Old Mother Hubbard: The Running Backs

>> 5.24.2011

Since Pro Football Focus doesn’t normalize their quarterback data—and, of course, we knew the Lions’ quarterback picture for 2011—this will be the last position group I apply the Old Mother Hubbard treatment to. Without further ado, the chart:

The bright red line is Jamaal Charles, who tied with Adrian Peterson for the best “Run” grade (+23.0)—but Charles’s +3.4 blocking grade is 8th-best in the NFL, while All Day’s -6.8 blocking grade is tied for last place with Chris Johnson, so Charles is “in charge” of the running backs. The dark brick red line is Tim Hightower, whose -7.3 receiving grade was, by far, the worst handed out to any NFL back last year; it went unredeemed by his +0.6 run grade (in a year where the NFL average run grade was +2.5). The AVERAGE, the thick black line, was soundly positive (+3.14), meaning running back play as a whole seems to be better than it was in 2008 (PFF’s baseline season). Interesting.

Per my emerging standard, I’ve given the highest-graded Lions tailback, Maurice Morris, a nice Lions-y blue. His -0.9 overall grade is well below NFL starter average; he ranked 37th of 58 qualifying tailbacks. His ability to catch the ball is probably underrated; MoMo’s receiving grade was a healthy +1.8, 17th-best. His running was graded out at +0.7, below the league average of +2.5, and ranked just below the median (34th of 58).

Statistically, PFF credited Morris with 336 yards on 90 attempts, an average of 3.7 YpC. That’s almost half a yard less than the NFL average of 4.2; he ranked 45th-best out of 58. I was hoping we’d find out Morris was better-than average when it came to yards after contact, but that’s not the case either. He averaged 2.3 yards after contact per carry; by itself that’s a well-below-average number. But, when you look at what percentage of his yards came after contact (62.2%) versus the NFL average (63.2%), he’s getting a typical portion of his gained yards after contact—he’s just not gaining that many yards.

I’ve spoken very highly of Maurice Morris before—indeed, he’s the best, most consistent back the Lions have had throughout the Mayhew Era. Keep in mind, all this doom-and-gloom in the above paragraphs is relative to players with at least 25% of their teams’ snaps. MoMo is a creditable, slightly-below-average starter or above-average rotational/backup NFL tailback. However, he’s not a difference-maker, and it’s not good news that he ended the season as the Lions’ best-graded RB.

BOTTOM LINE: Maurice Morris is a creditable all-around NFL tailback, but he has neither the down-to-down productivity, nor the home-run ability, that the Lions need from their long-term starter. If he sticks around he’ll be a great insurance policy for the Lions’ two young runners. If not, the Lions may look for a similar veteran retread.

My policy in these Old Mother Hubbards is to only review players who I believe can be considered an asset going forward—that is, if they clearly don’t have a place on next year’s roster, there’s no point in assessing them as an . . . asset. Aaron Brown straddles this line. With an overall grade of -3.0 on just 80 snaps, he was technically the second-best-graded 2010 Lions running back not already released. However, his tantalizing speed still can’t be harnessed effectively, because he still makes so many mental mistakes.

BOTTOM LINE: I think the former sixth-rounder is on his last legs here in Detroit. I will be surprised if he makes the roster.

It kills me that Jahvid Best, the Lions’ second 2010 first-round draft pick, was the Lions’ lowest-graded tailback. It kills me even harder that his -6.0 overall grade was third-worst in the NFL, ahead of only Donald Brown and Tim Hightower. His -4.0 running grade was tied for second-worst with Correll Buckhalter; only Thomas Jones’ appalling -9.7 bails Best out from being tied for worst.

I think we’re all well aware of Jahvid’s painful double turf toe injuries; I think we’re also well aware of the Lions’ problems with run blocking. Jahvid did a lot of running into a behind-the-line-of-scrimmage pile; he didn’t get much chance to hit holes hard, like we saw him do in preseason, or rip off long chunks of yardage, like we saw him do in the first few games of the season. He finished with 3.3 yards per carry, 54.5% of which came after contact (1.8).

Towards the end of the season, Jahvid's productivity and grades perked back up. I got a chance to speak with Jahvid about it in between Week 14 and 15, and he told me it was as much, if not more, about overcoming the rookie wall, and being mentally ready to handle the grind of the NFL, as it was physical limitations. Even unable to rest his turf toes, he still turned in positive overall grades in three of the last five games, including a nice 1.2 against Miami (in just 22 snaps). He also failed to be penalized at all—and only fumbled once—with the NFL’s 24th-heaviest workload (573 snaps, NFL avg. 498).

BOTTOM LINE: Jahvid Best showed us plenty of his Jim-Schwartz-up-late-at-night-alone-watching-YouTube-highlight-reels ability in the preseason, in the opening two games, and a little in the last five games. He was clearly hampered by his turf toes, however, and had almost no daylight to work with throughout the middle of the season. Between him getting healthy and Stephen Peterman getting healthy, I expect Jahvid to return to his explosive form. Still, the two questions surrounding Jahvid Best's rookie campaign were, 1) can he stay healthy? and 2) can he handle being an NFL feature back? Unfortunately, Best’s first year points more toward the answers being “No,” and “No,” than “Yes,” and “Yes.”

SHOPPING LIST: Pre-draft, I would have suggested that the Lions would be okay with Best as the returning #1—with the caveat that the Lions would either have to be very comfortable with Maurice Morris seeing significant carries, or acquire a power back to help carry some of the between-the-tackles load. Now that the Lions have drafted Mikel Leshoure, I see Best as the 1a to Leshoure’s 1b—with health, workload, and opponent determining the week-to-week load. Morris would be a fine insurance policy, and has one year left on his contract. If he’s willing to be the third wheel, the Lions will be in very good shape at this position for 2011—and beyond.


SomeChoi,  May 26, 2011 at 12:59 PM  

Jahvid was an average blocker? With his size, I would've expected to see scenes like that Ravens LB who sent Kevin Jones' helmet to the ground, feet into the air, and neck to the sidelines. Wonder if that rating is because he was never asked to block.

randomguy313,  May 26, 2011 at 2:12 PM  

Makes sense SomeChoi. If Jahvid did any blocking I would say it was of the chipping variety than simply pass protection.

Alvin2112,  May 26, 2011 at 6:50 PM  

SomeChoi- I saw Jahvid plan miss a couple blitz pickups last year, that couldn't have helped his blocking rating. Overall I thought he was ok, he's a pretty strong guy.

I was disappointed with Jahvid's ranking after I read your rundown as well. I still have faith in his elite speed and shiftiness however. I think if he can stay healthy he's gonna be a good one. I'm glad we drafted Leshoure, with him on board and Best having 2 healthy toes, the running game should have more explosion next year.


Anonymous,  June 8, 2011 at 12:22 AM  

Ian Johnson will be a fine #3

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