Todd Gurley is not a Detroit Lion — yet. But as complimentary as the Lions coaching staff was of the free agent running back Thursday, that could be changing soon.
Lions coach Dan Campbell acknowledged the team remains interested in signing Gurley after Gurley visited Allen Park last week, though he was careful to say that interest “does not affect our feeling and our thoughts” about current running backs D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.
“I think if we can (sign him) sooner than later we’d like to, but look, we’re not — it’s not like we’re going to set a deadline on it, if you will,” Campbell said. “We do, we have interest in the guy. But that’s kind of where it is right now.”
Gurley, who turns 27 in August, was the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2017, when he joined current Lions quarterback Jared Goff in helping the Los Angeles Rams win 11 games and reach the playoffs.
Gurley has struggled with a degenerative condition in his knee the past three seasons, but has missed just four games in that span while rushing for 2,786 yards and 38 touchdowns.
Last year, he led the Atlanta Falcons with 678 yards rushing, a career-low, and averaged 3.5 yards per carry.
The Lions are interested in Gurley not as a lead back but as a complementary piece to a backfield that is expected to use Swift as its starter with Williams as its top backup.
Rookie seventh-round pick Jermar Jefferson and undrafted free agent signings Dedrick Mills and Rakeem Boyd are the only other running backs on the Lions’ roster. Mills missed practice time in organized team activities last week due to an undisclosed injury.
“Todd is a young man that at one time he was considered one of the best in the game,” offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said. “He has a wealth of experience that he can pass along to our young backs and hopefully he’s got some juice left, so if he’s a Lion we’ll figure out a way to use him. But I’ve heard nothing but great things about his intangibles. So that’s — what Dan’s trying to get done here culture-wise, I think he would be a good fit if we could get him.”
Lynn said he envisions Swift and Williams sharing time in the Lions’ backfield for now.
Swift, a second-round pick last year out of Gurley’s alma matter, Georgia, has taken first-team reps during OTAs and can be an explosive option in the passing game. Williams, the only free agent addition to sign a multi-year deal with the Lions this spring, is considered a big between-the-tackles back who excels as a third-down pass protector.
“Right now it’s competition, man,” Lynn said. “When you go out there Day 1 right now, Swift lines up with the ones, but Jamaal, he works his way in there with the ones as well. It’s a competition and we’ve let those guys know it’s going to be a competition. And I think that’s how you get the best out of people. That’s something you can’t coach, competition. And we can create that at every position and hopefully the cream will rise to the top.”
Assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley said Swift still has room to improve as a receiving back — he tied for third on the Lions with 46 catches for 357 yards last season — if he starts to better recognize the coverages opposing defenses play.
Swift said last week that Gurley, whose late-game touchdown against the Lions last fall gave the Lions the chance for a come-from-behind victory that they capitalized on, would be a welcome addition to the backfield.
“Oh man, Todd Gurley,” Staley said. “I mean, the name, you sit back and you say his name and all kind of highlights just pop up. Here’s a guy who’s been very successful in the league. Here’s a guy you go back a couple years ago was unstoppable. And we’re looking at anybody that can help the Lions and Todd Gurley definitely can help the Lions. His leadership along with Jamal’s leadership in the room and just being able to go and go out there and have fun. And I know the kid, the kid loves the game and he loves to have fun. He would be a good addition.”