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If Lions want RB upgrade, Carlos Hyde, Isaiah Crowell are sensible vet options

With free agency approaching (March 14), we're analyzing the running back position on the Detroit Lions.

2018 cap hits of top returnees:

Ameer Abdullah: $1,322,404

Theo Riddick: $4,137,500

Dwayne Washington: $648,941

Tion Green: $556,666.

Pending free agents: Zach Zenner (restricted), Mike James.

Key stat: It’s a simple one. The Lions were the worst rushing team in the league last season in yards per game (76.3) and yards per carry (3.36).

Money matters: Detroit’s running back room is pretty reasonable with no massive numbers from the quartet under contract. Even Riddick’s number isn’t too bad considering none of it is guaranteed. In other words, if the Lions wanted to make a move here, they could.

Big picture: General manager Bob Quinn already made clear he’s adding at least one new running back to this underperforming unit. It could easily be two to three new faces expected to vie for roles in 2018 based on free agency and the draft. Expect a shake-up here, both with potential cuts of returning players on the roster and additions from the outside. Zenner is not expected to be tendered as a restricted free agent but could return on a different deal if there’s the belief the opportunity for some playing time could be there.

The game plan: Start with free agency and go from there. Quinn already has praised the draft class here from the combine, liking their ability as pass protectors (a key trait that rookies often need to learn in the pros) and their overall skill. It’d be pretty surprising if Detroit didn’t draft a back -- and didn’t take one within the first two days of the draft.

What could shift that is free agency. While the Lions are unlikely to be in a Le’Veon Bell bidding war if he somehow reaches free agency, there are some other names to potentially look out for. On the higher side of things would be Carlos Hyde. The 27-year-old has rushed for 1,928 yards the past two seasons with 14 touchdowns. He also can catch passes out of the backfield and has the size (6-foot, 235 pounds) to be an early-down back. Isaiah Crowell would be another name to watch if the Lions want to really spend at this position. Crowell is another early-down back, and at age 25, he might be a better long-term investment. He has gained more than 4 yards per carry in three of his four seasons with the Browns, perennially one of the worst teams in the NFL.

There are also three other players potentially on the market with ties to Matt Patricia: Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and LeGarrette Blount. Lewis would be intriguing as his body hasn’t taken the punishment of some other backs his age, but he also has played in 16 games just once in his career. That happened last season, when he had 896 yards and six touchdowns. Burkhead was a nice piece, but he won’t be your lead back. He was OK with the Patriots last season (264 yards, five touchdowns). Blount would be a short-term solution, but he would give Detroit a real goal-line and early-down back -- an issue last season. In theory, any of the backs listed could do that.

But expect Detroit to do something like this at the running back position: Sign at least one back -- either as a primary back or a piece to the puzzle -- during free agency and then take a back in the draft. The type of runner signed in free agency (provided it happens) could dictate the draft strategy.