- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Lions made their first big move in free agency, and it was done to keep one of their own.
Joique Bell always said he wanted to stay in Detroit. The Lions insisted he should stick around as well. With the way the Lions are going to use their offense now, looking more like the New Orleans Saints, having both Bell and Reggie Bush on the roster was key.
The Lions re-signed Bell to a three-year deal (the second-round restricted free-agent tender for 2014 plus a two-year extension for 2015 and 2016) to ensure he wasn’t going anywhere, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan.
That was done not only because Bush and Bell formed one of the top tandems in the NFL last season but because of how new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi will likely use them in the future. During his tenure in New Orleans, before Lombardi was calling plays, the Saints rotated multiple running backs through the system.
They often caught passes out of the backfield -- led by either Darren Sproles or Bush -- but carries were often split. No rusher had more than 200 carries in a season while Lombardi was with the Saints, and Bush had 223 last season during his first year with the Lions. Bell was second with 166 -- which would have been high in the New Orleans offense most seasons.
Of course, Lombardi said he would tweak the Saints' playbook to fit the Lions, and considering what Detroit has on its roster at the start of free agency, the offense could rely more on runs and short passes than what Lombardi used in New Orleans.
But by the time the draft is over, the Lions could have the pass-catchers necessary to approximate what the Saints did, pass-happy both short and sometimes vertically with Marques Colston, who will be played by Calvin Johnson.
Keeping Bell around for the next three seasons gives the Lions a player who can be a lead back behind Bush. This is important because Bush, who has played 16 games in a season only twice in his career, turns 30 next March. That age has often been the turning point for running backs to hit a decline.
Bush might be a different case than most because his body has only recently started to take on 200-plus-carry seasons over the past three years. Before that, his load was lighter. But still, having a fresher Bell -- who played only his second full season in the NFL in 2013 -- as a complement and potential replacement could be helpful.
Signing Bell also could give the Lions some more room to trade or release Mikel Leshoure, who barely played last season and has been in search of more playing time.
Maybe Leshoure receives that in Lombardi’s multiback offense in 2014. Or maybe the team lets him go and looks to Theo Riddick or other options to join the rotation.
With the long-term signing of Bell, the top of the Lions' depth chart is now set at running back for the not-too-distant future.
8hEric D. Williams