Sizing up Lions' running backs situation heading into free agency, 2023 draft

DETROIT – The Detroit Lions' ground attack came alive this past season, establishing itself as one of the most versatile groups the franchise has produced since the Barry Sanders era.

Collectively, they helped the Lions offense to their first 2,000-yard rushing season since 1997, finishing with 2,179 total yards off 480 rushes for a 4.5 per yard average.

Detroit’s running back corps torched defenses with a league-leading 23 rushing touchdowns, headlined by Jamaal Williams (league-leading 17 rushing TDs) and D'Andre Swift (5), who possess two different yet effective running styles. Williams, however, enters this offseason as an unrestricted free agent.

While Williams future is uncertain, the Lions' running back room will have at least one new face, as the team hired running backs coach Scottie Montgomery from the Indianapolis Colts to replace Duce Staley, who left to join the Carolina Panthers staff.

Here is a closer look at the running back position ahead of free agency and the draft.

How did the position perform in 2022?

The backfield in Detroit this past season was running wild, logging both the seventh-most rushing yards in franchise history (2,179) and the second-most rushing touchdowns (23).

Williams topped the league with a career-best 17 rushing touchdowns, a new franchise mark originally set by Sanders (16) in 1991. He experienced his first 1,000-yard season, finishing with 1,066 total rushing yards. Williams also became the first Lions player to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season since Reggie Bush in 2013.

Swift logged 542 rushing yards and five touchdowns in addition to 389 receiving yards and three touchdowns, despite battling through shoulder and ankle injuries much of the year.

Running backs Justin Jackson and Craig Reynolds combined for 272 yards and a touchdown.

The ground attack helped the Lions offense score 25.71 points per game, the fifth-most in the NFL, and gave the team strong incentive to bring Williams back.

“Yeah, I mean obviously we have Jamaal as an unrestricted free agent. You know, we're having discussions now, currently,” Lions general manager Brad Holmes told media Wednesday at the NFL combine. “We had discussions with all our upcoming UFAs that were on expiring deals, and there's a mutual interest to hopefully get him back, and we've still got Swift under contract."

Who is coming back?

As great as the running backs group was in 2022, things could look different next year if Williams decides to leave. Although Williams has expressed interest to remain in Detroit, after a career-best season, other teams around the league could make a push to sign him.

Swift remains under contract through 2023, on the last year of his rookie deal, after appearing in 14 games. He said he grew as a player after pushing through an injury-riddled campaign.

“It was a lot, especially starting off the season with a high ankle sprain in Game 1, separated shoulder in Week 3, so just playing through all that I’m just blessed to be able to compete with these guys, week in and week out. It was a learning year. It was a good year, being able to finish the way I did. I just thank God,” Swift told ESPN after the Green Bay Packers win on Jan. 9. “I’m ready to go back to work. I’m ready to get back healthy for real.”

Running back Jermar Jefferson is still under contract, but like Williams, Jackson, the team’s third leading rusher, will become an unrestricted free agent.

What should we expect this offseason?

It would be surprising if Williams doesn’t return to Detroit. From training camp, he was the heart and soul of the locker room with his high intensity and infectious spirit, and he has said he wants to remain with the Lions. Williams has proven to be a great goal-line complement to Swift, so keeping Swift healthy is also a top priority.

However, if Williams doesn’t return, the Lions may target a running back in the later rounds of the draft, such as Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim, or even sign a veteran running back in free agency.The Dallas Cowboys' Tony Pollard, Philadelphia Eagles' Miles Sanders, Chicago Bears' David Montgomery, Cleveland Browns' Kareem Hunt, and New England Patriots' Damien Harris are among the top free agents running backs available this offseason..