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2023 Detroit Lions free agent profile: Can Justin Jackson carve out a role as RB3?

Jackson was a key contributor on special teams and an effective reserve running back. Should that be enough to keep him on the roster in 2023?

NFL: Detroit Lions at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions have 28 players from their 2022 roster set to become free agents in 2023 (18 unrestricted, 10 restricted), and we are covering them all throughout the month of February.

If you missed any of the previous articles, you can check them out here: QB Nate Sudfeld, LB Chris Board, S DeShon Elliott, RB Jamaal Williams, IOL Evan Brown, NT Isaiah Buggs, EDGE John Cominsky, EDGE Austin Bryant, LB Alex Anzalone, LB Josh Woods, CB Will Harris, CB Mike Hughes, CB Amari Oruwariye, SAF C.J. Moore, and K Michael Badgley

Next up:

Justin Jackson

Expectations heading into 2022

On only the second day of training camp, rookie running back Greg Bell went down with an injury that would land him on the injured reserve, opening the door for Jackson to be signed by the Lions. Having productive seasons already under his belt, Jackson brought valuable veteran depth to the running backs room.

Beyond his role as a reserve running back behind starters D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams, it was expected Jackson would contribute on special teams.

Actual role in 2022

13 games: 42 carries for 170 rushing yards, 4.0 YPC, 3.17 AVG after contact, one rushing touchdown, and one receiving touchdown
PFF Overall grade: 58.6
PFF Rushing grade: 66.9
PFF Receiving grade: 47.0
PFF Pass-blocking grade: 65.5

As planned, Jackson was a core special teamer—contributing every week of the season on all four special teams units. As a kick returner, Jackson really excelled—finishing the season fourth in the NFL in kick return average (minimum 20 returns). He often provided a jolt of energy for the team when he had a big return, and coincidentally, set the offense up for success by allowing them to start possessions in plus-field position.

On the offensive side of the ball, Jackson’s snaps fluctuated depending on the matchup, or health of the running backs room. When his number was called, Jackson was an effective runner, displaying the straight-line speed and toughness that propelled him to success during his time with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Outlook for 2023

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

Even though Jackson is a veteran with a proven track-record, he was still unsigned when 2022 training camp kicked off, allowing him to sign with the Lions in the first place. It’s been discussed a ton already, and we still have more than two months until the 2023 NFL Draft—but running back is a need for a Lions’ offense that will be looking to build off of 2022’s success.

Bringing back Jackson may be at least somewhat tied into what general manager Brad Holmes decides to do about fellow veteran running back Jamaal Williams. Because of the nature of the position, Jackson likely wouldn’t command much beyond the veteran minimum for 2023. And unlike with Williams, Jackson is proven commodity as a special team—particularly as a kick returner.

Would Holmes be comfortable with bringing back both Jackson and Williams on short deals with 2023 also being the final year of Swift’s rookie contract? Doing so may leave the position in flux in the near-future, but would give the Lions a stable group of ball carriers for next year.

Or should the Lions use a draft pick on a back in lieu of re-signing a veteran like Jackson? Should they do both? With Swift’s future very much still up in the air heading into the final year of his rookie contract, the roster could use another younger, dynamic athlete, capable of making a game-breaking play anytime he touches the ball.

How do you think the Lions should approach Justin Jackson this offseason?

Poll

What should the Lions do with Justin Jackson?

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    Let him test free agency
    (289 votes)
  • 66%
    Sign him to a 1-year vet minimum deal
    (904 votes)
  • 11%
    Sign him to a multi-year deal with incentives
    (151 votes)
  • 0%
    Other (explain in the comments)
    (12 votes)
1356 votes total Vote Now

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.