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O'HARA: How Lions have worked to build a run game

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Mike O'Hara takes a look at what the Lions have done to build a running game this year, and some key events that made an impact in the past.
The Detroit Lions’ 2018 running back depth is an example of how the franchise has tried in the last decade to add impact to an underperforming position that is showing signs of emerging from a rebuild mode.

The draft, free agency and development of young players are all present in the makeup of the position in what has been a concerted effort by general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia to improve a running game that ranked last in the NFL in 2017.

There is promise of better days on the horizon, but two factors unrelated to personnel strategy cannot be discounted.

Luck and timing – good and bad – have been key factors for the Lions, both in the last decade and deeper in history.

Good luck and timing combined to bring in franchise stars Billy Sims and Barry Sanders in the draft.

More recently, bad luck – in the form of injuries – brought an early end to the careers of Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure, and cost Ameer Abdullah all but two games of the 2016 season after he’d been off to a good start.

And the wrong choice in draft picks – as happened in 2008 – can have lasting impact.

Following is a look at what the Lions have done to build a running game this year, and some key events that made an impact in the past:

2018: Traditional methods were used this offseason to upgrade the position.

In free agency, LeGarrette Blount was signed to add a power runner with a track record of excelling in short yardage.

In the draft, the Lions traded up in the second round to take 2017 SEC rushing leader Kerryon Johnson of Auburn. Fullback Nick Bawden of San Diego State was taken in the seventh round. Unfortunately, bad luck struck when Bawden sustained an injury in the offseason that put his immediate future in doubt.

Already on board were Abdullah, a 2015 second-round pick who has shown signs of big-play ability; 2013 sixth-round pick Theo Riddick, who has developed into one of the league’s top receiving backs; Zach Zenner, a valuable backup and hard-core performer who made the roster as an undrafted rookie in 2015; and Dwayne Washington, a 2016 seventh-round pick who has yet to make an impact.

In a less traditional move, Nick Bellore was switched from linebacker to fullback in his eighth pro season and second as a Lion.

One other addition cannot be discounted. Frank Ragnow was drafted in the first round and plugged in immediately as the starter at left guard on the offensive line.

Bottom line: What looks good on paper and in offseason workouts has to be proven when the pads come on in training camp and in games that count. Patricia was understandably cautious when talking about the running game during the mandatory minicamp.

“It’s a noncontact camp mode,” Patricia said, emphasizing the obvious – practices are without helmets, pads and contact.

“That’s what we’re in right now. We think we’re working in the right direction there in all areas. It’s not obviously something we think we’ve hit to an arrival point.

“The running game will look totally different when we get to training camp, put some pads on, and get a chance to look at everybody from that standpoint.”

Billy Sims, Barry Sanders – good luck, timing:  When it came to drafting franchise running backs – and the two best in franchise history -- the Lions picked the right time to be bad, and had the good fortune of having a franchise back in the draft.

Sims: The Lions got the first pick in the 1980 Draft as the prize for a league-worst 2-14 won-loss record in 1979. They drafted Sims, the 1978 Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma. He was a star from opening day until his career was ended by a knee injury sustained early in the second half of Game 8 against the Vikings in 1984.

Sims was at his peak at the time of the injury, averaging 5.1 yards per carry for the season.

Sanders: The Lions had the third pick in 1989 off a 4-12 record in 1988. They needed some good luck to draft Sanders, and got it when the Packers took offensive tackle Tony Mandarich No. 2.

A gift from the football heavens – courtesy of the Packers’ blunder – gave the Lions the most electrifying runner in NFL history and one of the three greatest players in franchise history.

Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure – bad luck: Two young backs who were drafted with solid college credentials were limited to one full season each because of injuries.

Best: Former GM Martin Mayhew traded with the Vikings to move up into the first round to take Best 30th overall in 2010. There was an injury risk because of a concussion that ended Best’s 2009 season at Cal early.

Best scored five TDs – three rushing two receiving –  in his first two games and played all 16 games as a rookie. His career ended because of a concussion sustained in Game 6 of 2011.

The highlight of Best’s career – and a look at what he could have been – came in Game 5 of 2011. On Monday Night TV he rushed for 163 yards and clinched a 24-13 win over the Bears with an 88-yard TD run in the second half. He sustained the concussion the next week and never played again.

Leshoure: He was a solid, productive player at Illinois when he came to the Lions as a second-round pick in 2012. Leshoure looked like an ideal fit as an all-round runner, receiver and blocker. However, an Achilles injury sustained early in training camp put him out for his rookie year.

Leshoure flamed out early. He rushed for 798 yards and nine TDs in 2012, and his only 100-yard game that season was Week 3 – an even 100 yards and three TDs in a road win over the Titans.

He had two carries in 2013 and never played again, partly because of personal issues.

