseason game against the Buffalo Bills.

On one series, Joique Bell takes the handoff and cuts back to the right, sprinting past the Bills defense for a 21-yard touchdown. You can watch the play thanks to the NFL.com highlights

A couple of offensive series later, the Lions run the exact same play with Leshoure. Like Bell, he saw the well-blocked hole to the right and cut for it. Unlike Bell, he could not beat the backside linebacker through the hole and got tackled for a four-yard gain. Worse, he fumbled at the end of the play. 

That was the last time Mikel Leshoure touched the ball in a game for the Lions. Inactive in Week 1, he has now fallen behind rookie Theo Riddick for the third RB spot. That role is predominately a special teams one, and Leshoure offers nothing to those units. It is expected Leshoure will be a healthy scratch again this week in Arizona.

It is clear the Lions have no use for Mikel Leshoure. His opportunity has come and gone. So why do the Lions keep him around?

There are a couple of reasons why Leshoure remains. Foremost is depth, where he is insurance against Bush and/or Bell getting hurt. With Bush already nursing injuries, that's not an imprudent idea. Leshoure knows the offense, making him a better option than having to troll the shallow free-agent pool for an injury replacement.

Secondly, there is very little trade market for a player of Leshoure's caliber. What would another team reasonably part with for a third-string running back with little wiggle and no breakaway speed? The Lions would be lucky to receive a seventh-round pick that conditionally raises to a fifth or sixth for Leshoure. He holds more value to the Lions than that as injury insurance.

Leshoure is not taking away a roster space from anyone more useful. The game-day actives are fairly established, and anyone that the Lions would pick up in his place is unlikely to crack that establishment either. There is no real purpose in sending Leshoure packing for a sixth corner or another reserve defensive tackle. 

For his part, Leshoure has been a good and loyal Lion throughout his demotion. The cynical fan would take his quotes from that Detroit News piece and scoff. Yet it appears he knows his place and also knows he's one tweaked groin or rolled ankle away from being back on the field. From that piece:

"He didn’t pout or sit alone on the bench. Instead, Leshoure ran around the sideline with a smile and tried to keep the team upbeat."

That's exactly what the Lions need from him. At this point in his career, he's a relatively inexpensive reserve with valuable game experience. As long as his attitude stays positive, he's worth more to the team as the inactive fourth running back than anything it could get in his place. 

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