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2023 Lions roster preview: How big of an upgrade is David Montgomery over Jamaal Williams?

The Detroit Lions surprisingly moved on from Jamaal Williams and replaced him with David Montgomery. How big of an improvement is that?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Without a doubt, one of the most surprising moves the Detroit Lions made this offseason was signing running back David Montgomery instead of re-signing Jamaal Williams. Montgomery has huge shoes to fill after Williams had a record-breaking season while being the heart and soul of the team.

And while it would be unfair to expect Montgomery to assume the same leadership duties, there is certainly an expectation to be just as effective of a player, if not even more. Is that realistic, though?

Let’s take a closer look as our 2023 Detroit Lions roster preview series continues.

Previous roster previews: Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, James Mitchell, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston, Chase Lucas, Obinna Eze, Greg Bell, Penei Sewell, Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Derrick Barnes, Jermar Jefferson, Brock Wright, Jerry Jacobs, Cameron Sutton, and Emmanuel Moseley

David Montgomery

Actual role in 2022 (with Bears)

16 games (16 starts): 629 offensive snaps (60.1%)
Stats: 201 rushes, 801 yards (4.0 YPC), 5 TDs; 34 catches, 316 yards, 1 TD
PFF offensive grade: 67.9 (47th of 58 RBs with at least 75 carries)
PFF run grade: 67.9 (49th of 86)
PFF receiving grade: 64.0 (23rd of 44 RBs with at least 30 targets)
PFF pass blocking grade: 57.4 (26th of 62 RBs with at least 30 pass blocking snaps)

In terms of overall rushing, 2022 wasn’t exactly Montgomery’s best season. His 801 yards on the ground was the lowest total of his career and his 4.0 yards per carry ranked 36th in the NFL. That said, he remained a solid threat as a receiver.

As with any rushing attack, Montgomery’s performance needs to be put into its proper context. There’s the perception that Chicago’s offensive line was—and has been—one of the worst units in football. While that has been backed up by advanced stats in the past, 2022 is a little more debatable. Chicago actually ranked fifth in ESPN’s team run block win rate and fifth in PFF’s team run blocking grade.

Further complicating Montgomery’s performance was the rise of 2021 sixth-round pick Khalil Herbert. In a complementary role, Herbert rushed for 731 yards on just 129 carries for an impressive 5.7 yards per carry.

That all sounds bad and concerning, but a deeper dive provides more assurance here. The Bears used these backs entirely differently, so it’s understandable to expect differing outcomes. Montgomery was the team’s short-yardage back, and he was better at that role than Herbert. Inside the 20-yard line, Herbert rushed for just 70 yards on 20 carries (3.5 YPC), while Montgomery was actually more efficient with 31 rushes for 115 yards (3.7 YPC). Overall as a team, the Bears actually ranked third in the league in short-yardage efficiency—converting 77 percent of “power” situations—so a lot of credit goes to Montgomery there. For what it’s worth, the Lions ranked 20th in that category.

Additionally, one of Montgomery’s best abilities is his knack for breaking tackles. In 2022, according to PFF, he had 46 missed tackles forced, which ranked 14th in the NFL, and all 13 players ahead of him had more rushing attempts on the season.

Outlook for 2023

A lot of people seem to be under the impression that the Lions went into free agency with the plan to upgrade from Jamaal Williams, but that is not grounded in reality. Detroit clearly wanted to bring Williams back, and they’ve said as much publicly several times.

“From a budgeting and planning standpoint pre-free agency, we had an allotment of resources set aside really for Jamaal,” Lions GM Brad Holmes said. “Didn’t really even consider another running back higher than that amount of resources that we set aside for Jamaal.”

But when contract negotiations broke down, the Lions quickly moved to their next target. In signing Montgomery to a three-year, $18 million deal, Detroit effectively got younger at the position, but it’s fair to wonder how much better they got at the position.

For the first three years of his career, Montgomery was clearly the better back. But opportunity and a strong offensive line allowed Williams to have a career year in 2022: 262 rushes, 1,066 yards (4.1 YPC), and 17 TDs.

That’s a very high bar for Montgomery in 2023, but it’s certainly obtainable for the 26-year-old back. In fact, he had a very similar season just three years ago. In 2020, Montgomery rushed for 1,070 yards on 247 carries (4.3 YPC) and 8 TDs.

Montgomery appears to be an upgrade over Williams in two other key categories: receiving and tackle-breaking. In each of the last three seasons, Montgomery has caught at least 34 passes. Meanwhile, Williams only caught 38 total passes in his two years in Detroit.

As for broken tackles, this illustrates just how much of an upgrade Montgomery is in that category:

This last point is most important to the Lions, as offensive coordinator Ben Johnson specifically said that they left yards on the field because they struggled to break tackles.

“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.”

Of course, we can’t talk about 2023 expectations without mentioning the fact that the Lions selected running back Jahmyr Gibbs with the 12th overall pick. Gibbs figures to be a big part of their offense, but Montgomery should still be expected to be the feature back when it comes to running the ball. He’ll be the thunder to Gibbs’ lightning, which should allow both players to stay fresh and efficient. That’s essentially the role he had with Herbert in Chicago, so he should be comfortable with how they use him in Detroit.

A 1,000-yard and double-digit touchdown season will still be tough benchmarks to hit, but on a down-to-down basis, Montgomery should be—at the very least—as effective as Williams was for the past two seasons.

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