The Detroit Lions have 18 players that are set to hit free agency this March, and another 10 restricted/exclusive right free agents, but it was running back Jamaal Williams, who topped my list when I ranked them.
Expectations heading into 2022
A career RB2, Williams was once again expected to enter the season as the complement to RB1 D’Andre Swift. Over his first five seasons in the NFL, Williams was a consistent producer, averaging around 160 touches (130 rushing and 30 receptions) and 740 all-purpose yards a season.
With Swift’s injury history, the Lions anticipated they would need to lean on Williams several times during the season, knowing they would be able to count on him to produce. And while confidence in Williams remained very high from the coaching staff, I’m not sure the Lions expected to get the level of production they got out of Williams in 2022.
Actual role in 2022
17 games (9 starts): 459 snaps on offense (40.2%)
Rushing stats: 262 carries for 1,066 rushing yards, 4.1 YPC, 2.78 ave. yards after contact, 17 touchdowns, 22 plays over 10 yards, 7 plays over 15 yards
Receiving stats: 12 receptions on 16 targets for 73 receiving yards
PFF overall grade: 73.5 (32nd of 61)
PFF run grade: 75.6 (37th of 61)
PFF pass block grade: 72.3 (9th of 61)
Notable accomplishments: Eclipsed the 1,000 yards rushing mark for the first time in his career and broke Lions/Barry Sanders’ record for most rushing touchdowns in a single season.
We should have seen this coming.
From the moment HBO’s “Hard Knocks” released Williams breaking down the huddle after practice, urging his teammates to keep grinding, and follow his lead. We should have known, Williams was going to have a special year.
“I wanna let you all know man. Today is the minimum of effort. Do not give up. Do not feel like you tired. When you tired, think of last year, and that (expletive) record. Every time I get tired, or I think I can’t go no more, I think of the (expletive) record. Last year wasn’t it! That ain’t us! We can make it! Have some heart! I get emotional about this. I’m about to cry, ‘cause I care about y’all. Do your best. Let’s go!”
Williams was one of the Lions' emotional leaders in the locker room and is beloved by his teammates. Following a win over the Bears in Week 17, Taylor Decker was asked if Williams being close to breaking the 1,000-yard mark meant something to him as an offensive lineman, the Lions left tackle didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“Yes. Especially for a guy like (Williams) who is one of the best teammates I’ve ever had in my life. He’s an incredible person, who genuinely cares and loves his teammates. I don’t know if he will say it, but we know he’s going to go out there if he’s not feeling good, if he’s banged up, maybe he didn’t sleep good, or if something is going on with his family, and he is going to give it 100%. No doubt. That’s a big time reflection his character. Super high character guy. And we love him. And we want to get him those stats because he deserves them because he has put in the work, the dirty work, and he deserves it. We love him.”
Beyond being a positive influence on his teammates, Williams was also a pillar of the Lions' offensive approach. The Lions offense heavily leans on play-action in their passing attack, and in order for that to work, you need steady production from the running backs. Williams’ dependability allowed offensive coordinator Ben Johnson to build a weekly game plan, knowing that he could count on his production.
Williams is never going to be the type of back that is going to take over a game by himself—despite the career year, he only had two games where he ran for over 100 yards—but his ability to be consistent is a massive security blanket for an offense.
Coach Dan Campbell discussed Williams’ dependability after the Lions' Week 18 win over the Packers, where Williams set his career marks.
“He’s one of the most unselfish players that I’ve ever been around. He’s all about it for the team. He brings some energy to us. And in some critical moments today he showed up. And he’s one of the most consistent players we have. I’ve said that from Day 1. You can always bank on the production you’re going to get from him. You know exactly what he’s going to do. He’ll be where he’s supposed to be, when he’s supposed to be there.”
Outlook for 2023
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
The Lions rushing attack is a staple of their offense, and while Swift is their most talented, explosive back on the roster, he lacks consistency and has an injury history that is concerning. In order for the Lions' offense to operate effectively, they need at least one back who can consistently produce, which arguably makes Williams the most valuable asset in the Lions' backfield.
The Lions won’t want to break the bank on Williams, but at the same time, he embodies everything this regime is about and everything that they preach they want in a player. He has also said he wants to return to Detroit, both in the locker room—in a very Jamaal Williams kind of way—and on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football” in late January, which should also help ease the facilitation of a new contract.
Williams’ last contract with the Lions was a two-year, $6 million ($3.25 guaranteed) deal that paid him $2 million in 2021 and $4 million in 2022. After a career season, he is surely due a raise and Spotrac’s Market Value projection tool agrees, suggesting Williams’ next contract should be in the range of two years, $8.4 million.
If that is indeed the case, Williams’ next contract could look something like $3 million in 2023 and $5.4 million in 2024, with $4 million in guarantees.
So, what do you think, is Williams worth that price? I know my answer, let’s hear yours. Vote in the poll and share your thoughts in the comments.
What is the best approach the Lions should take with Jamaal Williams?
This poll is closed
Let him test the market
Re-sign him at Spotrac’s projection (2 years $8.4M)
Spend more if needed
Other (share in comments)