Lions in need of affordable, productive tailback

The Detroit Lions desperately need a running back with game-breaking potential to replace Jahvid Best, whose career is in jeopardy because of a brain injury.

General manager Martin Mayhew admits he made a mistake last season by not having a solid back-up plan in place in case Best wasn’t cleared for contact. Mayhew said he won’t let that happen again.

So who’s going to be that new gamebreaker?

Starting running back Mikel Leshoure’s longest run was a 16-yarder. Leshoure was coming back from a torn Achilles’ tendon. He could gain show a little more explosiveness in 2013, another year away from the surgery.

Joique Bell, who developed into a quality reserve, broke a 67-yard run and also had a 26-yarder, but he’s more of a power guy, not a speed back.

The Lions’ only other 20-plus run came from receiver Mike Thomas on a 22-yard gain.
In 16 games, they had a total of three running plays of 20-plus yards. That has to change.

“We need that shifty back that can come in and be a change-of-pace guy, catch passes out of the backfield, a guy that can run routes and get one-on-one against a linebacker,” Mayhew said. “That’s what Jahvid gave us.

“A guy with some juice, elusiveness. We’ll be looking for that guy. Somebody that’s good at that, yeah, hard to find, but there are guys out there.”

A trade is possible, but they’re more likely to try to fill the void in the draft or through free agency.

The Lions, who have the No. 5 pick overall, would be looking to take a running back no earlier than the second round and possibly not until the middle-to-late rounds. They have holes to fill on defense first.

Possible options range from Clemson’s Andre Ellington (second or third round) to Oregon’s Kenjon Barner (middle rounds) to Auburn’s Onterior McCalebb and Utah State’s Kerwynn Williams (late rounds).

The top names among the available free agents include St. Louis’ Steven Jackson, Miami’s Reggie Bush and New England’s Danny Woodhead.

The Lions currently have about $50 million of their estimated $120 million salary cap committed to Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh. Even if Stafford’s contract is reworked to give him a lower cap figure, Detroit probably isn’t going to have a lot of money to devote to a free-agent running back. The club has 23 unrestricted free agents who either have to be re-signed or replaced.

Based on their 2012 salaries, neither Jackson ($7 million) nor Bush ($4.5 million) would seem to fit into the Lions’ finances unless, say, Bush ends up taking a rather severe pay cut.

Meanwhile, Woodhead, who made $700,000 in 2012, probably isn’t going to be too excited about leaving the Patriots, a perennial Super Bowl contender, for a four-win team without being significantly overpaid.

Here’s someone, however, the Lions should seriously consider targeting — Tennessee’s Darius Reynaud.

Remember him? He’s the guy who returned a kickoff 105 yards against Detroit in Week 3 and also threw a cross-field lateral pass to set up a punt return for another score in the same game.

Reynaud, who is 5-foot-9, 201 pounds, was an undrafted free agent coming out of West Virginia in 2008. He was a receiver in college (19 touchdown catches in three years) but got converted to running back in the pros. He could play either position.

After spending the 2011 season out of football and doing Pilates to rehab a hamstring injury, Reynaud emerged last season with the Titans. He was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week twice, tied a NFL record by scoring on two punt returns in a game (69 and 81 yards against Jacksonville in Week 17), and also tied Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones for the most punt/kick returns (three) in the league in 2012.

All of that happened after Reynaud, 27, won the return jobs in training camp because of a season-ending injury to the starter.

Reynaud, however, still hasn’t gotten much of an opportunity to contribute on offense in his NFL career. He had no running attempts or receptions in 23 games for Minnesota and the New York Giants from 2008-10.

For the Titans this past season, he had 16 rushes for 33 yards and five receptions for 35 yards.

You just wonder with his hamstring apparently now healed and after the confidence he gained from his special-teams breakout whether he might be ready to produce in a combo running back/receiver role, too.

Selling him on those potential opportunities in an offense with Stafford and Johnson might create some mutual interest.

Reynaud certainly deserves a raise from the $615,000 he made in 2012, but he still should be affordable, especially compared to some of the other overpaid possibilities out there.

Of all the free agents who fit into the Lions’ needs and their budget, this guy might make as much sense as anyone.

Give him a chance to make some big plays in the offense. If that doesn’t happen, at the very least, you’ve still got a talented return specialist to replace Stefan Logan on both kicks and punts.