The Detroit Lions surprisingly moved on from Jamaal Williams and replaced him with David Montgomery. How much of an improvement is that?
Arguably, one of the most surprising moves the Detroit Lions made this offseason was signing holdover David Montgomery instead of re-signing Jamaal Williams. Montgomery has big shoes to fill after Williams had a record season while being the heart and soul of the team.
And while it would be unfair to expect Montgomery to take on the same managerial duties, there is certainly an expectation to be just as effective of a player, if not more so. Is it realistic though?
Let’s take a closer look as our 2023 Detroit Lions roster preview series continues.
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Actual role in 2022 (with Bears)
16 games (16 starts): 629 offensive snaps (60.1%)
Statistics: 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 receives 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. carries were 36th in the NFL. That said, he remained a solid threat as a receiver.
As with any rushing attack, Montgomery’s performance must be put into context. There is a perception that Chicago’s offensive line was – and has been – one of the worst units in football. Although it has been supported by advanced statistics in the past, 2022 is a bit more debatable. Chicago was actually number five ESPN’s team run block win rate and fifth in PFF’s team run blocking rate.
Further complicating Montgomery’s performance was the emergence 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. carry.
It all sounds bad and worrying, but a deeper dive provides more certainty here. The Bears used these backs quite differently, so it’s understandable to expect different results. Montgomery was the team’s short yardage back, and he was better suited to that role than Herbert. Inside the 20-yard line, Herbert only rushed for 70 yards on 20 carries (3.5 YPC), while Montgomery was actually more efficient with 31 rushes for 115 yards (3.7 YPC). All in all, 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. For what it’s worth, the Lions were 20th in that category.
Additionally, one of Montgomery’s best skills is his ability to break tackles. In 2022, according to PFF, he had forced 46 missed tackles, which was 14th in the NFL, and all 13 players ahead of him had more rushing attempts on the season.
Outlook for 2023
Many people seem to be under the impression that the Lions entered 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 have said so publicly several times.
“From a budget and scheduling standpoint, we had an allocation of resources set aside for Jamaal,” Lions GM Brad Holmes said. “Wasn’t really even considering another running back higher than the amount of resources that we devoted to Jamaal.”
But when contract negotiations broke down, the Lions quickly moved on to their next target. By signing Montgomery to a three-year, $18 million deal, Detroit actually 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 opportunities 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 attainable for the 26-year-old running 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 tackling. In each of the last three seasons, Montgomery has caught at least 34 passes. Meanwhile, Williams caught just 38 total passes in his two years in Detroit.
As far as broken tackles go, this illustrates 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 they left yards on the field because they struggled to break tackles.
“I feel like we can make a big jump,” Johnson told Fox 2 Detroit’s Dan Miller recently. “Looking at all our plays from last year, it’s (about) doing it over and over again. … Those 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 back when it comes to running the ball. He will be the thunder to Gibbs’ lightning, which should allow both players to stay fresh and effective. That’s essentially the role he had with Herbert in Chicago, so he should be familiar 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 least — as effective as Williams was the past two seasons.