Detroit is off to a 3-1 start, so this may seem nitpicky, but the Lions must re-evaluate their division of labor at running back. Detroit must give wildly talented rookie Jahmyr Gibbs the lion’s share of the touches out of the backfield, not veteran David Montgomery.
After sporting one of the NFL’s best running back duos in Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift (combined 1,608 rushing yards, 22 rushing TDs in 2022), the Lions started over at the position this season.
Once Williams left in free agency for the New Orleans Saints, Detroit signed Montgomery to a three-year, $18 million contract in free agency. Then, in the 2023 NFL Draft, the Lions shocked many by taking Gibbs with the 12th overall pick. They subsequently traded Swift to the Philadelphia Eagles, receiving a 2025 fourth-round pick and swapping 2023 seventh-round picks in the deal.
The Lions have big expectations for Gibbs, and while the 21-year-old rookie has shined when he has played, his opportunities have been comparatively sparse. In the Lions’ 34-20 rout of the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Thursday, Montgomery was the workhorse, amassing 121 yards on 32 carries and three touchdowns.
Gibbs, meanwhile, had 12 touches — eight carries for 40 yards and four catches for 11 yards. For the season, he has only 53 touches — 39 rushing and 14 receiving — even though Montgomery missed a game with a thigh injury.
With Montgomery getting the bulk of the work at running back, Detroit’s decision to use its first selection in the 2023 draft on a running back is brought into question. Swift’s tumultuous time in Detroit and unceremonious departure raise further doubts about Detroit’s decision-making.
Detroit selected Swift with the No. 35 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, making him the second running back taken off the board. The Georgia product never became the Lions’ three-down back, however, failing to rush for more than 650 yards in any season with the team.
It wasn’t until last season that Swift took a back seat to Williams, who posted 262 carries for 1,066 yards and a franchise-record 17 rushing touchdowns. Down the stretch, Swift received far fewer carries than Williams.
After Swift rushed for 542 yards (5.5 yards per attempt) and five touchdowns in 2022, the Lions ditched the 24-year-old veteran for even younger talent in Gibbs. Now in Philadelphia, Swift is putting together a resurgent season, rushing for over 100 yards in back-to-back games and averaging a whopping 6.8 yards a carry. The dude can play.
The Lions must be wary of not making the same mistake as they usher Gibbs into the NFL. During the two games this season in which Montgomery was healthy, he received 79% and 71% of the snap count compared to Gibbs’ 27% and 37%, respectively.
Although Montgomery has played well, Gibbs brings rare athleticism (4.36 speed in the 40-yard dash) and elusiveness that Montgomery doesn’t have.