Detroit — It had to be difficult for the Lions to move on from Jamaal Williams, a colorful, charismatic leader who scored more touchdowns than any back in the NFL last season. It had to pain Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell to give the job to someone else, but the truth is, it’s a necessary type of hurt.
The Lions have been big on warm-and-fuzzies as they’ve cultivated a new culture, and this was the type of tough move you wondered if they’d make. By signing David Montgomery from the Bears, the Lions got an equally strong runner with better receiving skills at an acceptable price, $18 million over three years. Montgomery, 25, is younger than Williams, 27, and has higher big-play upside.
It’s a solid swap for the Lions, and the Bears weren’t happy to see Montgomery leave. Many Lions fans won’t be happy to see Williams leave, because he was an endearing symbol of the turnaround. From his tearful messages in “Hard Knocks” to his competitive drive that led to a franchise-record 17 rushing touchdowns, Williams became a wildly popular player in two seasons here.
But in case we wondered — and we sort of did — the Lions aren’t beholden to sentiment. As much as fans enjoy Campbell’s free-styling personality, NFL teams are built on a series of stark, pragmatic transactions. Loyalty is a nice little concept, but not nearly as relevant as business considerations and talent upside. The Lions’ strategy of steady, prudent roster assembling hasn’t changed, but it also can’t get stagnant.
We’ll learn a lot more about this regime when it’s time to commit to a quarterback for the long term. If it turns out to be the incumbent, Jared Goff, it must be the right choice, not the safe choice. Does that mean the Lions should draft a quarterback high this year? Not unless they’re enamored with one — and I doubt they are. But, they obviously need a backup, and they have to sign a veteran or draft a developmental one in the later rounds.
For now, likely not forever, Holmes is hunting sensibly. In the opening days of this free-agent period, he’s been proactive and productive, and it’s hard to argue with his moves. If he keeps this up, we’ll be inclined to trust him completely. He smartly addressed the team’s biggest weakness early, by signing cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley. He plucked Sutton, 28, from the Steelers for $33 million over three years, a sizable investment that buys Holmes all kinds of flexibility. Now, the Lions aren’t compelled to draft a cornerback in the first round at six or 18 and can grab the best talent available.
Holmes is building from the inside out in several ways. He has stocked the interiors on offense and defense, and I’d guess another defensive lineman at No. 6 is the next move. He’s starting to nudge outward in free-agent shopping too, based on the latest developments. In his first two offseasons, his most-notable signings were Williams, from the Packers, and D.J. Chark from the Jaguars. Both were short-term deals, and Chark is a free agent again. Most money was spent on keeping players already part of the culture.
That approach continues, as the Lions re-signed Alex Anzalone, Isaiah Buggs, John Cominsky and Will Harris. But, it couldn’t be the only tact forever. Previous Lions regimes often played to a gullible audience, sticking with who they liked, whether it was working or not. There’s a reason three of the franchise’s greats — Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Barry Sanders — played almost their entire careers here and won nothing.
Some people gripe when the Lions don’t leap for elite free agents, but be careful what you complain about. I think they’ll leap when the opportunity is there — and it’s getting closer. They reportedly nibbled at Rams star cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who went to Miami for a third-round pick and a backup tight end, suggesting other teams also were leery.
I don’t think anyone misses the washed-out Patriots era here, featuring $90-million Trey Flowers, among others. Free-agent splurging can make fools of anyone, and it usually is reserved for good teams needing a star or two, or lesser teams with loads of cap money that must be spent.
The Lions are in the middle, choosing their direction carefully. The Montgomery-Williams flip wasn’t just about money, and Williams signed with the Saints for slightly less, $12 million over three years. The Lions loved his energy and selflessness, and who didn’t? But, I think they want more elusiveness and durability from their backfield, especially with D’Andre Swift’s injury woes. Montgomery was tied for the league lead with the Browns’ Nick Chubb in broken tackles last season, impressive behind a brutal Bears offensive line. Opposing defenses stacked fronts to stop running quarterback Justin Fields, which also slowed Montgomery.
Dig into the metrics and you find Montgomery might have more to offer than his 3.9 yards-per-carry career average suggests (Williams’ is 4.0). Montgomery often was hit quickly, an average of 2 yards past the line of scrimmage. Williams, the ultimate short-yardage back, was hit 2.4 yards past the line. Montgomery showed remarkable consistency in four seasons with the Bears, rushing for between 801 and 1,070 yards each year, missing only six games due to injury. He averages 38.8 receptions per season, compared to Williams’ 26.7 with Detroit and Green Bay.
This is the most-delicate offseason yet for Holmes, who has lots of draft capital — five of the top 81 selections — and a team primed to make a jump. After the 8-2 flourish to close 9-8, the Lions have stirred their fans — and many more around the NFL — to levels of optimism not seen in decades. With Aaron Rodgers’ pending departure from Green Bay — unless the diva demurs — the Lions likely will be favorites to win the NFC North. They’re still the youngest team in the league, based on age and snap counts, but have a flexible roster, with many of their signees capable of playing different roles.
The Lions need more impact players, especially on defense, and they have prime draft picks to land some. Campbell has famously said he doesn’t want “turds” on his team, and that’s good. By all accounts, Montgomery was a respected leader in Chicago, a rugged downhill runner with no signs of turdiness.
The Lions have to be enamored with the idea of Montgomery pounding behind their stellar offensive line. This isn’t the biggest signing we’ve ever seen, but it is telling. Along with their other additions, the Lions aren’t standing pat, and that’s a positive. They’re also acting sensibly, not sentimentally, and that’s the way the game is played.