The Detroit Lions 2022 training camp is on the horizon and we have brought back our roster battle series to get you prepared for the fall. In this installment, we will be focusing on running backs and how the organization will approach sorting out the depth they have at the position.
This is the second in a new series of articles, focusing on training camp battles. If you missed the first article, make sure you check out:
Setting the table
Entering 2021 training camp, the Lions had two backs atop the pecking order: D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams. They drafted Jermar Jefferson in the seventh round, were in the process of converting Godwin Igwebuike from safety, and had not yet discovered Craig Reynolds, who was still on his couch watching Netflix.
Additionally, the Lions also re-signed Superback Jason Cabinda this past offseason, giving him a two-year, $4.1 million contract. While Cabinda doesn’t touch the ball frequently—only seven touches in 2021—he is an intricate part of the Lions' offense and special teams, due to his positional versatility, blocking, and tackling.
In the first year of the coach Dan Campbell/general manager Brad Holmes era, the Lions opted to keep four true running backs and a fullback. Swift, Williams, Cabinda, Jefferson, and Igwebuike were on the roster for the entire season, while Reynolds was added late in the year as an injury replacement.
Currently, Swift and Williams remain the clear 1A and 1B options on the roster. While Williams often gets the technical “start”, Swift is the preferred top option and typically sees over 50 percent of the team's offensive snaps. Cabinda is a dynamic role player who will contribute all over the field, as well as in all phases of the game. Nothing is expected to change in their roles for 2022.
Beyond these three, the anticipated two remaining reserve roles look very much up for grabs.
Igwebuike’s roster security last season was mostly due to his starting kick returner role, where he had the seventh most kick return yards in the NFL in 2021. On offense, he took his first carry in Week 8 and scored his first touchdown in Week 9, but he only totaled 18 carries and seven receptions on the season. If he can retain his kick returner job this fall, that will give him a leg up for one of the two presumed remaining spots.
Jefferson was a healthy scratch in six of the first seven weeks of 2021, almost entirely due to the fact that he was not a regular contributor on special teams. When he finally got his opportunity on offense in Weeks 8 and 9, Jefferson scored a touchdown in each game but was unfortunately injured on the later one. He never looked like the same player following the injury. This offseason he has dedicated himself to improving his special teams skills in hopes that development in this area, along with his offensive skill set, could earn him a roster spot.
Reynolds had a solid showing in the 2021 preseason but was relegated to the practice squad through the first 13 weeks of the regular season. He was elevated to the active roster for Weeks 14 and 15, exploding onto the scene with 195 rushing yards and 21 receiving yards over the two games. That performance earned him a contract that carried through the 2022 season. Reynolds earned the coaching staff's trust and he is hoping that carries over into this season, which could go a long way towards his chances of winning a roster spot.
Bell fits the Williams/Jefferson mold as a straight-line, one-cut runner with underrated GPS speed, and the ability to contribute in the passing game. The Lions were aggressive in acquiring him—as illustrated by his guaranteed money—which is a nice reminder to not rule him out of the competition too quickly. Here’s what Lions running backs coach/assistant head coach Duce Staley had to say about Bell this spring:
“I remember turning the SDSU tape on because they do some different things offensively and he just kept sticking out. I was like, ‘Man, I gotta find out who this kid is.’ You see the great vision, the burst, and you saw his hands.”
With no pads on during spring practices, it was really difficult to get a feel for what Bell brings to the field during OTAs/minicamp, making him a sleeper to watch in training camp.
Erik: Alright Jeremy, in our 53-man post-OTA/minicamp projection, we kept Swift, Williams, and Cabinda. Then for the reserves, we opted for Igwebuike because of his returner role, and Reynolds because he looked the sharpest in the spring, but we both acknowledged that because of the format, these roles were hard to project.
So, with some time to reflect, are you having any thoughts about changing who we kept?
Jeremy: Not really, but that’s more a reflection of no new information. I still believe every backfield roster spot behind Jamaal Williams will be decided when the pads come on in camp. I have low confidence in our predictions right now.
Of the two reserves we currently have “in”—Reynolds and Igwebuike—who do you think is most vulnerable to losing a job to Jefferson or Bell?
Erik: That’s a tougher question than it appears on the surface because it’s hard to say what they’re looking for in a backup. Obviously, special teams are going to be a massive determining factor, which should give Igwebuike an advantage over Reynolds, but if he doesn’t maintain his kick returner role, Reynolds is clearly the better player on offense.
Then, when you look at Jefferson and Bell, they are stylistically very similar to Reynolds, as one-cut slashers who can excel with this offensive line. But how many of the same style of back do they need? Or, do they want multiple because this is the style of back that works best in this scheme.
At the end of the day, for me, this offensive line is so good it’s going to make average backs look great, so it’s really going to come down to special teams contributions, and until Igwebuike is beaten out for the returner role, I’d say he is safer.
So to answer your question, even though Reynolds may be the most talented and proven amongst the reserves, he may also be the most vulnerable.