There are four clear archetypes of running back the Detroit Lions want to have on their 2020 53-man roster. The do-it-all guy, who has a mix of speed and physicality necessary to make big plays running between the tackles. The agile, elusive back who can line up anywhere on the field and make men miss in short space. The speedster who can turn an inch of space into a huge gain. And the power back who can bludgeon opposing defenses like a battering ram when his number is called.
We know who will fill those first two roles. Kerryon Johnson is entering his third NFL season since being selected in the second round of the 2018 draft and will likely remain the team’s first choice running back in neutral situations. 2020 second-round selection D’Andre Swift will fill the second role, as his balance and ability to make men miss in open space makes him a unique talent hard to find anywhere else.
That still leaves two more roles up for grabs, though, and that is what will be decided over the next few weeks of Lions training camp.
Detroit began fully padded practices Monday as a part of the adjusted preseason schedule due to COVID-19. They also made a move at running back that may have more of an impact of the roster than many will think.
Jonathan Williams, a 2016 fifth-round pick out of Arkansas, was signed to the team on Monday. The running back previously featured with the Buffalo Bills team that drafted him, before being released and spending the 2017 season on the Denver Broncos practice squad. He was then signed to the New Orleans Saints—where he played three games in 2018—before playing nine games with the Indianapolis Colts in 2019.
Williams is a journeyman, a mercenary in today’s NFL. He has played 23 games since entering the league four years ago and has started just one. While he has never been a crucial piece of any of the teams he has played for, he has managed to stick around the league.
The running back is most notable for his ability as a power runner. He has surprising speed for someone of his size and is a powerful downhill runner that can barrel through opposing defensive fronts.
This pits him against Bo Scarbrough, a man who made his name as a bruising, unstoppable, power back for the Alabama Crimson Tide. While it took a few seasons for his NFL career to find its legs after the Dallas Cowboys selected him in the final round in the 2018 NFL draft, Detroit could be a place where he sticks around.
Scarbrough became the team's main running back late last season. He started five of the six games he played, carrying the ball 89 times for 377 yards. Detroit was a dead team at this point, having nothing going for them on offense after Matthew Stafford went down midseason with an injury, but the young running back proved himself as a player that could be worth investing in.
Both Williams and Scarbrough are SEC running backs seemingly built from a similar mold as Derrick Henry. Both have struggled with injuries throughout their young careers. Both have potential to be the reliable power runner the team has long desired.
There will likely only be room for one of them once the dust settles, and one of them will fill the powerback archetype for the team.
That still leaves a roll open for a speedster, and that is where things get really interesting.
Ty Johnson certainly outplayed his draft billing in his rookie year. The running back played in all 16 games, and totaled just under 400 total yards from scrimmage. He lined up all over the field on offense, and even got a few shots at punt return. Johnson became a real role player on the team, a status that a large portion of sixth-round picks will never reach.
Despite Johnson’s somewhat impressive play in 2019, he is already fighting to keep his spot on the roster a year later. In 2020, Detroit double dipped at running back in the draft by selecting New Mexico State’s Jason Huntley in the fifth round.
Huntley was one of the fastest players in college football last season. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark on only 154 carries for the Aggies. Now he will attempt to bring that ridiculous level of production from Las Cruces to Detroit.
Johnson and Huntley are very similar players. Both made a name for themselves due to their incredible speed. They both are versatile players that can explode out of the backfield while running between the tackles and are a threat to score whenever they get the ball in their hand in open space.
Both players can fill the same role on the team, and be a guy that regularly splits out wide and plays special teams. They can also be big play threats to catch defenses off guard on draw plays—something the team loves trying on third-and-long. There likely will only be room for one of them, though.
These will be the two roster battles that are likely to impact the roster the most. All four running backs that make the roster are likely to play a real role on the team and will join one of the league’s better overall skill position groups. These battles behind closed doors may have great effect on how the team performs in 2020.