Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey is one of the year’s best running back prospects, though could be off the board before Detroit has a chance to consider him. (AP File Photo)

This is the fourth of an seven-part series previewing the Detroit Lions’ positional needs and priorities heading into the NFL draft. The installments are ordered by need, starting with where help is needed the least and ending where it’s needed the most.

Running back

Current starter: Ameer Abdullah
Current reserves: Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, Mike James
Best in class: LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffreyFlorida State’s Dalvin Cook
First-round possibilities for Detroit (21st overall): McCaffrey, Cook
Day 2-3 fits: Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara, Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon, Toledo’s Kareem Hunt, Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, Texas’ D’Onta Foreman
Late-round possibilities: Pittsburgh’s James Conner, Wisconsin’s Corey Clement, San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey, Wyoming’s Brian Hill, Utah’s Joe Williams, UL Lafayette’s Elijah McGuire
Breakdown: The running game was brutal last year. Overmatched. Outplayed. Underwhelming. However you want to put it, it was bad. But while the backfield wasn’t great, the line was just as bad and often worse. Detroit gained the fewest yards before first contact last year, and led the league in runs that failed to gain yardage at all. Which is to say, the offensive line was getting blown away far too often.

So when Bob Quinn embarked on the offseason determined to improve the running game, his first priority wasn’t to throw money at Eddie Lacy or Latavius Murray or another running back. It was to fortify the offensive line, and he did it by landing two first-rate big uglies in T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner. Throw in the return of Abdullah and Riddick, and the running game has already improved.

That gives the Lions a lot of flexibility as they proceed trying to find a running back in the draft (and is a big reason why running back isn’t among our three biggest priorities for Detroit). They could take one of the first-round prospects, especially if a difference-maker like Christian McCaffrey were to fall to 21. The Stanford star is a freak athlete who is tremendous as a receiver as well, so much so that he doesn’t get enough credit for what he can do between the tackles. (He faced more loaded boxes than any of the other top draft prospects, yet still averaged 6.3 yards per carry and ranked fourth in the country in rushing.)

McCaffrey is probably is going to be off the board, though, along with top 10 prospect Leonard Fournette. More than likely, Dalvin Cook will be the best back available to Detroit, but he has character issues after being investigated multiple times for crimes at Florida State. Some analysts have said there’s more concern about Cook than Joe Mixon, who broke a woman’s face.

If the Lions were to go running back in the first round, they would be adding a difference-maker to a rotation that already includes the talented but injured duo of Abdullah and Riddick. But they feel good enough about Abdullah and Riddick that they don’t need to take a tailback so early either. Especially this year, when there is stunning array and depth of talent at the position.

They could wait until Day 2 or even Day 3 to complement those guys’ speed with a power back such as Samaje Perine or D’Onta Foreman. Or they could go for athleticism instead, acquiring injury insurance for Abdullah and Riddick by drafting another speedster like Alvin Kamara or Donnel Pumphrey. And that would give them another option at returner as well.

A name to watch in the middle rounds is Kareem Hunt, the outstanding running back out of Toledo. The 5-foot-10, 216-pounder is a brawler between the tackles, but has some nice elusiveness as well. He forced 98 missed tackles last year, according to ProFootballFocus, which was second in the country. And on 855 career touches, he fumbled just once. He recovered it too. As Kanye West would say, that’s cray.

Then there’s the Mixon dilemma to consider.

The Oklahoma star averaged nearly 7 yards per carry for his career, and is one of the best pure talents in the draft. He might have been a first-round pick. But he also was convicted of assault after punching a female student in the face in 2014, and is expected to fall (though maybe not as far as initially expected). Bob Quinn has expressed interest in the running back as well, though declined to say in recent weeks whether he remained on the team’s board. If the Lions don’t take a running back in the first round and Mixon’s still there when they’re back on the clock at 53rd overall, it’ll be fascinating to see what they do. Because there’s no doubt he would upgrade the running game, but Detroit would also catch serious flak for talking tough about violence against women, then drafting the year’s most notorious perpetrator of exactly that.

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