Spotlight: The Lions Backfield

A detailed look at the Lions' backfield situation for 2015.

When knowledgeable fantasy owners were polled for their impressions of Detroit's offense over the last four years, some of the responses included:

"Throw, throw, throw, throw, run, throw, throw..."

"Besides Calvin, it's been pretty lackluster."

"Though Detroit has favored the pass heavily since their drafting of Stafford, they've sought to balance their attack, with only minor successes in that span."

"They seem to rely on the big play (via Megatron) with an underneath guy to hopefully keep the chains moving."

A few things stand out in these replies. In the minds of these owners, the passing game has reigned supreme and Calvin Johnson has been the only consistent fantasy fixture on the team. Though the Lions have tried to find balance, they have seldom found a runner who could carry the majority of the load. While Theo Riddick performed well in his limited role last year and Zach Zenner was a priority UDFA for the Lions this year, there are really only two players on the roster who have a shot at being that guy for the Lions in 2015: the incumbent, Joique Bell, and the challenger, Ameer Abdullah.

THE BELL TOLLS FOR JOIQUE

The Lions backfield in 2014 was a timeshare between Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Bush spent most of the year injured, opening the way for Bell to have games as the lead back. He responded by averaging 3.9 yards a rush, twenty-seventh among all running backs with at least 6.25 rushing attempts per game. According to Football Outsiders’ Offensive Efficiency Rankings, the Lions ranked twenty-ninth in rushing offense by year's end. The offensive line (ranked in the bottom third of the league) certainly did him no favors, but Bell lacked the skills to create on his own. The coaching staff recognized that the age, injuries, and ineffectiveness of Bell constituted a need for improvement in their run game, as evidenced by their moves in and after the draft.

ENTER AMEER

In an NFL landscape where running back has largely been devalued by the institution of committees, taking a runner with a first or second-round pick means something. It usually carries with it the expectation that said player will seize a prominent role in the rushing attack sooner rather than later. After taking an offensive lineman with their first-round pick, Abdullah was taken in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Investing this sort of capital in him signaled that the Lions believe he can make an instant impact. When watching him on tape, his skills certainly back up the Lions' faith in his abilities. Among his best qualities are his burst, elusiveness, and balance. He seldom takes direct hits from defenders in college and demonstrates the capacity to make them miss. This doesn’t mean Abdullah won’t be able to take hits. To the contrary, he rarely goes down on first contact. Instead, he bounces off hits and remains upright to churn out extra yards. Abdullah is an excellent reciever and has already made an impression in OTAs with his aptitude in this area. Marty Gitlin of CBS reported that Lions Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi was suprised by Abdullah's recieving acumen:

"He didn't get a chance, maybe, to show everything he can do as a receiver at Nebraska, but he's even better in that phase of the game than I thought when we drafted him. So it was kind of a bonus."

A bonus for the Lions is that Ameer is a man of high character and integrity. Beat writer Paula Pasche recounts Coach Jim Caldwell’s impressions of Abdullah after meeting him at the Senior Bowl:

“The first time we met him at the Senior Bowl, after we finished with his interview, I said to myself and I wrote my notes down, I said, ‘This is a guy that has some really special qualities.’ (He is) a young man that has a lot of talent. That’s without question. He has character. You can see he exudes character and everything that he’s done he’s improved every single year that he’s been out playing football, particularly at Nebraska. But in every single phase of his life he demonstrates that. (He is) extremely disciplined, takes care of himself in a great way, which obviously, being a true professional in every way in this league is extremely important.”

JOIQUE BELL POSITIVES

  • Bell is currently projected to be the starter.
  • Bell has been reasonably reliable at converting in short-yardage and goal line situations.
  • For being a bigger back, Bell is a suprisingly good receiver.

JOIQUE BELL NEGATIVES

  • Bell averaged a pedestrian 3.9 yards a rush the last two years.
  • Bell is past his peak age and will turn 29 this season.
  • Bell had offseason surgery on his knee and achilles. Recent reports suggest he may not be ready for training camp.

AMEER ABDULLAH POSITIVES

  • Abdullah will likely be more than a change-of-pace guy, as he has the skillset to be a three-down runner.
  • A very strong receiver, Abdullah will pick up points through the air as well as on the ground.
  • Abdullah’s burst, balance, and elusiveness are three core strengths that will help him excel at the NFL level.

AMEER ABDULLAH NEGATIVES

  • Abdullah's hand size is below average by NFL running back standards.
  • Abdullah has had documented issues with fumbling, especially in his first two years of college.
  • Abdullah needs major improvement in the area of blocking.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Many owners are still hung up on the presence of Joique Bell in this backfield, especially as Bell has flashed the ability to start in the past. However, Bell is aging, dealing with injury issues, and has been ineffective when he has had the opportunity to be the guy. Simply put, Ameer Abdullah is the more talented of the two. He will prove to be the most valuable back on the team and earn a full-time role before the end of 2015. Abdullah makes an excellent pick in redraft formats (especially if you want to use an upside down approach) with a current ADP that places him in the beginning of the seventh round in 12-team formats. Abdullah also makes a wonderful selection in dynasty formats, especially for owners that have later first to early second-round draft picks in 12-team leagues.

JOIQUE BELL 2015 PROJECTIONS

DAVID DODDS’ PROJECTIONS

GRSHYDY/RTDRECYDY/RTDFPT
16 195 780 4.0 7 28 252 9.0 1 151.20

MAURILE TREMBLAY’S PROJECTIONS

GRSHYDY/RTDRECYDY/RTDFPT
16 160 631 3.9 5 41 371 9.0 1 136.20

AMEER ABDULLAH 2015 PROJECTIONS

BOB HENRY’S PROJECTIONS

GRSHYDY/RTDRECYDY/RTDFPT
16 135 610 4.5 4 40 335 8.38 2 130.5

DAVID DODDS’ PROJECTIONS

GRSHYDY/RTDRECYDY/RTDFPT
16 125 515 4.1 4 25 200 8.38 1 101.3

OTHER VIEWPOINTS

Marlowe Alter, a contributor to the Detroit Free Press, sums up his scouting report of Ameer Abdullah with high praise:

"Abdullah is talented, durable, battle-tested and a leader. A projected second-round selection, he would inject the Lions backfield with a playmaker as a multifaceted weapon that can contribute in any and every way, while being a model citizen off the field."

Brian Perez of Draft Breakdown believes Abdullah is more suited to be in a committee role:

"Abdullah could end up with a path to the field like Tre Mason (Rams.) Mason was a third-round pick who had to earn his stripes before he saw game action, but once he did, he produced and became a significant contributor. Abdullah is cut from the same cloth. Once he gets his chance, I see him becoming a significant part of a RBBC who can handle a 12-15 carry per game workload."

Christopher Harris of ESPN feels Bell will retain his value in 2015, but admits it is a risky proposition:

"The notion that Abdullah -- an electric runner but undersized and a college fumbler -- is fated to usurp Bell right away is, I think, an overstatement, especially given that Abdullah is expected to be the Lions' primary kick returner. Yes, Bell's understudies will receive 200 touches, but that still leaves him a fine candidate to eclipse 250 touches himself and be his team's primary goal-line back. In my personal ranks, Bell is No. 18 among RBs, but I admit he brings risk."