Fantasy Football: Making Sense of the Detroit Lions' Backfield

How should fantasy players approach and project each of the four running backs in the Detroit offense?

The Detroit Lions are looking to shake up their running back room this season, with new additions to their backfield in eight-year veteran (and free agent signee) LeGarrette Blount and second-round pick Kerryon Johnson. Entering camp, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick also figure to return from last year's squad and are expected to be in the mix for snaps.

With new head coach Matt Patricia in town, expectations are that the Lions will run the dreaded running back by committee after reportedly fielding questions on how he values the position prior to the NFL Draft. Patricia, like his General Manager Bob Quinn, hail from the New England Patriots' football culture, where they have historically relied on a stable of backs to split the work.

The Detroit running game has been abysmal for years now, constantly churning out backs who were proven to be unsuccessful and lacking the elite offensive line necessary to elevate their play. The numbers prove that out as the Lions, since 2005, haven't posted an Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per Play better than 16th. Last season, they ranked 31st in that metric.

Even with the hire of a new head coach, Detroit has decided to retain its offensive coordinator, Jim Bob Cooter. Here is how he has utilized his running backs since taking over that role.

Season Rush Attempts Targets Target Market Share
2015* 183 94 29%
2016 301 115 20%
2017 325 111 19%
*9 games in 2015.

As we dive deeper, let's take a look into the tea leaves to see who might be the team's fantasy back to own.

Kerryon Johnson

In the 2018 draft, the Lions used the 43rd overall pick to select Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson. Not only is it good draft capital spent, but the Lions traded up eight draft spots to grab (what they hope to be) their tailback of the future in exchange for their 2018 second- and fourth-round picks.

Johnson stands at six feet and weights in at 215 pounds, which would be at a bigger size than Abdullah and Riddick, thus a better frame to carry a full workload. Since 2000, 15 out of the 27 running backs drafted in the first 2 rounds and that match his physical profile accounted for 200 touches or more (minimum 13 games played) during their rookie season.

Though he failed to post mesmerizing athletic scores (via Player Profiler) during the prospect evaluation process, Johnson received many accolades during his final year at Auburn. At the age of 20, he was honored with the SEC Offensive Player of the Year award as he led the conference in rush attempts (285), rush yards (1,585), and touchdowns (20).

On top of his running ability, Johnson was able to rack up 55 catches during his 3-year career. College backs are far less utilized in the passing game, but to see him post good numbers gives us promise. For comparison, only Saquon Barkley and Sony Michel had more career catches out of those backs drafted in the first two rounds.

Johnson was a key to Auburn's offense this past season and figures to play a role, in some shape for form, for Detroit this season. However, forecasting in fantasy football is difficult, especially rookies in similar situations. To help shape that, let's take a look at the other running backs in this offense.

LeGarrette Blount

After contributing for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, Blount signed a one-year contract worth $2 million in free agency this offseason. Although he wasn't directly coached by Patricia, Blount has crossed roads with him in New England, suggesting that this is a veteran signing between individuals who have familiarity with one another. Blount's contract is not valued very highly, ranking 26th in money spent at the position (via Over The Cap), and for what it's worth, teammates Johnson and Riddick are expected to make more than Blount this year.

The Eagles were rotating running backs last year, and until the Jay Ajayi trade midseason, Blount was getting a majority of the carries. Shortly after Ajayi's arrival, Blount was relegated to the bench and a limited role. From Week 12 on, Blount did not have a game over double-digit rushes until the Super Bowl, when Ajayi was reportedly dealing with ankle issues. He is also entering the season at the age of 31, when running backs usually start down the tail end of their career.

Blount has only carried the ball over 200 times in a season twice, and his season-high in catches is 15. Given age, his historically low volume, and previous trends of older running backs, we can forecast Blount to receive a handful of carries a game, similar to the situation in Philadelphia with Ajayi. Our current projections show Blount totaling 133 attempts for the season, which broken down to 16 games, results to 8.3 carries a game.

Theo Riddick

Riddick has had the longest tenure out of this running back corps, as his pass catching chops have carved out a role as the team's third-down back. He has never had a season over 100 rush attempts, but he's been heavily involved in the passing game. To show how impressive he has been in this role, Riddick trails only Le'Veon Bell or the league lead for running back targets since 2014.

His resume as a lead back has been far from impressive in comparison to his catching ability. Theo took over a lead role last season, after the Lions were tired of riding Abdullah and seeing sub par results. Unfortunately for the Lions, they found out that Riddick wasn't the answer either. Out of 70 career games, Riddick has only touched the ball 15 times or more in 10% of them. The organization has realized that he is not the feature back they need, as evidenced by his minority share of the load in recent seasons.

As a fantasy asset, Riddick will buoy his relevance with valuable catches in PPR formats given Detroit's previous history of being a pass-happy team. And that should be the case regardless of the team pinning down an every-down runner.

Ameer Abdullah

After showing limited highlight-reel plays, Abdullah figured to be the lead back coming into the 2017 season. Unfortunately, he has been fighting injuries his entire NFL career, with his most notable coming in the form of a Lisfranc ligament tear in 2016.

Drafted in the second round of the 2015 NFL draft, the former Nebraska player has played in 32 professional games with 326 carries for 1,250 rushing yards and 55 catches for 402 receiving yards. Largely due to injury, as well as the inconsistent line play up front, Abdullah's great athleticism hasn't quite translated into the production the Lions had hoped.

It seems like the organization is moving away from him as he was benched toward the second half of last season. Abdullah was one of the NFL's worst runners in terms of rushing NEP per play, ranking 57th out of 72 backs with 50 carries or more. The two players brought in are more likely to take first- and second- down snaps from him, given their profiles. Riddick has cemented his ability as the pass-catching specialist, leaving whatever is left to Abdullah.

With a look at his contract, the Lions have the potential to cut Abdullah to save one million in cap space. A trade is also not out of question, either -- remember that last August the league moved 17 players via trade. This would open up a window of opportunity for Kerryon Johnson to take on a much bigger workload than current projections suggest. If moved or cut, Abdullah's projected 113 carries and 26 catches would be up for grabs in the Lions' backfield.

Time to Acquire

There is no question that Johnson carries some risk, given the circumstances. But it's worth noting that rookies like Dalvin Cook, Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara each had barriers to get past before showing their stuff as factor backs.

This is also a competent offense entering the season with a much improved offensive line (currently ranked 16th by our own Jim Sannes). That, with volume, can offset any talent deficiencies that they may have.

Johnson seems to have the best bet of handling first- and second- down duties and may be a better pass-catcher than some think. Blount seems to be locked into the short yardage role and has "break in case of emergency" written all over him while Riddick will continue to demand a few targets a game. Abdullah is the real wild card and could represent the most substantial thorn to Johnson's side.

At their respective average draft positions (ADP) -- courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator -- in 12-team PPR formats, many are already following the Johnson hype as he's going as the first Detroit back and 32nd overall back off the board in drafts. He can be had in the late sixth to early seventh round, which could be a value if he takes hold of the backfield early on. Riddick (RB50) and Blount (RB51) are going one after the other in the 12th round with Abdullah going undrafted. And there could certainly be a boost to all three in the event Abdullah's out of the picture entirely.

Until we get closer to the season, we won't know for certain what will shake out in Detroit, but there are signs pointing to Kerryon being "the guy". This will be a fluid situation to follow throughout training camp, so be sure to be plugged in and reap the rewards of picking the right running back for your fantasy squads.