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Lions mailbag: How much will Detroit utilize David Montgomery, Jahmyr Gibbs?

We answer a bunch of Detroit Lions question, including the RB usage between David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs, PLUS which Lions player had the best rookie training camp?

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

With the Detroit Lions having a walkthrough on Tuesday, I thought it would be a good time to revitalize the written mailbag. I asked for questions on Twitter and you all delivered.

Here are a bunch of answers to your questions as we enter joint practices with the Jacksonville Jaguars later on Wednesday.

I think there is a very easy way to project what the roles of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs will be: look at the New Orleans Saints. Obviously, the Lions don’t run an identical scheme to what they ran there, but coach Dan Campbell was there when they had Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara—and Campbell has already compared Gibbs to Kamara.

So let’s look back on Kamara’s rookie season, and see what could be in store for Gibbs:

Mark Ingram: 230 carries, 1,124 yards, 12 TDs; 58 catches, 416 yards
Alvin Kamara: 120 carries, 728 yards, 8 TDs; 81 catches, 826 yards, 5 TDs

Now, this has gone down as one of the best duo running back seasons of all time, so to expect this kind of production out of each may be setting the bar too high. But proportionally, this fits my expectations for both in 2023: Montgomery with 13-18 carries a game with a couple of catches. Gibbs with 6-10 carries and another 4-6 catches per game.

I love this question because, after Brian Branch’s interception during Monday’s practice, I asked myself the same question. And to be quite honest, I don’t remember ever seeing a rookie come in and dominate camp as much as Branch has this year.

To be fair, I’ve only been a fully-credentialed Lions writer since 2019—making this my fifth full-time training camp—but I’ve seen some talented rookies go through camp. Penei Sewell looked promising, but it was up-and-down enough for there to be some silly preseason concerns. Aidan Hutchinson probably had one of the best camps I’ve seen last year, but going up against a pretty darn good set of tackles, he took his lumps, too.

Really, the only person who comes close to the way I’ve seen Branch dominate practice is Amon-Ra St. Brown in 2021. Almost immediately, the kid was hurdling people in practice, getting into scuffles, and immersing himself into the first-team offense. I immediately got Hines Ward vibes from him—and said as much at the time.

As of right now, I would say St. Brown had the most impressive rookie training camp, but Branch is nipping at his heels.

If we’re talking specifically about the wide receiver position, I think Marvin Jones Jr. is pretty safe. I also think the Lions can comfortably fit one or two of those young, budding stars like Dylan Drummond, Antoine Green, or Chase Cota. Now, there is a salary cap stipulation that works against Jones: veterans on the Week 1 roster have their salaries become fully guaranteed. At times, we’ve seen teams skirt that rule by cutting a player and signing them back in Week 2. I don’t see that happening with Jones, because the Lions will need some dependable players early in the season during, yes, a “win-now season.”

I’m going to pair these two together, because—I’m sorry, other Jeremy—I, too, am a little concerned about the Lions’ depth at outside cornerback. Maybe it’s a Jeremy thing.

If I had to guess based on the information available today, Emmanuel Moseley seems likely to stay on the PUP list and miss the first four games of the season. That means the Lions are just another injury away from starting either Will Harris or undrafted rookie Starling Thomas V. That’s not ideal.

That said, Jerry Jacobs is a perfectly fine starter and a fierce competitor. He’ll draw flags every now and then for being too grabby, but I’ll take the scrappy corner over the one losing track of his receiver.

Still, the Lions have to face Patrick Mahomes and a stacked Seahawks receiving corps (DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, Jaxon Smith-Njigba) in the first two weeks of the season—likely without Moseley. That’s going to be some tests.

No, I think Alex Anzalone is pretty firmly entrenched as the team’s weak-side linebacker. The Lions moved him there from the MIKE this offseason, and both he and the coaching staff are more comfortable with that setup.

“Alex can play all the positions, and it’s one of the reasons he’s a huge asset for us,” Dan Campbell said last week. “But I think he is really naturally more WILL. He’s more that position, and I think it fits his skillset.”

Malcolm Rodriguez could very likely earn some subpackage time at the WILL, but I don’t see Anzalone ceding the starting role at any point during the season. Having said that, I do think there is a very real battle happening at MIKE and it would not surprise me if Derrick Barnes is your Week 1 starter, even though Jack Campbell is expected to hold that position long-term. Barnes has been excellent this summer.

To answer your second question first: every indication right now is that Brian Branch will be the team’s starting nickel in Week 1, with C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Kerby Joseph being the starting safeties. Tracy Walker may get some subpackage roles, but Detroit has been rolling him with the second-team defense for a couple weeks now, and I don’t see that changing.

As for Joseph and Gardner-Johnson being a top-five safety duo, I’d argue they’re already pretty close to that status. ESPN’s poll of NFL executives already considers Gardner-Johnson a top-10 safety in the league, and Joseph looks even better in camp than he finished the season.

The Ravens (Marcus Williams, Kyle Hamilton) and Bills (Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde) may edge out the Lions right now at safety, but I truly think these two will establish themselves as a top-five safety duo very early in the season.

My memory isn’t so good, so I had to dig into the archives for this one. Jim Schwartz’s third season with the Lions was 2011. The Lions were coming off just a 6-10 season—but on a four-game winning streak to end the year—and most importantly, Matthew Stafford was finally healthy.

My official prediction (under the name “simscity”) that year was 9-7, as I was still a bit skeptical that everything could come together in one season. That said, I would say my confidence that the Lions had their quarterback of the future was strong, and that had me believing the future was endlessly bright.

If you meant 2012, it’s worth considering that year, too. The Lions had just broken their playoff drought, Stafford had further established himself as a franchise quarterback, and the team had some defensive studs to balance the roster. However, you may infamously remember that the Lions just kind of ran back the roster from 2011 with no major additions. Therefore, I had my doubts and predicted another mediocre 9-7 season. They went 4-12.

And therein lies one of many differences. The 2023 Lions didn’t rest on their laurels after a 9-8 season. They overhauled a running back room that was fine because they wanted it to be elite. They went and got two of the best cornerbacks available in free agency—then went out and got the top safety, too.

But the optimism is Detroit is also fueled by opportunity. In 2011, the Green Bay Packers went 15-1. In 2012, every other team in the NFC North finished with at least 10 wins. This year, the division is wide open, and Detroit is the favorite to win the division for the first time in the internet era.

So, no, we didn’t feel this way back during the Schwartz era. Because—spoilers—I will not be predicting a nine-win season this year. I probably won’t be predicting a 10-win season, either.

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