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Detroit Lions 2023 training camp battles: Reserve RB jobs up for grabs

The Detroit Lions co-starting roles are set but every reserve job after that will be a competition amongst young, hungry running backs.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Detroit Lions 2023 training camp is less than two weeks away and we have brought back our roster battle series to highlight the best competitions of the fall.

So far in this series, we have looked at how many quarterbacks the Lions may keep on the active roster, and in this installment, we will be focusing on the running backs—specifically the battles for the reserve roles.

Setting the table

Last offseason the Lions included four running backs on the active roster and a fifth on the practice squad. Co-starters Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift are now with new teams (Saints and Eagles, respectively), while RB4/kick returner Justin Jackson did not re-sign and remains an unrestricted free agent.

The Lions were aggressive in finding a new starting pair of running backs. In free agency, the Lions quickly added David Montgomery (formerly of the Bears) after talks with Williams broke down, while the writing was on the wall for a Swift trade after Detroit drafted Jahmyr Gibbs 12th-overall in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Craig Reynolds is the lone returning running back that was on the active roster last season, although Jermar Jefferson (a 2021 seventh-round pick) is also back after spending the season on the practice squad. Additionally, Greg Bell returns at full health after spending his rookie season on injured reserve. The final back on the Lions roster is another new addition, UDFA rookie Mohamed Ibrahim out of the University of Minnesota.

Roster construction

As mentioned above, the Lions kept four running backs on their active roster all season, but that number may have been out of necessity, rather than by design. In Week 1, the Lions had Williams, Swift, Reynolds, and Jackson all healthy. But from that point on, they were dealing with injuries nearly the entire season:

  • Week 2-3: Swift injured, limited
  • Week 4-7: Swift injured, OUT
  • Week 8-9: Swift injured, limited
  • Week 10-12: Reynolds on injured reserve; Swift injured, limited
  • Week 13-14: Reynolds on IR
  • Week 15-16: Reynolds inactive during re-acclimation
  • Week 17: Jackson injured, OUT
  • Week 18: Reynolds was a healthy scratch

As far as roles, the Lions prefer a starting duo that complements each other. Montgomery is the power back that replaces Williams, while Gibbs is the electric weapon that replaces Swift.

Detroit’s reserves tend to be balanced and capable of replacing either starter, rather than acting as a direct one-to-one replacement for one of the top-two options. This allows them to manage roster numbers at the position. In addition to being balanced on offense, the reserve must also be able to contribute on special teams.

Because the RB3 and RB4 roles are so similar, and the fact that the Lions only leaned on three backs on a weekly basis much of the season in 2022, special teams could be the deciding factor in determining if the Lions keep four backs (like last season) or if they opt to settle with just three—assuming they stay healthy.

The Battleground

Montgomery and Gibbs are entrenched as the thunder and lightning co-starters, but the reserve roles are very much up for grabs.

Reynolds, when healthy last season, was the preferred RB3 early in the season, but he lost that role to Jackson after his stint on IR. Reynolds figures to be the early favorite for the RB3 job again, but he will face some strong competition.

While Jefferson spent all of last season on the practice squad, he was the Lions' RB3 as a rookie in 2021 until he was injured and lost the job to Reynolds. He was very much in the mix in the spring and was rotating roles with Reynolds at OTAs and minicamp. Jefferson’s biggest obstacle has always been on special teams—an area he has worked hard to improve—and he will need to prove he can perform in the third phase as well as Reynolds if he wants a shot at the RB3 role.

Bell is a talented one-cut downhill runner, but he was injured early in last year’s training camp, so he’s still a bit of an unknown. Bell was highly thought of by former-assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley, however, Staley is coaching in Carolina now and it’s unclear if his successor, Scotty Montgomery, is as high on the young back.

Montgomery was on staff when the Lions targeted Ibrahim as a UDFA in April, and his $100,000 in contractual guarantees match the contract Bell got last season, indicating they like him just as much, if not more. Ibrahim is more of a bruising back than the other reserves, but he was a balanced weapon in college before tearing his Achilles in 2021. Fortunately, now almost two years removed from the injury, Ibrahim will have a chance to show he can still be the back he was pre-injury.

The Lions know what they have in Reynolds: a reliable, balanced back who can contribute in all phases. Beyond that, the rest of the backs will have to prove they have the skill set to match.

Has Jefferson improved his special teams contributions? Because if he has, he is arguably a better offensive runner than Reynolds. Is Bell the back Staley envisioned or will he not fit Montgomery’s vision? If Ibrahim returns to form and shows he can contribute on special teams, he could climb as high as RB3 on the depth chart—that’s how good he was pre-Achilles.


Erik: My gut feeling is that the Lions will opt to keep four running backs early in the season, and the Jameson Williams suspension gives them the space on the roster they need to make that happen. I’m an early lean on Reynolds as RB3, but this is a deep enough group that I’m not sold he is guaranteed a spot. Furthermore, I’m not sure I have a favorite for the RB4 spot—that’s how close the reserves are for me.

So Jeremy, do you agree with my four backs projection? And do you have favorites for the reserve roles?

Jeremy: When we did our post-draft 53-man roster projection we kept four and I don’t feel any different than I did then. But at the same time, we agonized over this decision when looking at the last few spots. A fourth RB, a FB, an extra special teams LB or DB are all difficult decisions for the end of this roster.

I am truly going into training camp with no real leader of the pack when it comes to the RB3 position. Craig Reynolds is the incumbent, but with a coaching change at running back this year and last year’s somewhat surprising cut of Godwin Igwebuike, I truly think anything could happen in camp.

Erik: It really is one of the more difficult groups to project after the co-starters. At this stage of the offseason, my projection would probably look like this:

  • RB1-A: Montgomery
  • RB1-B: Gibbs
  • Tentative RB3: Reynolds
  • Tentative RB4/practice squad: Jefferson
  • Practice squad: Ibrahim
  • On the outside looking in: Bell

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