On Tuesday night the Detroit Lions agreed to a three-year contract with David Montgomery, guaranteeing Montgomery more money ($11 million) than all of the rest of the running backs who had signed up to that point combined. The deal has far-reaching ramifications for backs on multiple teams and at least one guy who hasn't found a team yet. Let's start with the Lions' duo.
In 2022 the Lions created offense created 546 running back opportunities (rush attempts plus targets), the third-highest mark in the league. A whopping 274 of those opportunities went to Jamaal Williams, who presumably will be looking for a new team. Only 169 of those opportunities went to D'Andre Swift, much to the chagrin of his Fantasy managers. Those Fantasy managers, at least the ones in Dynasty and keeper leagues, entered the offseason hoping Swift would get more chances with Williams leaving to free agency. This contract makes that seem unlikely.
For one thing, it's hard to believe the Lions couldn't have had Williams for less. He's more than two years older than Montgomery, and before last season's 17-touchdown outburst, was viewed as more of a backup, or a complementary back at best. Montgomery has two different seasons averaging at least 20 touches per game. In other words, Swift managers have more reason to fear Montgomery than Williams.
Perhaps the biggest risk for Swift is that he also loses some passing downs to Montgomery. Williams only saw 44 targets in two years with the Lions while Montgomery has two 40-catch seasons on his resume. Montgomery also has a better career catch rate, yards per catch, and yards per target than Montgomery. And last year the gap was as big as it's ever been.
Swift has been much better than Montgomery in producing explosive plays. One of Montgomery's last 426 carries has gone for more than 28 yards while Swift had a pair of 50-yard rushes on just 99 carries last season. Swift's 4.6 career yards per carry dwarfs Montgomery's average of 3.9. But at least some of that may have to do with how much better Swift's offensive line has been. Forward progress has been easier to come by for Lions' running backs:
David Montgomery just got a huge offensive line upgrade with the Lions — via @fantasyptsdata:— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) March 15, 2023
DET ranked 3rd-best in RB yards before contact last year (1.84) while CHI was 20th (1.32).
Two years ago? DET was 10th-best (1.64 yards before contact) while CHI was 24th (1.27).
The one thing Montgomery has been elite at, as a runner, is breaking tackles. This skill was evident at Iowa State and it's continued throughout his NFL career. It's possible he'll be much more efficient as a runner behind Detroit's offensive line, breaking linebacker and safety tackles downfield instead of dodging 300-pound men as soon as he receives the football.
My way-too-early projections have Montgomery at 253 carries and 41 targets, producing 213 PPR Fantasy points. Swift projects for 113 carries and 76 targets for an even 200 PPR Fantasy points. Swift still has more upside, but past injury history suggests it's likely Montgomery finds himself alone in this backfield for a month, which would make him a top-12 running back. For now, I'd look for both backs around the four-five turn in redraft leagues.
As for Williams, this could be a big blow for his Fantasy prospects. I am very skeptical that anyone else is going to give him as many touches and he was already due for major touchdown regression. If you could get a Round 2 pick for him in a Dynasty league I would jump at the opportunity. We'll see where he lands, but I'd be surprised if he ranks as a top-36 running back once the NFL Draft is over.
The biggest winner of this signing may just be Khalil Herbert. On the same day the Bears lost Montgomery they added Travis Homer to a running back room that now includes Herbert, Homer, and Trestan Ebner. Last year we saw Herbert turn 129 rush attempts into 731 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He had two games with more than 20 touches and produced a combined 270 yards from scrimmage and 42 PPR Fantasy points against the Texans and Giants.
There's still a long off-season to go, but if the Bears don't make a significant addition in the next two months, we'll be ranking Herbert ahead of both Montgomery and Swift. He would rank higher in non-PPR than full PPR because his receiving profile isn't very good, but he'd be a top-24 running back in both formats. It's fair to get excited about Herbert and it's also a good idea to go see if you can get a late first for him before the Bears sign or draft another back.
We still have plenty to learn about the 2023 Fantasy values of both Herbert and Williams. We have plenty to learn about how Dan Campbell and Ben Johnson plan on using their talented duo as well. For now, view the Lions both as low-end No. 2 running backs with top-12 upside.