Choices: Day 2 of the 2008 draft began with the third round, and the Lions traded with Miami to get the first pick in the round. With a night to research and plan, the Lions filled their need at running back by drafting Kevin Smith of Central Florida.

Wrong choice.

Smith was a durable, productive runner in college, but his lack of speed was obvious from the day he stepped on the practice field. His first two seasons were decent – 976 yards rushing in 2008, 747 in 2009.

Smith started only six games the next three seasons combined, and was out of football after rushing for 134 yards in 2012.

Nine picks after the Lions took Smith, the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Jamaal Charles of Texas. He missed most of three seasons but was All Pro twice, made the Pro Bowl four times and rushed for more than 1,000 yards five times.

His career average of 5.4 yards per carry is second in NFL history for running backs.

What might have been.

Detroit Lions: Tight end expectations are low this year

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The Detroit Lions did discuss a trade for tight end Rob Gronkowski. But this season should be more about blocking from the tight end position.
So far, as organized team activities (OTA’s) have ended, the one consistent report is that players at the tight end position have not stood out for the Detroit Lions.

Certainly cutting ties this year with tight end Eric Ebron meant losing some talent. While Ebron didn’t live up to expectations, he was a weapon in the passing game. Just not so much in the end zone: just 11 touchdowns in four seasons.

According to a report on Monday from, general manager Bob Quinn did have discussions about bringing tight end Rob Gronkowski (nicknamed “Gronk”) into the Lions fold. Gronkowski is, of course, the All-Pro tight end for the New England Patriots.

While the talks never reached the point of an actual trade, the idea that Gronkowski was even on the Detroit radar is very interesting.  Gronk’s numbers are outstanding. In eight seasons, he has scored 76 touchdowns and averaged 15.1 yards per reception.

The upside of adding a player like Gronk is clear: the Lions offense would be formidable in terms of the passing game. And quarterback Matthew Stafford would have a plethora of options on every snap. But pulling the trigger on such a trade may have some disadvantages as well.

Still, there is a downside to bringing in Gronk:

Cost – To get Gronkowski, the negotiations would probably start with a first round pick, and it may even take multiple picks. If he went on to play the next five years in Detroit, then that would be fine. But Gronk’s time in the NFL may be limited. Giving up assets for a just a year of service would not be in the best interest of the team.
Injuries – Gronk did play in fourteen games last season, but he was dealing with some nagging injuries. And he was unable to reach double-digit touchdowns. In 2016, he only played in eight games, and was on the sidelines when the Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. These injuries have made Gronkowski’s eye wander just a bit.

Other Interests – Gronk has threatened retirement the past couple years. He seems destined to try his hand at acting or professional wrestling. Gronkowski is only 29 years old, but instead of entering his prime, it seems like his career is reaching its end. He wants something beyond his football career, and patience isn’t his strong suit.
It would be great to have a big-time mismatch like Gronkowski in a Detroit Lions uniform next season. But, as of now, it isn’t happening. That leaves Detroit with a different outlook at tight end this season.

RELATED STORY: The Detroit Lions should stop trying to copy the Patriots
As constructed, the Detroit Lions may not see a lot of production from the tight end position. In 2018, that may only mean around 40 receptions and a handful of touchdowns.

Most of that production would probably be spread between two tight ends: Luke Willson and Michael Roberts.

Willson has looked best so far during the OTA’s. If the season began tomorrow, he would probably start the first game. Willson has never had more than 22 receptions in a season. His best touchdown output was last year when he had four for the Seattle Seahawks.

Then there is Roberts. He was drafted by Quinn last year and showed very little in his rookie campaign: four receptions in 15 games. He certainly has a great build and the advantage of entering his second year in this offense. So, hopefully those numbers will take a giant leap.

Kicking the tires on acquiring a guy like Gronkowski makes sense. You always try to add talent to your roster. But in this case, the risk may have been larger than the possible reward.

In terms of 2018, the tight end position lacks any high end talent in terms of receiving skill. Detroit will probably focus on run blocking from the position. Any receptions will just be a bonus.

Detroit Lions Devon Kennard: Dad's long career 'something to strive to'

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A wrap up of Detroit Lions' final days of OTAs, plus an early preview of training camp from Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez on Monday, June 11, 2018. Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez, Detroit Free Press
Derek Kennard demanded a few things of his children in high school.

They had to get summer jobs. Even though Derek played 11 NFL seasons and two more in the USFL, his children were going to learn the value of hard work and not be handed anything.

And they had to go to summer school.

Kennard waived the first requirement for his youngest son, Devon, because he was such a good student.

“He’s our Brainiac,” the elder Kennard said in a phone interview last week. “He’d get all As. … If you get all As, you don’t have to get a summer job. We can work around that.”

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As for the second, well, Devon found a way around that, too.

