Third in a series on non-quarterbacks who have disproportionate responsibility for their team's success or failure this season.
Technically speaking, one of the most important players on the Detroit Lions' roster isn't actually on their roster.
Tailback Mikel Leshoure is serving a two-game NFL suspension and won't be eligible to play until the Week 3 game at the Tennessee Titans. But this projection is for the long term, and it's made with the assumption that the Lions should be able to beat the St. Louis Rams in Week 1 without him and would have a really tough matchup in Week 2 at the San Francisco 49ers even with him.
Here's where I'm coming from: The Lions can challenge for the playoffs based on the strength of their passing game and pass rush alone. But to make a playoff run, they'll need a more versatile offense than that. Leshoure is the Lions' best, and perhaps only, chance for forcing that balance.
Let's face it. No one knows if Jahvid Best (concussion) will play this season. Even if he does, he threatens defenses mostly as a dynamic receiver out of the backfield. And if the Lions' entire backfield were healthy and on the roster, presumed Week 1 starter Kevin Smith would be the No. 3 tailback. By most accounts, Leshoure is the Lions' best traditional running back.
We've gotten precious few glimpses of him since his 2011 arrival, but he has the size and acceleration to be a legitimate between-the-tackles threat. Based on everything we've heard, Leshoure isn't just a back who can exploit defenses aligned against the pass -- when the "number count" is in his favor. He should be able to create his own yardage and make plays when defenses are lined up to stop him.
That kind of a threat -- again, a player with a power running skill set -- would have a significant impact on the way defenses approach the Lions. Just as important, it would give the Lions an important late-game option in their four-minute offense. Without Leshoure as advertised, would you feel confident in the Lions' ability to maintain possession while leading a close game in the fourth quarter?
You might downplay the significance of such instances, but for the Lions it could be the difference between a first-round playoff loss and a run toward the Super Bowl. It's a hole that, realistically speaking, only Leshoure can fill.