Projected Starter: Kevin Smith/Jahvid Best (R)
The Lions were geeked to trade up and grab Best at the bottom of the first-round in April, and rightfully so. Best would have been projected to go earlier if not for a frightening concussion suffered at the tail-end of his final season at Cal. It forced Best to miss a handful of activities, and his stock dropped as a result. In Detroit, it's on the rise. With Smith sidelined while recovering from an ACL injury, Best starred in Detroit's OTAs, including the team's final mini-camp, where he demonstrated some of the flash and eye-popping quickness that made him so attractive leaving college. Smith, meanwhile, should be sufficiently recovered from his ACL, and eager to return to his 2008 form, when he averaged over 4 yards per carry. The two will combine in the backfield, with Best's versatility and receiving ability making him valuable on third down situations.
Projected backup: Aaron Brown
Brown is a bit of an enigma. A sixth-round pick a year ago, he had a strong preseason and cracked the roster due to his special teams play and open field ability as a runner. But he also drew the ire of the coaching staff several times during his rookie campaign with onfield miscues, including missed blocking assignments and mental errors in the return game. Brown will have his opportunity to put his mistake-laden past behind him in training camp, but beyond his talents, he has another thing going for him: payroll. Although veteran Maurice Morris is more than serviceable, and a reliable presence, he will also cost Detroit over $2 million in 2010. Brown's price tag? Just over $400k.
Detroit's running attack, like every other facet of the team, was sluggish in 2009. The team squeezed just 415 yards out of Smith in his 13 games before the injury, and they ranked in the bottom half of the league in every category. The Lions were second-to-last in one particular category that spurred the choice of Best: runs of 20-plus yards. With virtually no threat of the pass, many opponents would stack the line against the Lions, incapacitating their ability to run. They also had questionable play from the right tackle and left guard positions. Still, the team's run production (101 yards per game) was up 17-percent from the year before. Definitely something to build upon.
RB Jahvid Best
The team is loaded with weapons other than Best and Smith, with adequate blocking (and receiving) tight ends, along with a pair of formidable receivers in Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson. And, of course, they have a gunslinger in the pocket. Since the Lions will base their offense around the pass, its success will only yield good things for the running game. Best and Smith both have playmaking ability, which fit nicely with the tempo Detroit is looking to provide in 2010. However, they're also both young, which can lead to missed assignments, turnovers, and other miscues. If the trend of improvement continues, and Detroit's aerial attack can make believers out of everyone other than themselves, it should be a productive year for Detroit's backfield.
I'd much rather have ... Baltimore's Ray Rice is the entire package: a gifted runner and a receiver that finished with over 2,000 all-purpose yards in just his second professional season a year ago. He averaged over 5 yards per carry, but really helped advance quarterback Joe Flacco's standing in the league by being Mr. Everything. Rice led the Ravens with 78 catches, outdistancing veteran receiver Derrick Mason, and almost made everyone forget about backup Willis McGahee (who actually averaged 5 yards per carry as well). The Lions actually passed on Rice in the second-round of 2008 to pluck little-used Jordon Dizon, who is battling for a roster spot. They eventually picked Kevin Smith eight slots later. Ouch.
But he's better than ... Chicago's Matt Forte. In his second-year, Forte didn't crack 1,000 yards, averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per carry, and fumbled the ball six times. Sure, he was an effective receiver for Jay Cutler (57 catches), but the Bears as a team averaged just 93.2 yards per contest, 4 yards per carry, and put the ball on the turf 10 times. Between Smith and Best, Detroit has a more apt, exciting, and improved backfield entering 2010 than its division rival.
This is based solely on two things: confidence in Matt Stafford's arm, and Jahvid Best's YouTube clips (look, if they were good enough for Schwartz to draft him, they're good enough for me to rank him). The word that has both followed and haunted the Lions for quite some time is potential, mostly because they never seem to reach it. But given the quality and experience of Detroit's coaching staff, along with a budding offense, the team's backfield is certainly one that aims to excite, and most importantly, produce. Here's guessing it will.
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