Projected starter: Kevin Jones
Position summary: Excitement with a large dose of caution clouds Detroit's backfield. Third-year running back Kevin Jones suffered sophomore struggles (186 carries, 664 yards) in 2005, primarily due to a dubious running-back-by-committee approach employed by former coach Steve Mariucci.
In 2006, however, Jones will shoulder the bulk of the workload -- and with that comes many more responsibilities.
While Jones' hard-nose running style is unquestionable, his versatility is unknown and pass blocking skills sub par. Within new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's downfield scheme, he will be relied upon to catch the ball out of the backfield, turn up field and make yards after the catch. Jones was impressive during mini-camps and OTA's, even showing improvement. He will be expected to continue that progress, otherwise Martz will turn to his more versatile reserves.
Both Shawn Bryson and Brian Calhoun add an interesting element to the depth at the position. Bryson was rewarded with a three-year extension in March, a logical decision given his 37 receptions and 284 receiving yards out of the backfield. Entering his eighth year in the league, Bryson is the most experienced and fluid of the team's running backs. He is also the best at pass protection -- a welcomed safety valve for Martz if Jones is unable to distinguish himself.
Calhoun, a third-round pick out of Wisconsin, is the complete package and considered by many a steal in the April draft. With a scat back mentality (he stands just 5'9, 202 lbs), Calhoun will see time on the field, but perhaps not as frequently as the two veterans in front of him. Still, Calhoun possesses track speed, a seamless pass-catching ability, and shiftiness in the open field. Those attributes made Calhoun a Detroit Lion on the first day, and an early favorite of both Martz and head coach Rod Marinelli.
Calhoun will also be valuable as a return man, and could see time at both punt and kick returner, depending on the status of incumbent Eddie Drummond.
Four-year running back Artose Pinner has been all but written off by most in the media and even some within the Lions organization, especially after the drafting of Calhoun and the signing of former Rams' tailback Arlen Harris. While Pinner has disregarded the notion, he does add a punch (5'10, 235 lbs) to the backfield and could be used at both fullback and running back if needed.
Pinner has improved every year since joining the team as a fourth round pick, and will fight to keep his job. If he doesn't crack the roster, there is no doubt he will have a job waiting elsewhere in the league.
Harris is also entering his fourth year, and his familiarity with Martz via St. Louis -- where he spent his first three years in the league -- will be the most beneficial. Harris knows Martz's offense and could find a role on the team's 53-man roster if he beats out Pinner.
The rest: Fullback Cory Schlesinger's role with the team is in question given Martz's preference to treat the position as a rotating door. Simply put, there isn't a designated fullback within the Lions' new offense, and that is all 'Sledge' knows. The 11-year veteran earned praise from Martz and Marinelli due to his leadership and competitiveness during the OTA's, but that won't guarantee him a job. Reserve fullback Will Matthews is younger, faster and more versatile, and will push Schlesinger for his spot in training camp.
Undrafted rookie fullback Matt Bernstein helped pave the way for Calhoun on the collegiate level, but is a long shot to land on the roster.