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NFL free agent grades: Detroit Lions pick David Montgomery over Jamaal Williams

Breaking down the Lions’ signing of David Montgomery—and their decision to move on from Jamaal Williams.

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Detroit Lions vs Chicago Bears Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes had earned near-invincible status after two very successful years in Detroit. His drafts have produced both potential blue-chip players and incredibly late-round steals. In free agency, he’s been very selective and careful, and the Lions have found diamonds in the rough there while minimizing the impact of any “mistakes.”

But late on Tuesday night, Holmes pulled what may be one of the most polarizing moves he’s done to date. Detroit agreed to a three-year, $18 million deal with former Chicago Bears running back David Montgomery, signaling the clear end of fan-favorite Jamaal Williams.

Like many Lions fans, I’m still processing some emotions from what I view to be a pretty shocking move. Williams loved it here. The coaching staff loved him. The two sides were in constant communication. I know this is a business, but even though most recent reports suggest the two sides were far apart in negotiations, I figured they’d just make it happen.

So let’s try to work through this move by breaking down the pros and cons.

Pro: David Montgomery is an upgrade. Full stop.

If you were to look at each player’s career stats, the results are shockingly similar.

Williams: 915 rushes, 3,652 yards, 4.0 YPC, 30 TDs
Montgomery: 915 rushes, 3,609 yards, 3.9 YPC, 26 TDs

Of course, Montgomery managed this in four seasons, while it has taken Williams six.

But despite the similar statistics, these backs are truly not that close in talent. Context is important, and the Chicago Bears have had a putrid offensive line for years. Meanwhile, Williams has benefited from two stellar offensive lines in Green Bay and Detroit.

Advanced statistics help highlight this point clearly.

(graph via Tej Seth)

Here you can see that Williams and Montgomery almost provide the exact same expected points per rush, but Montgomery is higher on the Y-axis—rushing yards over expectation.

How does he create more yards than expected? Breaking a ton of freakin’ tackles, that’s how—and that just so happen to be something Williams wasn’t good at. Pointing Jamaal in a direction and saying, “run there,” and he’ll do it, and pick up three yards. But he wasn’t much about creating yards on his own.

A quote from Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson on the run game continues to stick with me—via The Athletic:

“I feel like we can take a big jump,” Johnson told Fox 2 Detroit’s Dan Miller recently. “When you watch all of our plays from last year, it’s (about) doing it time and time again. … These 4- and 5-yard runs, they really should be 8, 9 or even more if we can break a tackle.”

Montgomery is clearly the more capable back in creating more yardage after contact. In their careers, Williams has produced 38 broken tackles, while Montgomery has 93 (per Pro Football Reference). And here’s a look at the yards after contact per rush stats for both over the past four years:


  • Williams: 1.8
  • Montgomery: 1.6


  • Williams: 1.9
  • Montgomery: 2.4


  • Williams: 1.4
  • Montgomery: 1.9


  • Williams: 1.7
  • Montgomery: 2.0

Con: Spending a lot on a running back

The perceived value of a running back has been plummeting among NFL teams, as it's now one of the lower-paid positions in football, and a back hasn’t been drafted in the top 20 picks in five years.

We don’t know all the specifics of Montgomery’s deal yet, but we do know it averages to $6 million a year and comes with $11 million in guarantees. That likely means he’ll stick around for at least two of those years, and quite possibly has an easy out in Year 3.

Of course, this isn’t exactly reckless spending on a running back. The $6 million-a-year average is tied for 16th among NFL running backs. However, the problem I have is that second-contract running backs are rarely even worth that much. The drop-off in production from the first contract to the next can be extremely sudden. It’s why many Lions fans were hoping Detroit drafts a running back. Get one relatively cheap, ride out their rookie deal, then move on.

Instead, the Lions are now spending a significant amount at the running back position whereas they were being smartly frugal there before.

To make matters worse...

Con: Montgomery has worn a lot of tread on the tires—and a lengthy injury list

That precipitous fall for Montgomery could come quicker than others. Though Montgomery shared the backfield every year in Chicago, he still eclipsed 200 rushes in each of his four seasons there and was the primary back in each season. Over those four years, only five backs have had more rushing attempts than Montgomery. And that’s not even including the 155 receptions over that time, which rank 13th among backs.

On top of that, Montgomery has been a regular on the Bears’ injury report. To his credit, he’s played through a lot of those injuries, but his physical running style and Chicago’s heavy use of him have regularly taken a toll on him. He’s missed a total of just six games in his four years with the Bears, but he’s dealt with groin pulls, a concussion, a knee injury that caused him to miss four games, and an ankle injury.

I wouldn’t say Montgomery is a bigger injury risk than an average running back with his running style, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind as his workload will likely continue to be heavy.

Pro: Lions didn’t let emotions get in the way with Jamaal Williams

Former Lions beat writer Chris Burke brought up a great point about what this move tells us about general manager Brad Holmes.

The Lions have been all about culture, and some have suggested that has gotten in the way of adding talent. The allegation is that they overpay and overvalue players that represent everything they’re about.

This proves that isn’t completely true. Jamaal Williams embodied everything the Lions are and want to be, and even the Lions had their limit with how much they wanted to pay him.

That isn’t to say that Montgomery, too, isn’t a great culture guy—he is (more on that in a minute), but if this team sees the opportunity to upgrade over someone who is the prototype of a Dan Campbell Guy, they will.

Con: Not a great message sender to the locker room

Jamaal Williams did almost every single thing right in his two years with Detroit. If the Lions would have re-signed him, the narrative would have been, “This sends a great message throughout the locker room: ‘Put in the work and we’ll reward you.’” That point has been made with guys like Alex Anzalone, John Cominsky, Charles Harris, Josh Reynolds, and Kalif Raymond. But this stands in pretty stark opposition to that.

Now, players aren’t dumb. They know this is a business and they know the Lions appreciate everything Williams has done for the franchise over the past two years. Still, it’s hard to imagine how Williams could have done anything more to make his case for a re-signing, and people will notice.

Pro: The Lions got a really good person in Montgomery

The team and fans will certainly miss Williams’ colorful personality and infectious intensity, but they aren’t sacrificing anything in the “Good Person” category with Montgomery.

Montgomery was active in the community in Chicago and he also spoke regularly on the importance of mental health. If you have the time, this article from The Athletic is absolutely worth your time. Here’s a clip of Montgomery talking about his mental health issues:

Okay, we get it. You’re conflicted. Just give a grade already

Ugh. This dumb profession demands immediate grades and little nuance. Overall, I give this move a C+ grade.

I’ll fully admit that there are likely some emotions getting in the way here. Not only was Williams just a treat to watch for every media session, but he was also incredibly kind to Pride of Detroit, joining our podcast on two different occasions.

Beyond that, though, I think it’s fair to question how big of an upgrade this truly is. Production is almost identical with Williams, and while advanced metrics suggest that Montgomery will benefit from finally playing behind an offensive line that will likely see fewer eight-man boxes, that is all projection, not fact.

I have always loved Montgomery as a back, and we got an up-close look at his production for the past four years as an NFC North foe. But anyone who knows me knows that I don’t love spending significant resources on a running back, especially one that’s already well into their NFL career.

That said, Montgomery will only be 26 years old when the season starts. This is not an overcommitment in terms of price nor length of contract. He’s an upgrade at the position, and while the Lions' offense was humming along fine for most of 2022, the running game did drop off in the second half of the season. If Montgomery can bring the explosiveness and consistency in the run game that the Lions had in September, there’s little doubt Detroit will have a top-five offense again in 2023.

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