The 2011 NFL season would end for Kevin Smith with 41 total yards on six touches in the Detroit Lions' 45-28 Wildcard round playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints. It would be a quiet ending to what was a career saving season for the fourth year running back out of Central Florida University. That Smith is even a name worth evaluating for fantasy purposes heading into the 2012 season is surprising in and of itself after it appeared that his time in fantasy circles (as well as the NFL) had come to an end following the 2010 season. The former 2008 second round pick of the Detroit Lions had toiled as the best running back on a very bad Detroit team in his first two seasons, amassing 1,723 rushing yards while carrying the ball 455 times -- adding another 695 yards on 79 receptions and scoring 13 touchdowns. In a 2009, week fourteen loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Smith suffered an injury to his left knee that would end his season. After two NFL seasons, Smith had been part of a Detroit Lions team that won only 2 of 32 regular season games and had suffered a significant injury that would impair his ability to prepare for the 2010 season. Let's just say the stars were not aligning for Kevin Smith to be a viable fantasy option heading forward in his career.
To add insult to injury (literally), the Lions would draft former California Golden Bear, Jahvid Best in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft (30th overall) and Kevin Smith would see his role diminished to that of back up running back. He would return from his knee injury, but touch the ball only 44 times during the 2010 season, for a total of 248 yards and fail to score a touchdown. The writing was on the wall for Smith in Detroit, the Lions failed to even tender him an offer in March of 2011, and he would hit the free agent market. Unfortunately, there would be no interest in a running back who was returning from injury, had carried the ball over 900 times in his college career, added another 488 carries as a professional and looked to have lost his burst. There would be no suitors for Smith and he would begin the 2011 NFL season without a team and more than likely without a future in the NFL and fantasy football.
The next chapter in the career of Kevin Smith is one of the reasons that millions of people love the NFL and more importantly for our purposes, fantasy football. In 2011, the Detroit Lions had reemerged as an offensive force in the NFL and found themselves in the hunt for their first playoff appearance since the 1998 season. During a week six loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Jahvid Best would suffer his second concussion of the year, leaving the Detroit rushing attack in the hands of veteran back up Maurice Morris and the unproven Keiland Williams . Detroit would adopt a very tight-lipped stance regarding the health of Best in the coming weeks, while Morris and Williams would provide an adequate running game for the Lions. Combining to average 88.5 rushing yards a game as the Lions would go 1-1, losing to Atlanta and winning against the Tim Tebow led Broncos. Detroit would be sitting at 6-2 heading into their week nine bye, and would finally tip their hand regarding the health of Best by reaching out to Smith, bringing the former starter in for a workout. Smith impressed the Detroit coaching staff enough to warrant being signed to rejoin his former team the first week in November of 2011. What his role would be moving forward remained to be seen but one thing was certain, Jahvid Best would not be returning to the Detroit backfield anytime soon.
Smith would make his 2011 debut for Detroit with a modest 29 total yards on 4 carries with 2 receptions against the Chicago Bears in a week ten 37-13 loss. The next week, in a game versus the Carolina Panthers, Kevin Smith would explode onto fantasy radars with one of the 2011 season's most impressive performances. In helping the Lions overcome a 17-point deficit to defeat the Panthers, Smith amassed 140 yards on only 16 carries and rushed for 2 touchdowns. He also caught 4 passes for 61 yards and added a receiving touchdown for a final stat line of 201 total yards from scrimmage and 3 touchdowns. Fantasy owners around the world scrambled to grab Smith off of the waiver wire as it appeared that the Lions had found the answer to their running back dilemma by going back to the future. The excitement over the unlikely return to fantasy relevance of Kevin Smith would be short lived, as he would suffer an ankle injury in Detroit's Thanksgiving Day loss to the Green Bay Packers that would hamper him throughout the remainder of the season. Smith showed a dogged determination to stay on the field, and while obviously slowed by the ankle injury he managed to post 161 yards rushing, 87 yards receiving and 4 touchdowns from week thirteen to seventeen. He would end the 2011 season averaging 4.9 yards a carry, 8.1 yards per reception while registering 535 total yards and 7 touchdowns while appearing in seven games for Detroit. Quite a fantasy season for a man that was sitting on his couch watching football until early November. Detroit rewarded his gallant 2011 effort by signing him to a one-year contract in March. Kevin Smith truly has risen from the fantasy ashes to become a name worth considering for 2012 fantasy football drafts.
Heading into the 2012 season the Detroit Lions have one of the murkiest backfield situations in the NFL, as well as fantasy football. Talk has been positive regarding the return of Jahvid Best, who has been participating in off-season workouts while still not having been cleared for contact. He does expect to be fully cleared for training camp and the Detroit front office, GM Martin Mayhew in particular are raving about Best, "I think Jahvid has been outstanding." Mayhew would add. "His speed and quickness, he looks great." That is all well and good but does not make drafting Best seem any less risky as avoiding a hard blow to the head in today's NFL for an entire sixteen-week season is highly unlikely. The bottom line is that Best is the ultimate high risk/high reward fantasy draft option that could be one hard hit away from being out of the league. Mikel Leshoure is returning from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in the 2011 preseason and has been suspended for the first two games of the 2012 season for two marijuana related arrests in the off-season. By the time he hits the field in a regular season game, Leshoure will have spent 13 months on the shelf and may need time to get up to NFL game shape and speed. Joique Bell and Keiland Williams are the only other viable options at running back for Detroit and neither has proven they are ready to carry a major workload at this time. Williams has flashed some potential during his stints in Washington and Detroit but may actually see some time at fullback in 2012, further diminishing his role.
Smith has dropped nearly 10 pounds in the off-season while adding muscle mass and some observers have noted that he looks, "stronger and more explosive" in OTAs. The Lions ran the ball the second fewest times in 2011 (356) and Matthew Stafford attempted over 660 passes. Smith has shown himself to be a productive runner on limited carries, has proven to be effective as a receiver out of the backfield and more than capable in pass protection. He is a hard working, tough and experienced running back and that is just the type of player that head coach Jim Schwartz prefers. There is a lot of mileage on Smith's tires, while he is only 25 years old, he has carried the ball 1,465 times in his college and pro career combined. That being said, he remains the healthiest Detroit running back heading into training camp. The injury concerns regarding Best, the looming suspension and questions about his Achilles that surround Leshoure make Kevin Smith absolutely WORTHY of being selected in 2012 fantasy drafts.