Over the next several days, leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Detroit Lions’ roster and evaluating how the team might address each unit. Today: Running backs.
► Current roster: D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Kerryon Johnson, Nick Bawden, Jason Cabinda
► Short-term need: Two out of 10
► Long-term need: Four out of 10
► Top prospects: Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams
► Mid-round options: Rhamondre Stevenson, Trey Sermon, Chuba Hubbard
► Late-round considerations: Tommy Tremble, Kene Nwangwu, Jake Funk
► Analysis: If the Lions don’t make another addition to their running back room this offseason, they’ll probably be OK.
The group is headed by Swift, a second-round draft pick last year who quickly proved to be a dynamic weapon at this level. As a rookie, he averaged 4.6 yards per carry, caught 46 passes and scored 10 times. And with just 160 touches across 13 games, there’s plenty of room for increased production moving forward.
To complement Swift in the offense, the Lions parted with Adrian Peterson and signed Williams away from Green Bay. Not only is his versatility appealing in a backup role, it prevents the offense from having to be significantly altered if Swift were to have to miss time due to injury.
The rotation is rounded out by Johnson, who made a smooth transition into a third-down role a year ago. While it appears the former second-round pick has lost a half-step after a pair of knee injuries in 2018 and 2019, he’s still able to do a little bit of everything and has impressively developed into one of the league’s better blockers at the position.
That’s a solid trio, and while you can always find room for a developmental piece to add to the mix, there’s no urgency to find one, even with Johnson entering the final year of his rookie contract.
The bigger question is at fullback, and whether the Lions will even utilize one going forward.
On one hand, general manager Brad Holmes comes from the Rams, where they haven’t used a fullback in recent years, while coach Dan Campbell and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn had fullbacks with the Saints and Chargers, respectively. That has us leaning toward yes, the Lions will have keep one in 2021.
Currently, there are two on the roster, although Bawden has shown an inability to stay on the field during his three seasons, missing 38 of 48 games. Cabinda, meanwhile, made the switch from linebacker during training camp and filled in admirably given the short window to learn the position.
That said, you can’t help but be intrigued by a guy like Tremble. He played tight end at Notre Dame, but at 6-foot-3, 241 pounds, he’s probably better suited lining up in the backfield as a pro.
Tremble established himself as a ferocious and talented blocker, but he’s also highly athletic and a decent pass catcher to boot, providing a creative offensive coordinator a unique weapon to utilize out of the backfield. Kyle Juszczyk has redefined the fullback position in San Franciscio, and Tremble projects to being capable of playing a similar schematic role.
The Lions also could target a back capable of playing a special teams role in the later rounds. Nwangwu, for example, is an accomplished kick returner with blazing speed who averaged 26.8 yards during his four seasons at Iowa State.
Funk, meanwhile, despite some legitimate concerns about his durability, has the makings of a four-core special teamer with seek-and-destroy ability when working with the coverage units. With his size, quickness and explosiveness, there’s also a possibility he’s able to eventually carve out a role on offense, as well.