| Detroit Free Press
Matt Patricia’s plan to improve the Detroit Lions’ consistency
Lions coach Matt Patricia, fresh off the bye, discusses plan to improve consistency of performance, starting against Jaguars. Filmed Oct. 14, 2020.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were so determined to build a reliable running game in Doug Marrone’s first season as head coach that the organization took the unusual step of drafting a running back No. 4 overall.
Leonard Fournette had a fine rookie season in 2017, rushing for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns while helping the Jaguars to within a whisker of the Super Bowl. But three years later, after the second 1,000-yard season of his career, Fournette was deemed so expendable that Jacksonville cut him during training camp and turned its starting running back job over to a little-known undrafted rookie out of Illinois State, James Robinson.
Jacksonville’s identity as a football team has not changed much in Marrone’s four seasons as coach. The team still wants to play physical football and win with balance on offense and a tenacious defense.
But the organization’s philosophy on drafting running backs seemingly has shifted.
The Jaguars have not taken a running back higher than the fifth round the last three years, and Robinson has all but six of the team’s carries by a running back this fall.
Marrone said questions about Jacksonville’s positional draft philosophy are better suited for general manager Dave Caldwell or some of the team’s scouts, but he acknowledged that most NFL teams changed their thinking on drafting running backs “a little bit earlier” than 2017.
“To say the value of the position has gone down, I think the game has changed a little bit with more movement from the quarterback position,” Marrone said in a conference call Wednesday with Detroit reporters. “There’s such an emphasis on making sure that you have the right guy at the quarterback position, that I think that’s probably kind of lessened the value of that running back position.”
The 1-4 Jaguars host the 1-3 Detroit Lions on Sunday in a game that, for as bad as the two teams are, provides more fodder for folks who think NFL teams should never spend a high draft pick on a running back.
Robinson ranks 12th in the NFL with 333 yards rushing and has been a bright spot in Jacksonville’s otherwise dismal season. He’s averaging 4.6 yards per carry, has 19 catches out of the backfield and for the nominal cost of a $25,000 signing bonus has been one of the biggest steals in the NFL.
The Lions, meanwhile, found their leading rusher, 35-year-old Adrian Peterson, on the free agent scrap heap in early September.
Peterson, despite barely knowing the Lions playbook, has 245 yards rushing on 54 carries in four games and has relegated recent second-round draft picks D’Andre Swift and Kerryon Johnson to backup roles.
“I think all the way across the board, you find players, hopefully, that maybe come out of different situations and just, like I said maybe on Monday, when they get into the NFL, something happens and the lightbulb comes on and they play really well,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “From that aspect of it, I think everyone just makes the most of their opportunities. And when they do, if they can break through, then I think it’s great.”
Both the Lions and Jaguars deserve credit for turning overlooked players into featured parts of their offense, though Peterson’s success calls into question the Lions’ incongruous use of draft day resources.
With Patricia, like Marrone, determined to build a balanced offense and capable running game, the Lions traded up in the second round of the 2018 draft to take Johnson. Last year, they took a late-round flyer on running back Ty Johnson. And this year, they drafted Swift with the third pick of the second round and took another running back, Jason Huntley, in Round 5.
The Lions waived both Ty Johnson and Huntley earlier this season, and have played Swift (12 carries, 42 yards) and Kerryon Johnson (21 carries, 71 yards) primarily in nonrushing roles.
Patricia declined to share his philosophy on drafting running backs Wednesday, saying only that all drafts are “unique based on what happens, where you pick, who picks before you, what the depth of the positions are that are available, things like that.”
Looking at this year’s NFL rushing leaders, the case can be made both ways, that running backs are worth the draft capital it takes to get a good one and that serviceable backs are easy to find if you know where to look.
Of the league’s top 10 rushers, three are former first-round picks still with the team that drafted them, four were second-round selections and the final three were late-round picks or castoffs.
Todd Gurley, who ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing, was released by the Los Angeles Rams this spring in a salary dump tied to concerns about the health of his knees. Sixth-leading rusher Aaron Jones was the steal of the 2017 draft, taken 178 picks after Fournette in Round 5. And ninth-leading rusher Kareem Hunt is on his second team after off-field problems cut short his time with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Dalvin Cook, a first-round talent who fell to the second round of the 2017 draft, leads the NFL in rushing, and five of the seven teams averaging more than 30 points per game start a running back they drafted in top three rounds. (The Browns, who rank fourth in scoring, have both Hunt and 2018 second-round pick Nick Chubb).
The Lions may or may not give Swift more work in the coming weeks now that he’s over the hip injury that limited him in training camp. Marrone said truly special running backs may be worth the draft pick it takes to land them but he’s tickled with what he found going the low-budget route and landing Robinson.
“There’s a lot of history to it,” Marrone said, pointing to the success teams like the Denver Broncos have had with late-round or undrafted running backs. “I think there’s storylines within each one.”
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