Fantasy owners know this line well: not since Barry Sanders have the Detroit Lions owned a dominant running game. That's a decade ago, y'all, and since that time fantasy owners have been burned year after year by backs built up to be the next star in the Motor City. For a while the answer was thought to be Kevin Jones, a star at Virginia Tech before making waves for a brief time in Detroit. But injuries plagued his career, and now he's competing for time in Chicago.
This year's answer to the Barry Sanders curse could be either veteran Tatum Bell or rookie Kevin Smith. Neither is a top-tier fantasy consideration -- to be sure -- but the winner of the camp battle could have significant value as a fantasy backup or, dare I suggest, No. 2 back in traditional leagues. Lions coach Rod Marinelli has made it no secret he wishes to bring more balance to his team's offense following the departure of pass-crazed coordinator Mike Martz, and that means the Lions featured back could be in store for a fair number of carries. Also of interest, the Lions have invested heavily in their offensive line, having used their top pick on Boston College lineman Gosder Cherilus.
Why Bell will keep the job: Fantasy owners still remember the back who averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his first two seasons with Denver, and the one who played well (most of the time) in five appearances last season. He gained 87 yards on just 15 carries in the 2007 season opener, and caught 13 passes in the first three weeks. But Denver's backfield was too thick and Bell became the odd man out.
Now that Jones and T.J. Duckett have moved on, Bell has high expectations for the '08 season. A former 1,000-yard back during a brief stay in Denver, Bell could easily eclipse that mark again should he win the Detroit job this August. He has more experience than his competition in camp, and he is probably the best receiver of all the Detroit running backs.
Even though he is the "veteran," Bell is still relatively young (27). His legs have plenty of juice left and when he has been handed the starting job he's performed. Given all that, the Lions might be wise to start with Bell, and when Smith is ready to take over the job -- whether that happens in December or next August -- he can step in with little pressure.
Why Smith will win it: Smith may be carrying Bell's and Aveion Cason's shoulder pads to practice these days, but come September the former Central Florida standout could very well be carrying the full load of the rushing duties. Smith proved at Central Florida that he is capable of taking on such a role; he carried the ball 450 times last season, gaining more than 2,500 yards and reaching the end zone 30 times. In a game against UAB he carried 41 times, yet maintained a 7.8-yards per rush average. The following week he averaged 8.9 yards per carry against SMU.
As yet the Detroit coaches have done nothing but rave about their rookie back. "We asked what he does in the offseason and he said, 'I build my armor; I get in the weight room and build my armor for the season,'" Marinelli told local reporters in late May. "That's a physical back."
The real reason Smith will win the job has little to do with his refreshingly mature attitude or his success at Central Florida, but rather the simple fact that Bell has not shown in the past few years an ability to be a four-quarter-a-game, 16-game running back. Bell best fits Detroit, or any team for that matter, as a situational back, much like No. 3 back Brian Calhoun. Of all the backs in camp, Smith has the most upside ... and no one in Detroit is going to argue against trying something (or someone) new.
Who fantasy owners should pull for: Smith
There's a reason the Lions traded up on the second day of the NFL draft to acquire the highly-coveted first pick of round three. They were not confident in their stable of running backs, and Smith was an appealing Sunday selection. Now fantasy owners should wish to see him on the field on Sundays this fall. He is a powerful back with game-breaking ability who will complement the team's dynamic passing offense. Like most rookies, Smith cannot be a fantasy savior, but he can offer more scoring potential than Bell, Calhoun, Cason and anyone else the Lions can put out on the field.