Early draft picks could boost Detroit's running game
ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) Jim Caldwell's first season as coach of the Detroit Lions was largely a success, with the team making the playoffs for only the second time in the past 15 years.
If there was an area of disappointment, it was probably the running game. The Lions struggled to move the ball consistently on the ground, and that was part of the reason the offense as a whole went through some underwhelming stretches.
''We're working at it,'' Caldwell said. ''You can give it lip service all you want, but we also have added personnel to kind of help us do that. So we intend to get better, and we must.''
Two players the Lions added to help their running game were on hand Friday, the first day of the team's rookie minicamp. In the draft last week, Detroit picked offensive lineman Laken Tomlinson in the first round and running back Ameer Abdullah in the second. Both newcomers have a chance to help the Lions in areas where the team fell short last year.
''My first impression was just, `Wow, this is NFL football,''' Tomlinson said. ''Go out there and show the coaches what you can do.''
The Lions went 11-6 last season, but they averaged 88.9 yards rushing, ranking 28th in the league. Reggie Bush had only 76 carries, and Joique Bell averaged just 3.9 yards per attempt.
Detroit cut Bush this offseason, meaning there was room for another back to complement Bell. Abdullah was the choice, taken with the 54th pick in the draft after a stellar career at Nebraska.
In addition to Abdullah and Tomlinson, the Lions also drafted fullback Michael Burton in the fifth round and offensive lineman Corey Robinson in the seventh. The message was clear: Detroit wants to be a more powerful team up front on offense.
That could mean better protection for quarterback Matthew Stafford, but it's the running game that may benefit even more from Detroit's offseason moves. The Lions also traded for veteran offensive lineman Manny Ramirez.
Stafford improved his completion percentage a bit last season, but his total of 4,257 yards passing was the lowest of his career over a full season. He was sacked a career-high 45 times, and the lack of a strong running game didn't help matters.
''It's a quarterback's best friend - plain and simple,'' Caldwell said. ''It takes some of the pressure off of him. Just in terms of our situation last year - we run the ball a little bit better, that gives us a chance to win a couple more ballgames. A couple more ballgames is the difference between 11-5 and 13-3.''
Abdullah rushed for over 1,600 yards in each of his final two seasons at Nebraska, while Tomlinson performed well enough at Duke to become that program's first player drafted in the first round since 1987.
Now they begin the process of trying to impress new coaches and learn a new team's system. Adaptability is key as players work their way into better condition.
''No matter what you do, until you get back to playing football, you're never in top football shape,'' Abdullah said. ''I did a pretty good job in the offseason, training pretty hard, so I felt pretty good today. Obviously, your legs get a little tired.''
The 5-foot-11 Bell has shouldered an increased workload over the last three seasons, rushing for a career-high 860 yards in 2014. So Detroit doesn't need someone else to come in and be an immediate star in the backfield. The Lions just need another back who can give the team an additional option. That, along with a better performance from the offensive line, could make a big difference.
''I'd like to be able to add a real strong running game,'' Caldwell said. ''Our running game was sporadic. There were some times, it was really good, and then there were some times, it wasn't good enough. We've just got to get it where it's consistent.''
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