Derek was dead set on making Devon go to summer school, just like his older brother and sister had, until a 13- or 14-year-old Devon, intent on playing summer basketball, called a family meeting to plead his case.

As his mother and father sat around the kitchen table, Devon, the Lions’ top free-agent acquisition of the offseason, explained how he had been going to “zero hour” at his high school, essentially getting to school more than an hour early in order to get ahead of the requirements he’d need in math and foreign language to one day be NCAA eligible.

Derek called his son’s school counselor to check on the validity of “zero hour,” and when the counselor confirmed what Devon explained in the meeting, Derek relented.

“That took some big balls to stand up to dad to say, ‘No, I don’t need that,’” Derek Kennard said. “That took big balls because I was dead set against that. But he stood his ground.”
To the best of Derek’s recollection, Devon called for a family meeting just one other time growing up in Arizona. As a 10-year old, after Devon’s second season of Pop Warner football, he sat his parents down and asked that his dad never be his coach again.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like being around his father, who he says now is his “ultimate fan.” It’s that Derek, an offensive lineman who started at center in the Dallas Cowboys’ Super Bowl XXX win, took the sport a little too serious.

“I always wanted my dad to just be a dad,” Kennard said last week after the Lions’ final open practice of the spring. “He coached me a little bit when I was young. He was really hard on me and I was like, ‘Just be a dad.’”

Said Derek, “I was talking football on the way to practice, on the way home from practice and then after practice, so it was just a bit too much and he called a family meeting and said, ‘Hey, Dad, I don’t want you to ever coach me ever again.’

“He’s the only kid in the house that would call a family meeting. It’s just whatever Dad says usually goes, but when he objected to something he’d want to call a family meeting. That’s his way of standing up to Dad and it’s OK. But you better be right. … Each time, he proved his point.”

More than prove his point, the younger Kennard has forged his own path to football stardom.

He was the top high school pass rusher in the country when he tore his ACL playing as an injury fill-in at tailback in 2008.

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He started five games the next year as a true freshman at USC, where he played everything from middle linebacker to defensive end. He missed his true senior season in college with a torn chest muscle, then was a fifth-round pick by the New York Giants in the 2014 NFL draft.

And after four underappreciated seasons with the Giants, he signed with the Lions this spring to be a key part of a rebuilt defense under new coach Matt Patricia.
Kennard is expected to start at outside linebacker and play as a stand-up pass rusher in Detroit, where there’s a good chance he’ll surpass his career-high of 4.5 sacks. 

“He’s an awesome guy,” middle linebacker Jarrad Davis said earlier this spring. “He’s great. From the first day I stepped in the building and I got to meet him, you can just feel the energy that he comes to work with every single day. And just the way he carries himself, it’s awesome to have a teammate like that. He comes in, he sets the bar high and I try to reset it so we can each keep going and reach new levels every single day.”

Kennard has only faded memories of his father’s playing career — Derek played his last game for the Cowboys when Devon was just 5 years old — the most vivid being sitting on his dad’s shoulders after the Cowboys’ Super Bowl win.

Still, he said his dad’s accomplishments serve as motivation for him today.

“I don’t remember much about him playing, but as I got older, just being able to appreciate what he accomplished,” Kennard said. “He played his first two in the USFL and then 11 in the NFL, so he set an example. I’ve never gotten comfortable because when you’ve had a father who’s won a Super Bowl and played professionally 13 years, it’s like, ‘I’m on Year 5. I got a long ways to go.’ So it’s kind of keeping me humble and giving me something to strive to.”

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Derek said Devon’s NFL career is “a dream come true” for both men, but he acknowledged some apprehension about pushing Devon into football given what he knows about the sport.

Derek is part of the concussion lawsuit against the league and is currently taking part in a study through the Arizona-based Translational Genomics Research Institute to help identify CTE in the living. He said he had “way too many (concussions) to quantify” as a player and that a neurologist has since told him that he has “so much frontal lobe damage that I should have been having seizures since I was in my middle 30s.”

“But football’s not for everybody,” Derek said. “You’ve got to want it, you’ve got to want this and Devon, he got a taste of a little bit of football and (loved it).”

Devon, whose first child is due in August, said he and his father haven’t talked much about the CTE study Derek is taking part in and he hasn’t spent any time reconciling his father’s health problems with his own love for the game.

“I don’t worry about (the dangers of football),” Kennard said. “You know what you’re getting into when you come and play this game, and you try to do it in the safest way you can, by tackling properly and by wearing the most up-to-date, best helmet you can. But beyond that, I’m here to play football. I love this game.”

That love, of course, can be traced back his father and the unique bond they share today.

“He’s just a great role model,” Kennard said. “I look at his life and the things he’s done and I want to do that and more for myself and for my future family. So he just set the ultimate example and I’m trying to follow in his footsteps in that way.”

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