Lions Should Take Hard Look At Two Running Backs Early In Draft

They spent the past three seasons running wild in the Big Ten.

Will Burchfield
December 09, 2019 - 6:14 pm
J.K. Dobbins

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The Lions keep losing, and their draft position keeps improving.

They're up to the fifth overall pick after Sunday's loss to the Vikings, with a chance to climb even higher over the final three games. They won't catch the 1-12 Bengals, but with a little luck they could break into the top 3. That's Chase Young territory. And that will stir all kinds of fun speculation in the months ahead. 

But let's look at their next selection, when the Lions will have another chance to add an impact player. They hold the sixth pick in the second round (38th overall) as things stand today, according to Tankathon. That's territory for ... two of the best running backs in the country. 

Yep, a year after drafting Kerryon Johnson in the second round, the Lions are back in the market at his position. For all of Johnson's talent, he's played in just 16 games over his first two seasons. His injury troubles in college have followed him to the NFL. 

Detroit can't enter another season crossing its fingers that Johnson stays healthy, without a real insurance policy if he doesn't. And it can't pretend that Johnson, J.D. McKissic, Bo Scarbrough and Ty Johnson is a backfield worth building around. The Lions need more explosive talent in that room, and they might not have to look far to find it.

Those two running backs? They ran wild this season in the Big Ten, and both could slip into the second round: J.K. Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor. 

Most mock drafts have Georgia's D'Andre Swift as the first running back off the board. And most agree he'll be the only one taken in the first round. A lot can change between now and April, but there's a good chance Dobbins and Taylor will be available in round two. And there's a good chance they'll both be gone by the start of round three. 

Bob Quinn might not love the idea of spending another early pick on a running back, but it's the dilemma he's created. And he shouldn't balk at the cost of fixing it. 

Dobbins ranked second in the country this season in rushing yards. Taylor ranked third. Taylor was tied for second in touchdowns. Dobbins was third. They both averaged well over 6.0 yards per carry. They both contributed in the passing game. Maybe most importantly for the Lions, neither one missed a game in three college seasons. 

Detroit's failure last offseason wasn't in neglecting depth at running back. It was in trying to address it at a minimal cost. The Lions added C.J. Anderson in free agency, only to release him two games into the season. They drafted Ty Johnson in the sixth round, and have so far received the kind of return you'd expect. If they try to play it cute again, this picture could look even uglier a year from now. 

Sure, there will be talented backs on the board in the middle rounds of the draft. The fourth leading rusher in the country, A.J Dillon of Boston College -- another strong, durable runner -- comes to mind. So do Alabama's Najee Harris and Utah's Zach Moss. And there's always the chance of finding this year's version of Chris Carson, a seventh-rounder in 2017. 

But the needle shrinks with each passing round, and the haystack grows bigger. Speaking of that 2017 draft, just five of the 23 running backs taken after the second round are on track for 2,000 yards through three seasons. All four taken in the first two rounds -- Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon -- have already eclipsed it.

If the Lions want to build a legitimate backfield -- instead of rifling through the bargain bin -- they have to be willing to pay the price. 

It doesn't feel like Detroit will go offense in the first round. Its expensive defense is somehow desperate for more help. So is its expensive offensive line, and maybe Quinn is best served fixing that piece of the puzzle (again) before bringing in another running back. But the biggest mark against Quinn in his four years as GM is the Lions' lack of top-tier talent. 

Dobbins and Taylor could change that. There might be concerns about the miles they accrued in college, but isn't health the more important question? The Lions overlooked that factor in regard to Johnson, consciously so, and now they're without him for the second straight December. They don't need to replace Johnson, and this isn't about that.

This is about adding more premium talent at a position where they don't have enough.

Come April, who knows if Dobbins and/or Taylor will be on the board beyond the first round. But the Lions should start seriously considering both -- or consider what their backfield might look like if they spend another year crossing their fingers, hoping for the best.