The Detroit Lions have had a problem with running the ball since Barry Sanders retired after the 1998 season. Since then, the Lions have had 11 different leading rushers, including six in the last six years (including Theo Riddick this season).
After finishing in last place in the NFL in rush yards per game last season, the Lions have moved up to 24th this season (due in large part to calling more running plays). The last time the Lions weren't in the bottom 10 was 2013 (17th), and prior to that, the last time the Lions finished better than 23 was in 2004 when they were 19th. The last time the Lions had a top half run game? Way back in 1998 when Barry Sanders was in his final season, the Lions finished 10th in the NFL with 122.2 yards per game on the ground.
How long has it been since Lions had a good running game?
There has been quite a lot of things that have happened since the Lions finished in the top half of the rushing standings.
In the sports world, the Detroit Red Wings have since won two championships, the Detroit Pistons have since won one, the Detroit Tigers have made two World Series, and the Detroit Shock were founded, left Detroit for Tulsa and then moved from Tulsa to Dallas.
The Lions have undergone a lot of changes since then too. Matthew Stafford was drafted first overall, Calvin Johnson has come and gone, as have the jobs of several coaches, Matt Millen, Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the last time the Lions had a top ten rushing attack, was before 2001, during Bill Clinton's presidency. That's just the beginning of changes that the United States has made the last 18 years.
What do the Lions need to do to to restore the roar on the ground?
The Lions could do several things to improve their run game, among which is simply staying healthy. Ameer Abdullah being injured does not exactly help, as he was their leading rusher last year and likely would be their starting running back (outside of goalline and third down situations).
While Abdullah isn't a top back in the NFL by any means, he could certainly get the Lions at least out of the bottom of the barrel in ways without calling too many run plays.
Another way the Lions could improve their rushing attack is by improving their blocking. Unfortunately, the Lions have only one player who's above average in run blocking (Riley Reiff), one who's average (Taylor Decker), one who's poor (Laken Tomlinson) and two who are average to below average in Graham Glasgow and Larry Warford. If the Lions could find a guard who can run block to replace Tomlinson and perhaps a veteran center in free agency who can lead the offensive line, the unit would improve instantly.
Of course, there's the more obvious and direct way that the Lions could fix things. The flashy way that the Lions have seemingly been trying to avoid with the exception of injury-riddled Jahvid Best; actually upgrading the running back position through the draft.
With running backs like Mikel LeShoure who didn't pan out, Reggie Bush who struggled behind poor line play and turned into a third down back, and Theo Riddick who seems to be average as a three down runner, the Lions have not had the privilege of having an exceptional running back on their roster.
The 2017 NFL Draft might be just the place to get one.
This year's incoming draft class at running back
The Detroit Lions have as many running backs to choose from in the NFL Draft this spring as a young child has presents on Christmas morning.
With big time stars like Leonard Fournette (who the Lions might have to trade up for), NFL-ready starters like Dalvin Cook (who many experts predict the Lions to select right now), players with big potential like Christian McCaffrey who some consider a borderline first round pick, some undervalued sleepers like Alvin Kamara who's a little bit of a lesser hyped name who also could be picked in the first round, and a lot of depth as well, this is a good year for the Lions to consider taking a running back. Worst come to worse, even Barry Sanders' son is in this draft (although he's currently projected to go undrafted).
There are about 25 prospects projected to enter this draft class that could be drafted. While it does remain to be seen what happens to Theo Riddick and a relatively young offensive line the rest of the season, the Lions should already have some eyes on the bigger names at runningback.