Is It Time for Joique Bell to Fear Ameer Abdullah in Detroit?
Actions speak louder than words.
In 2014, despite drafting star running back Jeremy Hill from LSU with a second-round pick, the Bengals' coaching staff insisted that Giovani Bernard was still the team's workhorse. Running backs coach Kyle Caskey even went as far as projecting Bernard for "260 to 300 touches" for the upcoming season.
So adamant were the Bengals coaches in Gio's standing as the team's undisputed starter that when a hip pointer and collarbone injury kept him out of a Week 9 matchup against the Browns, reports proclaimed that there was "zero" chance Bernard could lose his starting job to the talented Hill.
But this opportunity created by Bernard's mid-season injury was all that Hill needed to prove his superiority at the running back position and take over the starting job from the coaching staff by season's end.
In the 2015 NFL Draft -- just like the Bengals the year before -- the Detroit Lions added a gamebreaking talent to their stable of tailbacks in the second round, selecting dazzling Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah.
And -- just like the Bengals' vote-of-confidence for Bernard last offseason -- reports out of Detroit continue to suggest that the Lions still see Joique Bell as their primary back. But with the news that Bell's readiness for training camp following minor knee and Achilles' surgeries at the end of last season are currently in doubt, and with Abdullah getting extended with the starters and impressing in OTAs, you have to wonder how long this support from the coaching staff will last.
Take one look at Abdullah's athletic abilities and it quickly becomes clear why -- despite the presence of entrenched veterans such as Bell and Theo Riddick currently ahead of him on the Lions' depth chart -- many are already calling Abdullah the best running back on this team.
When we first look at his build, we see that Ameer fits the mold of the prototypical running back for Detroit.
Standing at 5' 9" and 205 pounds, while slightly undersized compared to some of the more highly touted running backs from his draft class including first-round selections Todd Gurley (6' 1", 222 pounds) and Melvin Gordon (6' 1", 215 pounds), Abdullah's sub-six foot build is in line with other backs on Detroit's roster.
But don't let these similarities in build fool you in regards to their relative talents. In terms of pure athleticism and power, Abdullah is easily Detroit's most explosive back and brings to the Lions roster a big-play element that has been missing from their backfield in recent past.
Indeed, Abdullah's measures in the explosiveness category -- bench press, vertical, and broad jump -- rank him in the 81st, 99th, and 97th percentiles, respectively, in these Combine events at his position. And when it comes down to big-play potential, when comparing Abdullah to previous Detroit backs, Ameer actually compares most favorably to tailback Jahvid Best.
When looking at their agility scores (3-cone drill and 20-yard shorts shuttle), Abdullah recorded numbers nearly identical to that of Best, who during his far-too-brief stint in the NFL was known for his elusiveness when given the ball in space.
And just like Best, Abdullah is incredibly dangerous in the open field as well, using his agility to maneuver his way around helpless defenders for huge gains.
This agility gives Abdullah a rare, almost unreal ability to change direction without losing speed. This trait, when paired alongside his instincts and impeccable timing, allows him to hit even the smallest of creases to slip past defenders on his way to the end zone.
His athleticism along with his low-center of gravity also grants Abdullah incredible balance. Time and again Abdullah can be found avoiding arm tackles while maintaining his momentum toward the goal line.
From all this, it's evident that, unlike the veteran backs listed ahead of him on the depth chart, Abdullah possesses that perfect combination of agility and explosiveness that makes him a threat to score on any given play. And this ability to hit the homerun play may just give Abdullah the leg up on his backfield mates in terms of workload for this upcoming season.
A Nightmare Three-Down Back
In terms of winning the workhorse role on this team, while it certainly helps that Abdullah possesses above-average athleticism and explosiveness as described above, what may be even as -- if not more -- important is that Abdullah also has the all-around skill set all teams look for in an every-down back.
Despite his small stature, Abdullah has shown he can run both inside and outside with the best of them. While his long runs to the outside are the stuff that highlight reels are made of, he has also demonstrated a nose for the end zone when given touches inside the opponent's 20.
As our own Graham Barfield has noted, over his four-year career at Nebraska, Abdullah has amassed an impressive 24.2% red zone success rate on 128 carries in this part of the field, resulting in 31 of his 39 career rushing touchdowns. Contrast this figure with Bell, who on 41 carries in the red zone last season managed two fumbles against just seven touchdowns (17.1%).
In the passing game, Abdullah has demonstrated excellent hands during his time as a Nebraska Cornhusker. Perhaps not coincidentally, pass catching is another trait sorely lacking from veteran backs Bell and Riddick, last season Joique (64.1%) and Theo (68.0%) ranked 134th and 94th, respectively in catch rate among running backs with at least 20 targets.
Carrying over his success in the passing game from college (where he caught 72 passes in his last three seasons) to the pros, Abdullah is impressing coaches at OTAs with his sure-handedness. And with plays like this from his days at Nebraska, such reports shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.
When asked about his role on this team, Abdullah responded by saying, "I'm going to do whatever they ask me to do, but I think I'm an every-down back". And with Abdullah's recent opportunities to prove this to the coaching staff with the first-team offense, his well-rounded abilities may just be what solidifies his position atop the Lions' running back depth chart sooner rather than later.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
It's clear that whatever Joique Bell and the other veteran backs on this team can do in Detroit's offense, Abdullah can do better.
A closer look at the numbers reveals that Bell has left much to be desired as the Lions featured back the past two years. In terms of rushing efficiency, Joique has failed to hit the four yards-per-carry mark the last two seasons.
And as our Editor-in-Chief JJ Zacahriason recently found, while his -0.03 Rushing Net Expected Points -- or NEP, which measures a player's contributions to his team's chances of scoring above or below expectation -- per attempt last season places him in the middle of the pack in this category among all running backs, his 41.1% success rate -- which measures the percentage of a player's carries that contribute to team's chances of scoring above expectation -- places him in the bottom one-third of the league in this metric.
Couple all of this with Bell's age (he turns 29 this season) and slow recovery from offseason surgery jeopardizing his readiness for the start of training camp, and we have an ideal opportunity for Abdullah to take the lead running back spot right out from under him this season.
And if the Bengals situation last year is any indication, this opportunity for Abdullah to get an extended run with the starters this offseason may be all he needs to show the Lions' coaching staff who should truly be the feature back for this team both now and in the future.