Detroit Lions Free Agency: Should Kevin Smith Stay or Go?

Dean Holden@@Dean_HoldenAnalyst IJanuary 24, 2011

Stop looking at the Giant defender getting mugged on the right and look at Kevin Smith's high-step action.
Stop looking at the Giant defender getting mugged on the right and look at Kevin Smith's high-step action.Andrew Burton/Getty Images

So running backs named Kevin have had a rough go of it in Detroit lately.

In the last 10 years, Kevin Jones and Kevin Smith have gotten off to hot starts in starting roles with the Detroit Lions. Both spent the next several years hobbled by recurring injuries and disappointing follow-up seasons.

Jones ended his Lions tenure by getting cut after four years. Smith is a restricted free agent after three, and he has a first-round pick (Jahvid Best) to contend with.

So does Kevin Smith stay or go? As a restricted free agent, Smith has to remain with the Lions as long as they match the best offer he gets on the open market, so the Lions have a great deal of control over his fate.

But still there are rumblings. Observe.

2010 Performance

Almost impossible to gauge, since Smith played in only six games this season, with a limited workload in each.

Smith was late getting into the season after missing the first three games, still recovering from a serious ACL tear suffered in 2009. He played six games before injuring his thumb against Buffalo, an injury which required surgery and ended his season.

His final tally for 2010? Smith ended up with 133 yards on 34 rushes, and 123 yards on 11 receptions.

For the season. Over six games played.

The man hadn't even gotten his sea legs back before leaving with another injury, so it's hard not to just consider the entire 2010 season statistically insignificant. That is, unless you want to slap the "injury-prone" label on him, but it's far too early for that.

So, for reference, let's use 2009. In 2009, Smith compiled 747 yards on 217 carries and 415 yards on 41 receptions in the 13 games before he suffered his torn ACL.

Those are sort of decent numbers, but a major step down from his impressive 2008 rookie campaign.

Note that even if healthy, Smith would have come nowhere close to this quantity in 2010, since 2009 featured Smith as Detroit's top back, and 2010 featured Best and Smith splitting carries (with Best the No.1 back, even while battling a pair of turf toes).

The same will be true of 2011. Smith's job will be to spell Best, and to be the four-yard grind-it-out back against Best, the explosive speed back.

The arrangement will likely benefit them both in terms of wear and tear, efficiency, and offensive flexibility, but certainly not in overall stats.

Team Interest

High. But for a couple of reasons.

By all accounts, the Lions want Smith back to play a very active No. 2 to Best's No. 1.

But by the rules of restricted free agency, a team that offers to sign Smith, if successful, owes Detroit a high draft pick.

With the selection of Best, Smith is no longer expected to be "the guy" in Detroit. That's not to say he isn't important, but he's replaceable. Very few players have the skill to be a good top back. Plenty can be backups and situational backs.

But if somebody offered to sign Smith away, and owed the Lions a second or third-round draft pick in return, what then?

Let me ask again. If you had the opportunity to swap a 2008 Matt Millen third-round pick for a 2011 Martin Mayhew third-round pick, wouldn't you?

Of course, because of the high cost associated with signing a restricted free agent, it's unlikely to happen, especially for a guy coming off a weak injury-addled season.

Besides, the Lions' offense seemed to find some rhythm in the running game late in the season. It's fun to think about what a healthy Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith could do with that next year.

Player Interest

If you listen to some guy from Miami, he wants to go to Miami.

If you listen to Smith, he wants to stay.

Seems pretty cut-and-dried, but you never really know who's telling the whole truth with these types of things.

Smith can't be incredibly happy with supplanted as top running back with a first-round draft pick after only two seasons, but he was rehabbing a serious injury as a leftover from a previous regime.

It's not unlikely that Smith is thinking about playing elsewhere, but he's probably going to be disappointed if he thinks anyone is looking at him and thinking "feature back."

Least of all Miami, which already has a pair of running backs in Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams who do what Smith does better than Smith does it.

But Smith isn't even guaranteed a No. 2 spot if he stays. Maurice Morris did an admirable job filling the void while Smith was out, and if anything, rushing production increased with Morris playing.

Smith, at best, is looking at a training camp battle for the No. 2 position, and that's a battle he just might lose.

That being said, Smith has always been a very vocal supporter of his team, and continues to be even with his restricted free agency approaching. He's either happy with his situation in Detroit, or very good at blowing smoke.

Miscellaneous Factors

The biggest current factors for Smith are Morris and the "R" in front of his "FA" status.

Morris showed sporadically great production in Smith's absence, and will be Smith's primary competition in the coming season.

Smith has the natural edge simply by being younger, a particularly strong factor in running backs. But with Morris' age he brings consistency, something no other current Detroit running back has been able to produce.

Of course, this is all irrelevant to Smith, because if Detroit wants him, he stays.

And even if they didn't, I can't see a team in the league that would be willing to part with a third-round draft pick for Smith's as-yet-unproven talents.

Especially not for a running back who just missed 10 of 16 games with injury.

Of course, what happens after Smith plays out his "team option" year (2011) and becomes an unrestricted free agent is anyone's guess. But no doubt 2011 itself will be the primary factor in Smith's future, with this team or any other.


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