The Detroit Lions finally added a running back with experience Friday night after months of not doing much at the position.
Signing former Minnesota running back Matt Asiata to a one-year deal gives the Lions some more experience in a room where everyone except for Theo Riddick is still on rookie contracts. It ups the competition for backup spots behind likely starter Ameer Abdullah and Riddick, who is the pass-catching specialist.
And it gives the Lions some insurance, as Riddick is still recovering from wrist injuries that ended his season, required surgery and kept him out of the first week of open OTAs. Abdullah missed almost all of last season with a foot injury and the run game suffered with just Dwayne Washington, Zach Zenner and Lions-for-a-few-weeks Justin Forsett and Joique Bell.
It’s unclear, though, how this might alter the team’s running back competition. Abdullah and Riddick appear to be roster locks. So it’s a competition between Zenner, Washington, Mike James, Tion Green, Asiata and fullback Michael Burton for two to three spots on the Lions roster this fall.
Asiata will definitely get a chance to make the team. He’s a quality special teams player, a good short-yardage back and can catch out of the backfield. He’s a good pass protector -- something Lions coach Jim Caldwell highlighted when he briefly spoke about him before Detroit’s rookie minicamp -- and is a bigger body to give the Lions a different type of back beyond the smaller, shiftier Abdullah and Riddick.
He’s a threat to either Zenner or Washington when it comes to making the team. Zenner averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season, gaining 334 yards on 88 carries and four touchdowns. He started to stand out at the end of the season when he had three touchdowns in two weeks and gained 5.6 yards per carry against Dallas on Monday Night Football.
Washington showed promise and has a good size-speed-strength component as a rookie, but there were concerns with his vision, his blocking and how he hit holes as a rusher. His production diminished as the season went on, including not receiving a carry in the season finale against Green Bay or the playoff loss to Seattle. He averaged 2.9 yards a carry last season.
James is an intriguing player but never got a carry with the Lions as he spent his time in Detroit on the practice squad after being cut by Tampa Bay. Green was a priority undrafted free agent and has a similar build to Asiata.
In many ways, the running back spot is much like receiver for Detroit. The starters are well-known and set (Abdullah and Riddick at running back, Marvin Jones and Golden Tate at receiver) but the depth behind them is full of questions.
And considering the way injuries happen in the NFL, the Lions need to feel good about what they have behind those players. Adding Asiata gives Detroit another option -- and someone who can at the very least push Zenner and Washington to become better players, if not taking one of their spots himself.