- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
I'm guessing many of you don't know much about Detroit Lions running back Mikel Leshoure. Perhaps you'll click on his name to look at his 2011 stats, but you won't find any. Leshoure was a second-round pick by the Lions in 2011, and he tore his left Achilles tendon in August, negating his rookie season. He claims he's healthy now and ready to contribute, but he won't be helping the Lions or any fantasy owners the first two weeks of the 2012 season after being suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
So basically, you might be wondering why a fellow in trouble with the law and health matters is worthy of discussion in June. I'll tell you: It's because the Illinois product has skills, and unlike the speedier, electrifying Jahvid Best, I'm not particularly concerned about his long-term health as it relates to producing fantasy relevance. Best could be a top-10 running back if not for concussion woes, but they clearly still exist, and the team's depth must be explored for fantasy purposes.
Leshoure is no guarantee to get opportunity. For one, Best really could be one of the "best," but he has to stay on the field. Last season he delivered a pair of 20-plus-point fantasy performances in the first five weeks, but soon after that he was gone. Best missed 10 games, and it wasn't exactly his first concussion. Best's college career at Cal was also affected by them. I've initially ranked Best just outside the top-30 running backs for this season, likely worse than most, but would be willing to select him earlier depending on the makeup of my team. The upside is clear. If I have significant depth or three reliable, consistent running backs on the roster, or if it's a point-per-reception format, I'll take Best earlier. He's talented when he gets into open field, catches many passes and is certainly fun to watch.
Leshoure is a bigger, stronger running back, checking in at 6-feet tall and at least 225 pounds, and his draft-day selection was an indication the Lions wanted, like so many teams these days and to the detriment of fantasy rosters, a tandem for the Matthew Stafford handoffs, screen passes and goal-line carries. Then again, Kevin Smith had his moments -- well, most came in Week 11 -- and he's still around. It's a bit of a crowded situation, and this happens to be the NFL team that threw the football more than any other during the 2011 season. I suspect Stafford will attempt more than 600 passes (only three quarterbacks did in 2011) yet again.
There's opportunity here, as Best and Smith are hardly the most reliable options in terms of health. Leshoure is risky, too. As ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert noted, Leshoure is young, but he's running out of chances due to his off-field indiscretions. However, two games really isn't a lot, especially when one of them is against a top defense (the San Francisco 49ers). And who knows whether Best or Smith will be healthy in Week 3. The Lions might not produce a 1,000-yard running back with Stafford throwing most of the time, but New Orleans Saints passer Drew Brees was just as active, and his offense managed to finish sixth in the league in rushing yards. Of course, the Saints have Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and even Chris Ivory. The Lions do not. However, I don't think it means the Lions can't run the football effectively. They just don't have the personnel. Perhaps with Leshoure they will.
Leshoure has been participating in mini-camp, taking handoffs in drills and catching passes, so the team believes he will be ready to play by September. And Leshoure seems to realize his decision-making needs to improve, telling reporters he has learned from his mistakes and feels good. Coach Jim Schwartz was positive about his on-field exploits.
"I think the thing that was most encouraging about it was when the ball went in his hand, he didn't think about it," Schwartz told the Detroit Free Press. "You could see, we ran him left, we ran him right, he was making cuts off of defenders, he was making cuts as they appeared, and he was a running back. He wasn't doing rehab, he wasn't doing foot patterns, he wasn't controlling the action, he was reacting to defenders."
I currently have Leshoure ranked third among Lions running backs, but each of them made my top 50. Updates on Best's health could easily change his and Leshoure's summer rank. It's difficult to trust any of them as fantasy starters this season, but Leshoure could be the healthiest and since he's without an NFL carry, it's time people learn his name. He's got a decent shot to be relevant and allow a dynamic offense to become a bit more balanced.
Eric Karabell examines the Lions' running back trio of Jahvid Best, Kevin Smith and Mikel Leshoure, from a fantasy perspective.