The Detroit Lions are facing a serious dilemma going into the 2012 season. On paper they have a dynamite trio of complementary running backs capable of providing near-ideal backfield balance to Detroit’s potent aerial attack
Jahvid Best has quickness, breakaway speed and is very dangerous in space. Mikel Leshoure runs with tremendous power and has the ability to break tackles in heavy traffic. Kevin Smith can block, pound yardage out and has reliable hands. He plays with great heart and a never-quit attitude.
On the field, however, Best—who has suffered several concussions—is now one serious concussion away from early retirement.
Leshoure should recover well enough from the torn Achilles tendon in his left foot that he suffered in early August last year to achieve a very respectable yards/touch average this season, but he’s facing a possible suspension for violating the NFL’s drug policy. According to Rotoworld.com, that suspension could possibly be in the range of six to eight weeks.
Kevin Smith, drafted by the Lions in the third round in 2008, has a history of various injuries that have prevented him from completing a full NFL season since he ran for nearly 1,000 yards his rookie year. He played in 13 games through pain in 2009 and six games in 2010.
Hoping for the Best is Not a Good Plan A
Detroit’s fans and coaches certainly hope Best, Smith and Leshoure stay healthy and that Leshoure can avoid a lengthy suspension. However, hoping for the best isn’t a very good Plan A if your goal is to make a run at the Super Bowl in 2012.
After Jahvid Best suffered his last concussion during the Lions Week 6 game against San Francisco, Detroit worked out a trade with the Eagles which would have sent the Lions RB Jerome Harrison to Philadelphia in exchange for RB Ronnie Brown. The trade fell through when it was discovered that Harrison had a brain tumor.
The Lions opted then to re-sign Kevin Smith to a short-term contract on November 7th after having released him when the 2010 season had concluded. Smith played through injuries again during the remaining seven games in 2011, but managed to chalk up an average of 4.9 yards rushing on 72 carries, 179 passing yards on 22 receptions and four rushing and three receiving TDs.
The Lions re-signed Smith to a new one-year contract in March of this year.
Detroit also has RBs Joique Bell, Keiland Williams and undrafted free agent Stephfon Green under contract. As of yet, the Lions have not made an offer to re-sign Maurice Morris, who became an unrestricted free agent after the 2011 season.
Recently, it’s been widely reported that the Lions offered 29-year-old Green Bay free-agent RB Ryan Grant a contract, which he declined to accept—in all likelihood because given the Lions tight cap space, they would have been hard-pressed to offer him anything more than a league minimum contract.
The Lions Can’t Afford to Play Rushing Roulette in 2012
Detroit would probably prefer to carry only four running backs on their 53-man roster this season. It’s a safe bet that Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure will fill two of those four positions, and there’s a pretty good chance that Kevin Smith will fill the third spot.
After that, the situation gets a lot more difficult to predict.
The Lions signed Joique Bell from the New Orleans practice squad just before the last game of the 2011 season against Green Bay. He led the Saints with 182 yards rushing on 31 carries during the preseason, but had zero regular-season carries with either the Saints or the Lions. He remains largely a question mark at this point in time
In 2011, Keiland Williams averaged 3.3 yards/touch on 58 carries, scored two rushing TDs for the Lions, and had eight receptions for 62 yards. Unlike Bell, Williams has an NFL track record and it’s not impressive. He has little power, burst or explosion.
Last year, Mo Morris averaged almost four yards/touch on 80 carries for the Lions. He scored one rushing TD and also had 26 receptions for 230 yards and one receiving TD. Mo’s stats over his decade in the NFL are respectable enough to suggest that he probably has at least one more decent year left in the tank.
The further this season progresses without Morris receiving an offer from another team, the less expensive it would be for the Lions to re-sign him if they choose to.
Playing it Out
Leshoure has a court date on May 11 for his latest pot bust. After the case is decided, the NFL will weigh-in, consider his entire history of marijuana-related incidents, including his one-game suspension in college, and decide what penalties to invoke.
If you were Jim Schwartz, you might give serious consideration to removing two of the RB bullets—Keiland Williams and Joique Bell—from the revolver pointed at your head before you gave the cylinder a spin at the beginning of the regular season.
Yet Schwartz would be wise to let things play out for a while.
The Lions mandatory minicamp begins June 12 and training camp starts in late July. The safe move would be to watch the waiver wire like a hawk, sniff out win-win/man-for-man trade deals and if those avenues don’t prove productive, re-sign Mo Morris, who is now 32 years old but has three years of experience in the Jim Schwartz /Scott Linehan offensive system
A more aggressive strategy would be to try to work out a trade for someone like 25-year-old Jonathan Stewart. In 2011 Stewart carried the ball 142 times for Carolina, averaging 5.36 yards/carry and putting up four rushing TDs in the process. He also had 47 receptions averaging 8.8 yards/catch and notched one receiving TD.
Stewart is entering his contract year with the Panthers, who have an abundance of productive RBs. The addition of Stewart would significantly upgrade the Lions running back rotation and provide great insurance against injury to Best, Smith and Leshoure, and lessen the sting of a lengthy Leshoure suspension if one is imposed.
To make this deal happen, Detroit might have to offer up a quality player and a future draft pick. If the Lions sign Stewart and then let him walk into free agency in 2013, they could very possibly recoup a mid-round compensatory pick in 2014.
Depending on how much promise Joique Bell and Stephfon Green show during the preseason, one of them could be placed on the Lions practice squad.
Changing the Game
It’s possible that the Lions could get back to the playoffs this season largely on the strength of Matt Stafford’s arm like they did in 2011. Championship teams don’t take risks like that when they don’t have to.
How Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz deal with their running back dilemma this offseason will determine whether they can pull the revolver away from their own heads and point it at the competition instead.