Lions add Jamaal Williams to running back mix

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

The Detroit Lions have found a backfield complement to D’Andre Swift, reaching an agreement with free agent running back Jamaal Williams. He confirmed the deal on social media Tuesday night, which the NFL Network is reporting as a two-year pact worth up to $7.5 million.

In recent years, as the Lions have searched for a competent and consistent rushing attack, they’ve attempted to pair a young back with a veteran closer to the end of his career. Last year it was Adrian Peterson, and before that C.J. Anderson and LeGarrette Blount. In Williams, the team is adding an experienced option with plenty of tread still on the tires.

Former Packers running back Jamaal Williams is joining the Lions.

Williams, who turns 26 next month, spent his first four seasons with the Green Bay Packers.  A fourth-round pick out of BYU in 2017, he led the team in rushing as a rookie with 556 yards, before settling into a backup role behind Aaron Jones, who was drafted a round later the same year as Williams.

The tandem combined to lead one of the NFL’s more potent ground games last season with Williams chipping in 505 yards on 119 attempts. But it’s his well-rounded skillset that likely appealed to the Lions.

In addition to his ability to capably handle handoffs, Williams has been a steady and efficient contributor in the passing game. He’s averaged more than 30 catches per season, while hauling in nearly 80 percent of his targets.

He’s also established himself as one of the league’s better pass protectors when called on to block. That’s a requirement for Lions running backs coach Duce Staley.

"The most important thing for the running backs, in my opinion, and we'll harp on it a little bit more, but you have to protect the passer,” Staley said last month. “That's the most important thing, and I take pride in that. I take pride in making sure our quarterback doesn't hit the ground, and that's the most important thing for me. You can be one of the most talented runners out there, you can be the most talented route runner out there, but if you can't block, you can't play for me, point-blank, period. So we're going to start there, and that's how we're going to end it."

As for Williams’ running style, there isn’t a lot of wasted motion with his one-cut, north-south approach. According to data tracked by the NFL, he’s one of the league’s most-efficient runners when it comes to getting upfield. Only three backs spent less time behind the line of scrimmage after a handoff, on average, than Williams.

The 6-foot, 213-pounder doesn’t break a lot of tackles — five each of the past two seasons —  but he can be elusive, making 16 defenders miss on carries in 2020, while averaging 2.72 yards per contact.

For Swift, it means the Lions will be able to keep their budding star fresh through the season. Limited by injury and illness during his rookie year, he was playing between 60-70 percent of snaps when fully healthy. He finished his debut campaign with 878 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns.

The third man in the rotation is Kerryon Johnson. The former second-round pick has battled knee issues his first three seasons and primarily served as a third-down back in 2020. He appeared in all 16 games for the first time in his career, but also saw a significant reduction in usage, tallying just 52 carries. Still, in a recent interview with Pride of Detroit, Staley raved about Johnson’s ability.

“What a complete back. Kerryon does it all, man,” Staley said. “You turn the film on, he’s up there blocking, and when I say blocking, he’s really trying to finish the guy. You see how aggressive he is. Then you turn the film on, he’s running routes. Then you turn the film on, he’s breaking tackles.”