Lions out to thin running back corps

You have to wonder what the Detroit Lions intend to do about all the running backs they have on their roster. Detroit returns starter James Stewart, backup Rafael Cooper, Autry Denson, former seventh round pick Luke Staley, and added undrafted free-agent Avon Cobourne, veteran Shawn Bryson, and draft pick Artose Pinner. So who's the odd man out? Lions' insider Mike Fowler examines.

(ALLEN PARK) -- An embarrassment of riches?

You have to wonder what the Detroit Lions intend to do about all the running backs they have on their roster. Detroit returns incumbent starter James Stewart and backup Rafael Cooper to combine with returnee Autry Denson, one of NFL Europe's leading rushers, undrafted free-agent Avon Cobourne, free agent acquisition Shawn Bryson, 2002 seventh round pick Luke Staley and injured fourth round pick Artose Pinner, who has yet to see the field.

"We've got too many running backs on the roster, said head coach Steve Mariucci. "That's due to the injuries. Shawn Bryson and Artose Pinner haven't practiced due to injury."

So who's the odd man out?

"I'm not a coach, so I don't worry about said," said NFL Europe star Autry Denson. Denson, who was the second leading rusher in Europe with the Rhein Fire said, "I'm a playmaker, I'm going to make plays. If I have to run a guy over, I'm going to run him over, if I have to go around him, I'll go around him. My focus is just making plays."

Denson has done that in training camp so far putting himself in a good position to claim the team's third down back role.

Despite being a journeyman over his five year career in the NFL, having had stints in Miami, Chicago, Cleveland and Indianapolis. Denson turned enough heads to be signed to the Lions 53 man roster last season.

Avon Cobourne, who signed with Detroit after going undrafted, has also put himself into the mix. Cobourne is a smallish, shifty type of back who can run between the tackles and bounce it outside on occasion. "I'm just trying to make the best of my reps when I get them," said Cobourne. "I think I'm doing OK."

Luke Staley's career is at a crossroads. If he doesn't make the Lions squad this season, he'll likely be forced to make a decision about his career prospects. Staley looked like a revelation in minicamp. He ran with authority and speed, caught every thing thrown to him and looked like he could be a starting NFL back. But Staley hurt himself, injuring a hamstring and missed the remainder of minicamp.

Staley appeared tentative and sluggish before fumbling in practice on Tuesday; he appears to be a long shot to make the team unless he can regain the form he showed in minicamp.

Second-year veteran Rafael Cooper returns after playing in five games for Detroit last year. He gained 57 yards on 12 attempts for a decent 4.8 per carry average. Cooper excels on special teams, an advantage in the battle for a roster spot. That will likely be the primary way for him to make the team.

The unknowns are fourth round selection Artose Pinner and free agent acquisition Shawn Bryson who have yet to take the field. You can almost certainly pencil in Pinner as the backup to Stewart. The Lions are so high on the former Kentucky star that some have even suggested that Pinner could be the starter by season's end.

While that's unlikely considering Stewart is a two-time 1,000 rusher in his four years with Detroit, Pinner will likely press for time as the season wears on. Mariucci is known for using several backs in his version of the WCO.

Best guess-timate as to what will occur?

Stewart will start with Pinner in reserve. Denson and Bryson will battle for the other backup spot with the loser getting a shot at backup fullback. Cobourne is likely to end up on the practice squad or waivers with Staley the odd man out. Cooper's best shot is as a special teamer.


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