Detroit Lions in good shape at RB despite intrigue of Kenneth Walker III in NFL draft

Detroit Free Press

Free Press sports reporter Dave Birkett takes a position-by-position look at the top prospects and biggest Detroit Lions needs in the 2022 NFL draft. This is the second in an eight-part series.

The Lions had their best rushing season on a yards-per-carry basis (4.42) last year since 1998, and return 100% of their rushing production in 2022. D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams should share the workload again, but there may be room to add competition for a backfield spot late in the draft.

Swift is a formidable offensive weapon, a big-play threat as a runner and a mismatch in the passing game, but the Lions have been overly cautious about his workload. Their concerns are warranted. Swift missed time with a shoulder injury last season after his career-high 33-carry performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But at some point, they have to take the governor off and let him go.

Williams slimmed down this offseason after logging a career-high 179 touches in 2022. He is entering the final year of his contract but remains the Lions’ No. 2 back and an important figure in the locker room.

Jermar Jefferson, Godwin Igwebuike and Craig Reynolds all flashed in supporting roles last season and will compete for backfield jobs this summer, and fullback Jason Cabinda signed a two-year deal this offseason. The Lions’ biggest needs at running back are long-term, though they could use all-purpose insurance for Swift.

Lions mailbag: Best bets in Round 1, trade scenarios and is QB in play at 2? ]

On the roster: D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Jermar Jefferson, Godwin Igwebuike, Craig Reynolds, Jason Cabinda.

Top 3 RB prospects: 1. Kenneth Walker, Michigan State; 2. Breece Hall, Iowa State; 3. Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M.

Other players with Michigan ties: Hassan Haskins, Michigan.

Day 3 sleeper: Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss.

Recent Lions draft picks at RB: 2021-Jermar Jefferson (7th round). 2020-D’Andre Swift (2nd round); Jason Huntley (5th round). 2019-Ty Johnson (6th round). 2018-Kerryon Johnson (2nd round); Nick Bawden (7th round). 2017-None.

Kenneth Walker III’s vision elevated him from afterthought to potential top NFL draft RB ]

Draft dish

NFL teams have devalued the running back position in recent years, with most teams preferring a committee approach in their backfield. Teams have drafted accordingly, and this year could mark the third time in modern draft history (along with 2013-14) that no running backs go in Round 1.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. called it a “very mediocre” draft class of running backs with “two standout performers at the top” in Walker and Hall. Walker had a phenomenal season at Michigan State and narrowly missed on being a Heisman Trophy finalist. He was a workhorse in college who excelled at creating yards after contact, and seems ideally suited for a zone rushing attack. Hall is considered a better pass protector and has more experience as a receiver. Both players are borderline first-round talents who could find significant roles as rookies.

Fresno State’s Ronnie Rivers, son of ex-Lions RB, following dad’s footsteps to NFL ]

Spiller was a projected first-round pick at this time last year, but questions about his three-down ability and a lackluster combine performance when he did not run the 40-yard dash because of a core muscle injury have knocked him down draft boards. Georgia’s James Cook, the younger brother of Minnesota Vikings star Dalvin Cook, could be the third back drafted and is the best receiver of the bunch, and South Dakota State’s Pierre Strong is an intriguing Day 3 name after playing 24 games in the 2021 calendar year. Haskins should come off the board sometime in Rounds 5-7.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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