Detroit has one of many backfields where the roles are not clearly defined. Since running back is one of the most important positions in fantasy football, it's wise to get as clear a picture as possible on every backfield.
The Lions have had one 1,000-yard rusher since 2004, but this offseason seemed to indicate more of a commitment to improving the backfield. Veteran LeGarrette Blount and rookie Kerryon Johnson were brought in, while Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah remain. Will the Detroit running back production pie increase this season? How will these four backs slice it?
Daniel Simpkins: I think the coaching staff has lost faith in Ameer Abdullah, so he's out in terms of mattering in this rotation. That leaves Theo Riddick to take on a Chris Thompson-like role because he clearly can't handle between-the-tackles work. What I'm not completely sure about is how the rushing work will be split between Blount and Johnson. The round two selection suggests confidence in Johnson, and from a skills standpoint, I agree with their choice to take him there. Burst is the first thing you notice when you watch Johnson run, and that is a good standout trait for a runner to have. Vision, patience, and flexibility to squeeze through tight holes are other traits I saw Johnson regularly display on his film. Yet I worry about the slender build and angular frame of Johnson. He is not one to shy away from contact. That said, I am concerned that he will not hold up to a full workload. The right answer is for Blount to get a third of the carries and for Johnson to get two-thirds of them to take some of the load off Johnson-- but will Matt Patricia see it that way?
Jason Wood: To echo Daniel's comments, I expect Abdullah will be released before the preseason gets underway. Even if he's not, the trio of Riddick, Blount, and Johnson are the focal point.
The Lions are interesting in that Matt Patricia takes over as head coach, but he kept offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Patricia will put his stamp on the team's identity, certainly, but he's a defensive coach through and through which means he'll let Cooter be the guide.
We know Riddick isn't a 1,000-yard rusher. His value is entirely tied up in the receiving game. As a runner, Riddick is below average. Period. It's illogical to assume Riddick's role would be displaced by a rookie, in which case the debate ultimately centers around whether Blount and Johnson split first and second down carries, or whether Blount is a veteran insurance policy.
Fantasy owners hope Kerryon Johnson will be given (and earn) the full-time lead role on 1st and 2nd downs. If that's the case, we could see the Lions' second 1,000-yard rusher since 2004. At Blount's best, he's a battering ram that vultures short-yardage conversions and touchdowns. The worst case scenario would be Johnson getting the yardage on long drives while handing off the role to Blount in the red zone and Riddick on third downs. I suspect that will be the case early in the season, but Johnson's talent will make him a 15+ touchback by October.
Ryan Hester: Between this team's history of not producing fantasy assets at the running back position and the assumed split of the backfield, no one looks particularly attractive. Fantasy drafters are assuming that Johnson will earn the work on the first two downs, but Blount has a history of being a goal-line back (even though he's actually not good at short-yardage running), which would hurt Johnson's value.
It's also worth considering that Johnson comes from a college-style college system. Redundant as that sounds, the scheme at Auburn didn't ask him to do much pass-blocking.
Johnson's best-case scenario is that he relegates Blount to a reserve role and can show that he can be the goal line back. However, no Detroit running back has seen more than 165 carries (Abdullah, 2017) or 597 yards (Abdullah, 2015) in a season over the last three years. Only Riddick is interesting at ADP, and fantasy GMs should realize that his upside is RB2/flex, not RB1.
Andy Hicks: The Detroit running game is basically all in on Kerryon Johnson or we can forget about it for another year. His current asking price is very reasonable, but given the failure of this team at this position, it should give fantasy owners a significant pause. The latest bust appears to be Ameer Abdullah who the Lions appear to have given up on after using a second-round pick on him in the 2015 season. Most reports do not expect him to make the final 53. Theo Riddick has a use as one of the leagues best third-down backs, but as a runner, he is clearly limited. The rookie does have skills as a receiver, so if he is durable and starts, that may eat into Riddick's production as well. LeGarrette Blount will be the break in case the rookie isn’t a ready runner. On his third team in three years and the last two won the Super Bowl, he can carry a load, but he will be turning 32 this year. About 150 carries appear to be his upper limit at this stage of his career. Ultimately you either take a chance on Johnson or you look elsewhere.
Devin Knotts: Unfortunately for fantasy football players, Jim Bob Cooter is still the offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions. To make matters worse, the Lions added Matt Patricia whose Patriots backgrounds suggests that this will continue to be a low-volume rotation in the backfield as we have seen the past few years. In terms of total carries, Detroit's offenses have ranked 31st in 2017, last in 2016 and last in 2015, this is generally a rushing offense that you want to avoid.
If you are drafting late in the draft season, watch to see if Ameer Abdullah makes the team. It sounds like he is on the bubble, but if he makes the team that screams that Kerryon Johnson is not ready to have a role in this offense. If you've already drafted and taken Kerryon and Abdullah makes the team, try to trade Kerryon immediately.
We know what Blount's role is going to be which is short-yardage and goal-line. We know what Theo Riddick's role will be as primarily a receiver. Kerryon Johnson is an intriguing prospect and is getting a ton of hype this season, but the problem is that no running back has had over 156 carries with Cooter as the offensive coordinator and it is difficult to expect the rookie to be the first especially if Matt Patricia takes the same approach with rookie running backs as his former boss Bill Belichick.