Earlier in the week, we talked about analytics website PFF ranking the Detroit Lions’ receiving corps as 31st in the NFL. Even though the Lions have a burgeoning tight end in T.J. Hockenson and a potential huge weapon in the passing game in D’Andre Swift, it was still pretty tough to argue with their analysis. The Lions’ wide receiver stable is highly questionable and arguably one of the worst in the league.
But when it comes to the Lions’ backfield there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Swift is coming off a promising rookie season in which he rushed for 4.6 yards per carry and found the end zone 10 times. Additionally, the former George Bulldog racked up 357 receiving yards, good for 11th among running backs last season.
The Lions also went out and grabbed a legitimate No. 2 back to complement Swift’s game—and he isn’t an over-the-hill player. Jamaal Williams is coming off another productive season behind Aaron Jones in Green Bay, and he’s just 26 years old. Last year, he earned a 76.9 PFF grade, which was good for 19th among all running backs.
Yet despite all this optimism, PFF doesn’t appear to be high on the Lions’ backs. In their ranking of every team’s stable of running backs entering the 2021 season, the Lions finished 25th. Analyst Ben Linsey doesn’t give much of a reason for Detroit’s low ranking, instead pointing out the potential in the team’s young set of backs.
“The best-case outcome for Detroit is that D’Andre Swift earns more of a bell-cow role in 2021 and excels in it,” Linsey wrote. “After all, his receiving ability was a big reason why he was PFF’s top-ranked running back coming out of Georgia in the 2020 NFL Draft.”
PFF is also a big fan of Williams, calling him a “quality addition to the backfield to complement Swift.”
Perhaps the analytics site isn’t too impressed with Detroit’s depth beyond that, and that would be totally fair. At this point, Detroit only has three other running backs on their roster and all three of them have never taken an offensive snap in the NFL. Jermar Jefferson was selected in the seventh round of April’s draft, while Dedrick Mills and Michael Warren went undrafted (in 2021 and 2020, respectively). The Lions have clearly expressed an interest in upgrading that RB3 spot with significant interest in free agent Todd Gurley. It’s hard to imagine, though, that a back who has averaged 3.7 yards per carry in the past two seasons would move the needle much for PFF.
Instead, this feels like yet another instance of the Lions being underrated. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect this team to be very good this year. But when their clear strengths are being overlooked—like their offensive line being ranked 29th in pass blocking—one has to wonder what exactly is going on here.