Analyzing Jahvid Best and the Detroit Lions Running Game

Nick Caron@@nicholascaronAnalyst IJuly 9, 2010

NEW YORK - APRIL 22:  Jahvid Best (R) from the California Golden Bears poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as they hold up a Detroit Lions jersey after the Lions selected Best number 30 overall during the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 22, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

It’s no surprise that Detroit Lions rookie running back Jahvid Best is getting some high praise from experts around the league. After an excellent college career at Cal where he averaged over 7.0 yards per carry while also making an impact in the passing game and the return game, Best was considered one of the top backs in the 2010 draft class.

His elusive running style and speed have him getting compared to some of the league’s top backs, including 2009’s highest scoring player, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson.

But is it too soon to be making those comparisons? After all, Chris Johnson’s success can largely be attributed to the fact that he is perhaps the fastest player in the entire NFL. Best, while quick, is not speedy on the level of Chris Johnson. And as Johnson showed in 2010, the difference between a five-yard run and a 50-yard run can often be as little as one step that you gain on a defender.

Then there are the injury concerns. We’re talking about a guy who is coming off a major concussion that ended his 2009 season early, which actually followed a lesser-discussed minor concussion that he sustained in the team’s previous game.

Despite the injury and college eligibility remaining, Best decided to follow in the footsteps of many of the game’s top running backs by foregoing his senior season and entering the NFL Draft. Though he is now fully recovered from the concussions, they remain a question mark on his future as a player in the NFL. Best isn’t the first player to enter the pros with a history of concussion problems, but the level of concussion he sustained has to be a major concern for both the Lions, as well as fantasy owners.

Even more concerning than the concussions, however, is the situation that Best is going to in Detroit.

Though most experts agree that the Lions have made the right decisions with their draft picks over the past few seasons, they would also likely agree that the team is still far from being a contender for any kind of championship—or even a playoff berth. Being a winning team, in itself, is pointless from a fantasy standpoint—but it does often have an effect on the team’s running game.

In 2009, the top 10 teams in rushing attempts were:

  1. New York Jets (9-7)
  2. Carolina Panthers (8-8 )
  3. Miami Dolphins (7-9)
  4. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
  5. Tennessee Titans (8-8 )
  6. Cleveland Browns (5-11)
  7. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)
  8. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
  9. Minnesota Vikings (12-4)
  10. New England Patriots (10-6)
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In 2009, the bottom 10 teams in rushing attempts were:

            32. Arizona Cardinals (10-6)

            31. Indianapolis Colts (14-2)

            30. San Francisco 49ers (8-8)

            29. Chicago Bears (7-9)

            28. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

            27. Washington Redskins (4-12)

            26. Seattle Seahawks (5-11)

            25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13)

            24. Detroit Lions (2-14)

            23. Oakland Raiders (5-11)

Of the teams that finished in the bottom 10, four of the teams (Arizona, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Indianapolis) finished among the league’s best passing attacks, with over 4,000 yards passing, which obviously contributed to their lack of running.

But for most of these teams, the lack of rushing attempts was directly related to the fact that they were down multiple scores in the second half of many of their games.

When teams get down multiple scores in the NFL, their tendency is going to be to pass more often, to try to get down the field more quickly, and increase the number of possessions they have before time expires.

Detroit has been in the bottom 10 in the league in rushing attempts for nine straight seasons. Though they flirted with breaking that streak in 2009, that number is a bit skewed. With Matt Stafford missing six games, the Lions relied significantly more heavily on their running attack with quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper and Drew Stanton behind center.

With Stafford at quarterback, the Lions passed a league-high 39.1 times per game. By comparison, the Lions passed just 34 times per game with Culpepper and just 25 times per game with Stanton at quarterback.

Given Detroit’s struggles as an organization and assuming that Matt Stafford remains healthy in 2010, the Lions are very likely to remain in the bottom 10 in the league in rushing attempts.

The Lions drafted Kevin Smith in the third round of the 2008 draft and transitioned him to their starting running back over the following two seasons. Though Smith’s statistical output never jumped off the page, few would argue that he has been one of the very few bright spots in the team’s offense during his time in Detroit. Smith has been a producer both in the running game as well as the passing game, and has developed into one of the best pass-protectors in the league at his position.

The question remains—exactly how much better is Jahvid Best than Kevin Smith?

He’s faster, sure, but is he good enough to take the same carries that Kevin Smith took and turn them into a significantly better statistical output? The offensive line hasn’t gotten better, the quarterback situation remains the same, but the Lions actually went out and acquired new passing targets, Nate Burleson and Tony Scheffler, in the offseason.

There’s no doubt that Jahvid Best is a great physical talent, but there is a good chance that he will still be largely sharing carries with Kevin Smith in 2010, on a team that is pass-heavy with a poor offensive line.

Simply put, this may be a classic case of a good player entering a bad situation.