We are less than a month away from the Detroit Lions 2021 training camp and we at Pride of Detroit are itching to discuss all the camp battles that will take place between now and the regular season.
This is the second in a new series of articles at Pride of Detroit that will focus on those camp battles, exploring where things sit as we head into the fall spectacle. If you missed the first article, make sure you check out:
Setting the table at running back
The Lions coaching staff have spent the offseason praising D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams as their “1A” and “1B” options at the position. Based on our deep dive into the current coaching staff’s experience distributing running back touches, the Lions appear poised to run a two-back system and the pair should dominate the opportunities out of the backfield, seeing upwards of 90 percent of the touches.
While the duo is expected to be the primary options, the team still needs depth at the position, as injuries happen all the time to running backs because of the physical nature of the role. Additionally, the results of our study (above) illustrate that offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn has shown a willingness to give his RB3 opportunities to contribute, meaning securing at least one more competent player at the position is necessary.
Currently, the Lions have five running backs and a fullback on their 89-man roster: Swift, Williams, Jermar Jefferson (seventh-round rookie draft pick), Dedrick Mills (UDFA rookie), and Michael Warren (UDFA from the 2020 season), as well as returning fullback Jason Cabinda.
With Swift and Williams locked in as the team’s top tandem, that leaves three running backs and a fullback competing for the final two or three roster spots.
Because the Saints (Dan Campbell) and Chargers (Anthony Lynn) focused primarily on their top-two backs, those teams only kept three running backs and a fullback on their initial 2020 rosters. The Chargers did add a fourth back during the season after their starter, Austin Ekeler, was injured and missed six games.
The Rams—the other team we need to examine because of GM Brad Holmes—initially kept four running backs on their 2020 roster. Although, they quickly added a fifth when it was clear that starter, Darrell Henderson, needed more time to recover from a training camp injury.
So this begs the question: Will Holmes follow his former team's history and keep four running backs on the initial 53-man roster, or will he lean on the coaches' experience and only keep three plus a fullback?
Is Jermar Jefferson locked into the RB3 role?
As a hand-picked player by this front office/coaching staff, Jefferson should be in the driver's seat for the RB3 role heading into training camp. In fact, Holmes thinks so highly of Jefferson’s game that it’s surely no coincidence that after acquiring him, the team felt comfortable moving on from Kerryon Johnson.
“Really impressive, he’s such an instinctive runner,” Holmes said of Jefferson post-draft. “He has a natural feel to be a slippery inside player. He runs hard, he just has a natural feel from a lot of inside zone stuff. But he can do all phases, gap, power stuff, inside zone stuff. But he’s just a very smooth, slippery, instinctive runner who we’re really excited about.”
RB Jermar Jefferson has outstanding patience, feel, timing for the zone run game...— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) February 19, 2021
One of the best runners this class in hitting the cutback lane/alleys... Ideal for wide zone team, IMO pic.twitter.com/8HJ20bkgKl
Jefferson is a perfect example of how the new front office scouts players. Despite his RAS being in the lower ranks among NFL backs, his play speed was near the top in the draft class.
“He had some of the fastest play speed of any halfback in this draft,” Campbell said. “I think he may have been second behind Najee Harris. I’m not talking about 40s, I’m talking about play speed during the game. You see it. There’s enough plays out there where he busts into the wide open and nobody is catching him. What I love is, even for me, halfbacks, I don’t necessarily care about speed. I care about vision and toughness and smarts and this kid, he hits every one of those.”
Stylistically, both Mills and Warren are high-volume, one-cut runners, but each lacks in-game breakaway speed. They both bring more power elements to the backfield—something that is lacking—but is there enough of a need for that, that the Lions are willing to allocate a roster spot for it?
Without being able to see the backs take the field in pads this offseason, it’s too difficult to project that either will legitimately challenge Jefferson for the RB3 role. But that doesn't necessarily mean Jefferson is in the clear, as the Lions have been very open about pursuing former NFL rushing reader Todd Gurley in free agency.
“Yeah, look, we have interest in Todd (Gurley). We do,” Campbell said at minicamp. “We’re talking with he and his agent. We do, we have interest in him.”
But Campbell also made it clear, they have a perception of his value they’re not willing to move on from, and he’s not a candidate for one of the top two primary spots.
“I’ll say this, just because we have interest in him, that does not affect our feeling and our thoughts on both Swift and Jamaal. It does not.”
When it comes to roster construction, I am currently leaning towards the coaches’ experience and am anticipating the Lions to keep three running backs and a fullback. Again, Swift and Williams are locked for the top two running back spots, while Cabinda is the only fullback on the roster—though he may be challenged by an H-back (keep an eye out for a future article on this topic).
Heading into camp, I’m giving the final spot to Jefferson, who is highly motivated and has looked quicker than expected in OTAs/minicamp, regardless of if they add Gurley or not.
Barring injury, the RB3 role is likely only slated for 5-15 percent of backfield touches, and for a team in the first year of a rebuild, a developmental player with upside holds more long-term value to the organization.