While inactive for roughly half his games his rookie season, he flashed when given the opportunity, scoring a touchdown in each of his first two NFL games. Unfortunately, he was injured on the play where he registered his second score and never quite looked healed over the remainder of the season. Jefferson entered the Lions 2022 training camp with high expectations, trying to lock down a reserve job, but he ran into several obstacles.
Let’s take a closer look at the next installment of our 2023 roster preview series.
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, and Derrick Barnes.
Expectations heading into 2022
When Jefferson was injured during his rookie season, it opened the door for Craig Reynolds to step into the RB3 role and he seized the opportunity. The pair entered 2022 training camp the favorites to compete for the job, with Godwin Igwebuike expected to have an inside track for the RB4/special teams role. Greg Bell wasn’t expected to be too much of a threat to Jefferson, but when Bell was injured and the Lions signed veteran Justin Jackson, the competition heated up quickly.
On offense during camp and the preseason, it was difficult to separate the four reserve backs from each other, which put an emphasis on the versatility of each player's skill set. If there was going to be a key skill to separate the backs, it would likely come via their special teams contributions.
Unfortunately for Jefferson, he was arguably the weakest special teams player of the bunch. To his credit, he had made clear progress in this area, and coach Dan Campbell acknowledged Jefferson’s improvement in “attitude” and “demeanor”, but it still looked like an uphill battle.
Actual role in 2022
Did Not Play
By the end of training camp, Jefferson looked like he had survived the roster cuts, as both he and Reynolds made the 53-man roster as running back reserves. Unfortunately for Jefferson, that time was short-lived, as he was released the following day in order to make room for Benito Jones, who the Lions claimed off waivers from Miami. After clearing waivers, Jefferson was re-signed by the Lions, but this time it was to the practice squad.
While the Lions only had three running backs on their active roster, they typically preferred to keep four active on game day for special teams' purposes. When the time came to bring up a back from the practice squad in Week 1, it was Jackson who was elevated over Jefferson. Jackson performed well and was signed to the active roster the following week.
Jefferson wasn’t content to remain on the practice squad and Campbell acknowledged that the young back was doing enough behind the scenes to warrant a spot on the active roster. But despite Campbell’s desires, Reynolds and Jackson never relinquished their roles and Jefferson never got his opportunity to join the 53-man roster during the 2022 regular season.
Outlook for 2023
While the Lions have two new co-starting running backs in Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery, the reserve roles remain very similar to the past two seasons. Jefferson returns, as does Reynolds, Bell is finally healthy, and undrafted rookie Mohamad Ibrahim is in the final running back roster spot. Surprisingly, despite Jackson being on the Lions' active roster all season, he did not re-sign with Detroit and remains a free agent.
In the spring practices, Jefferson and Reynolds split time at the top of the reserve roles rotation ahead of the younger Bell and Ibrahim, but the competition for RB3 and RB4 (?) is wide open, according to Lions assistant head coach and running backs coach Scottie Montgomery.
“Solid. Solid guys,” Montgomery said during OTAs. “It’s going to be difficult because Jermar (Jefferson), Craig (Reynolds), Mo (Ibrahim), all of these guys have really done what we’ve asked them to do. And you’re looking for the things that you can improve in these guys and all of them have those things to improve, but in that area—it’s just going to be a slugfest. That’s what camp’s about.”
On offense, the reserve backs are all talented runners, making this year's battle one that will once again heavily involve contributions on special teams. If Jefferson has made enough improvement in the third phase of the game, it could be his ticket back to the 53-man roster.