Is Jahvid Best a feature back?

One of the first reactions I got to Wednesday's brawl on the future of tailback Ryan Grant was both informative and entertaining: Would he be a fit for the Detroit Lions?

We now know that Grant has a guaranteed contract for 2011, making it pretty unlikely (but not impossible) that he'll be changing teams anytime soon. Still, the Lions-centric reaction evoked an important question: Where are the Lions going with their running game and is it reasonable to trust Jahvid Best in the primary role?

Best suffered a concussion in last week's preseason game against the Cleveland Browns and won't play Saturday night against the New England Patriots. All concussions are to be taken seriously, but with Best it's only fair to note the one that ended his college career in 2009.

When you combine the most recent concussion with his double turf toe injuries from a year ago, you realize there have been only a few windows in Best's pro career when he hasn't been limited by a significant injury. Obviously the Lions worked hard to fortify themselves by drafting Illinois running back Mikel LeShoure, but his ruptured Achilles tendon returned the Lions backfield to an unsettled state.

To me, the Lions have three questions they need to answer:

  1. Is Best going to be healthy enough to take, say, 250 carries this season?

  2. Does he have the kind of running style that makes sense for that kind of assignment?

  3. Are there any reasonable alternatives?

From the top, there really is no way to know if Best will get hurt in the future. Fortune tellers, we're not. The Lions studied his concussion case thoroughly before the draft, so presumably they're not encountering any surprises in that regard.

On the second point, all we can say at this point is that Best didn't produce last season the way you would hope a feature back would. The toe injuries limited him to some extent, and the fact that he appeared in all 16 games at least speaks to his toughness.

But let's look a little beyond the numbers of a rookie season that saw him average 3.2 yards on 171 carries, courtesy of KC Joyner's annual fantasy football draft guide. (Earlier: The Chicago Bears' short-range passing success.)

Joyner tracks two metrics that, through film study, determine the extent to which running backs capitalize on good blocking and whether they can make up for bad blocking. Obviously, blocking success is a subjective measure, but Joyner loosely defines it as plays when no blockers allow a defense to disrupt the play.

Last season, Best had 98 carries where he received good blocking under that measure. In them, he produced the seventh-lowest ranking (5.6 yards per good blocking attempt) among running backs with at least 100 or more carries.

And on the 73 plays in which Joyner judged him to have received poor blocking, Best averaged a net total of 0.0 yards. Most runners average 1-2 yards in similar situations.

Again, this is but one way to evaluate running backs. And I'm not discounting the role the turf toe injuries played. But generally speaking, you want to see a feature back maximize well-blocked plays and at least occasionally get some yards on his own when his blockers get beat.

On the third point: The Lions signed veteran running backs Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell immediately after LeShoure's injury. They've gotten veteran Maurice Morris (hand) back on the practice field as well. Obviously they're not intrigued with any of the bigger-name running backs still on the market, a list that includes Clinton Portis and Tiki Barber, but I think it's fair to say they'll have their eyes on the waiver wire early next month when teams make final cuts to their 53-man rosters.

The Lions figure to be a pass-first team no matter who is in the backfield. Still, Best remains a key figure here. At the very least we can agree that no one knows for sure what he can do -- and what he can't -- over a long period of time.