4. Detroit Lions
Advancing the ball for big yardage via the run has been a foreign concept in Motown, as evidenced by Detroit’s abysmal rankings in that department (30th, 32nd and 28th) over the past three seasons.
Though the Lions have had a shortage of dependable ball carriers, their offensive line hasn’t afforded the offense any kind of support in establishing the type of running game that would allow Stafford extra time to safely read his options when dropping back to pass.
In 2016, Detroit running backs had the second lowest yards-before-contact average (0.93), according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) metrics, due to the lack of push from the guys up front.
A poor offensive line would logically necessitate the usage of a quick and elusive runner that can create yardage on his own…and that’s exactly what the front office had in mind when selecting Ameer Abdullah in the second round of the 2015 draft.
The fleet-footed playmaker has so far shown flashes of his ability, but ball security and durability concerns have prevented him from producing a breakout that many expected from the one-time Nebraska Cornhusker.
After showing some promising returns in the second half of his rookie year, Abdullah tore a ligament in his foot in Week 2 of the 2016 season putting him on the shelf for the remainder of his sophomore campaign.
Abdullah is fully aware that 2017 is his time to emerge as the No. 1 backfield option before team decision makers start looking for a replacement.
And to his credit, the 5-foot-8, 203-pound has reportedly been “looking sharp” in OTA sessions.
The additions of T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner on the right side of the offensive line should provide Abdullah with a few extra creases to exploit if he can physically manage to handle a full workload.
Of course, the third-year pro will be joined by the versatile Theo Riddick, who possesses exciting burst in the open field, but is more receiver than pure runner.
Riddick has caught an average of 55 passes over the past three years and though his numbers were down from 2015 this past season, a lingering wrist ailment had a lot to do with that.
The newly-signed Matt Asiata, Dwayne Washington and Zach Zenner will be competing for the role of the offense’s between-the-tackles plowhorse capable of converting short-yardage situations into first downs and goal-line opportunities into touchdowns.
Judging from last year’s performance, Zenner would logically seem to have the upper hand due to the way he can break tackles and maintain balance when running in tight quarters (see first half of Cowboys game on Monday Night Football).
Washington brings size and second-level explosiveness to the mix along with the ability to make plays in the passing game. However, the 226-pound back is loath to hit inside holes with any authority preferring to look for cut-back lanes that often aren’t there.
The former Pac-12 standout also missed his share of blocking assignments as a rookie.
Asiata, on the other hand, won’t wow anyone with his athletic traits, but is a proven commodity that can push the pile.
The wildcard is undrafted rookie free agent Tion Green, who at 230 pounds is a one-cut downhill bruiser that can carry defenders forward for positive yardage, but lacks breakaway speed.