The Detroit Lions leaned on five different running backs in 2021—D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Jermar Jefferson, Godwin Igwebuike, and Craig Reynolds—and all of them return to the roster in 2022. With four spots likely available, and the addition of undrafted free agent Greg Bell, the running backs room figures to be a competitive position group.
While Swift and Williams are the clear top options, the depth roles beyond them are very much wide open. The returning reserves all flashed talent as offensive contributors last season, with the main separator between them being their contributions on special teams—which will be an important factor in 2022 as well.
Can Jermar Jefferson establish himself as the Lions’ top reserve at running back? Let’s take a closer look, in the latest installment of our roster preview series.
Expectations heading into 2021
After being selected in the seventh round of the 2021 NFL Draft, Jefferson entered training camp as the favorite to land the third running back role. After Swift and Williams, Jefferson was routinely the third back on the field in preseason games and he was sharp in his limited action.
Jefferson looked like an easy projection to the 53-man roster because the competition behind him was either adjusting to a new position (Igwebuike switching over from safety) or adjusting to the playbook (Reynolds) after being added to the roster in mid-August.
Based on our projected running back touch distribution, Jefferson looked to have a role on game days. But his path to those touches was limited because of his inability to lock down a contributing role on special teams.
Actual role in 2021
2021 stats: 7 games (0 starts, 10 inactive): 15 carries for 74 yards, 4.93 yards per carry, 2 rushing touchdowns, and 4 receptions on 5 targets for 23 yards
PFF grade: 69.3 (50th out of 147 qualifying running backs)
Once the regular season arrived, the Lions routinely only kept three running backs active on game days, and with Igwebuike being the team’s primary kick returner, Jefferson found himself a healthy scratch through the first five weeks of the season.
With Swift and Williams both nursing injuries, Jefferson made his NFL debut in Week 6, but with the starting duo powering through, Jefferson was unable to find the field on offense and only saw nine special teams snaps. He went back to being inactive again in Week 7.
In Week 8, a thigh injury kept Williams on the sidelines and created the first opportunity for offensive touches for Jefferson. He took advantage, securing all four of the passes thrown his way and scoring his first career touchdown on an 8-yard scamper late in the game.
After a bye in Week 9 and with Williams still unable to play, Jefferson was once again called upon to back up Swift—and once again he found the end zone, this time on a 28-yard beauty:
#Lions rookie Jermar Jefferson gets his second career touchdown in just his second game with offense snaps. He’s a excellent 1-cut slasher who ran to day light and the score. pic.twitter.com/2R6hVUTdUZ— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) November 14, 2021
Unfortunately, Jefferson was injured on this play and he would go on to not only miss the remainder of this game but the following week as well. Over the next month, Jefferson would carry the ball just 10 more times but never looked quite like the player he was pre-injury. Add in the fact that he only saw 22 special teams snaps over those four games—along with the emergence of Craig Reynolds—and it’s not overly surprising that Jefferson was once again a healthy scratch the final three weeks of the season.
Outlook for 2022
While his overall body of work in 2021 was limited, Jefferson flashed enough upside on offense in Weeks 8 and 10 to put him firmly in the mix for the RB3 role in 2022. But unlike last training camp, this time around he will face much stronger competition for the role. He will not only have to continue to develop as a running back, but a major upgrade in his special teams contributions is a must—a fact that is not lost on Jefferson:
“I’m just looking forward to getting more special teams reps,” Jefferson told Dave Birkett of the Free Press during OTAs. “Hopefully I’ll work my way on the field as a running back, but my one priority is special teams this year.”
Things won’t be easy, as both Igwebuike and Reynolds are capable of contributing in all four phases of special teams—Jefferson only contributed on two last season: kick and punt returns—but he noted that he is planning on expanding his role in 2022.
“I see myself playing all four special teams,” Jefferson continued. “Punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return. Just trying to go in on special teams, full head of steam with those four positions.”
The talent is certainly there, but as a reserve, Jefferson needs to show that all his offseason work on special teams will show up on the field in the fall. If it does, he could be RB3. If it doesn’t, he may not make the 53-man roster.