It takes a few years to evaluate the players picked in the NFL Draft, but it sometimes takes less time to assess the process that led a team to pick one of those players. For a fresh example: Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs might have a great career for the Detroit Lions, who picked him 12th overall on Thursday night. But maybe not, and either way, the Lions committed the most straightforward biffing of the first round when they sprang for Gibbs with their first pick. They messed up even if Gibbs is good, and their best hope going forward is that he’s good enough that people don’t ask too many questions about it.
Calling Gibbs an outright bad pick doesn’t feel quite right, both because he will not play an NFL game until September and because he was an awesome college player across two seasons at Georgia Tech and for another, his last one, at Alabama. In an uncharacteristically spotty year for Nick Saban’s offense, Gibbs was always productive when the Crimson Tide needed him. He’s an incredible athlete and, to be clear, belonged somewhere in the first round or two of the draft. Nobody who watches football thinks that Gibbs can’t live out a substantial career in the NFL.
So why does it seem like the Lions badly blew it by taking him at No. 12? Well, it takes some context to understand just how deeply they’ve mismanaged their assets in taking Gibbs when they did.
For starters, the 12th pick is awfully precious real estate to spend on a running back. Not as precious as the eighth pick, which the Atlanta Falcons used on Texas’ Bijan Robinson, but valuable nonetheless. An indisputable NFL trend over the past decade has been the near-flushing of running backs from the early first round: None had been taken earlier than 24th since Saquon Barkley went second to the New York Giants in 2018, a pick that looked awful two seasons ago before aging a bit better in 2022.
Every tailback who gets picked in the first round was an absurdly good college player. There are no recent exceptions to this rule. But equally indisputable as running backs’ decline in the draft is that there’s a good reason for why it’s happened. The issue isn’t that running backs are completely interchangeable (they’re not) or that they don’t matter in a passing league (they still do). There are big differences in how particular running backs perform in the context of the space their offenses give them, as illustrated in a trackable stat: rush yards relative to expectation. Running backs still touch the ball more than any position group except quarterbacks. Clearly, the running back still matters in the big scheme of the NFL.
But it’s not easy for talented backs to transcend circumstance, and the position is a hard one to evaluate. Three of the six worst backs in the NFL in 2022 in rush yards relative to expectation were recent first-round picks, including one (Najee Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers) in just his second year in the league. Harris is incredibly fun to watch and has battled his ass off in two seasons in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers have not gotten much efficiency in exchange for 2021’s 24th overall pick. Nobody took a running back in the first-round at all in 2022.
In this year’s draft, Robinson had a clear case as a rare running back worth taking early, and virtually no one thought he’d be picked later than 15th. Gibbs had a fine case to be a first-rounder himself, but the 12th pick was an early time for him to exit the board. He said he was “shocked” that the Lions had picked him. The pre-draft consensus was that he’d be taken around 28th. I can believe that he was poised to go somewhere in the top 20 by the time the draft started to unfold, but it is difficult to fathom (though not impossible) that there wasn’t a trade to be made for the Lions to drop down a few picks and still land Gibbs, if he was the man they wanted so badly. And the choice is egregious as a case of not maximizing one’s cards in hand because the Lions also had the 18th pick, another spot where it sure seems possible that they could have gotten Gibbs if they’d still wanted him. (That was the Lions’ original pick, and they had the 12th one because of a series of trades starting with sending quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams a couple of offseasons ago.) It’ll be pretty hard for Gibbs to play well enough to justify where he was drafted. But however he plays, it’s nearly certain that the Lions could have taken him later on and used their resources better. It strains credulity that Gibbs will be really good and that the Lions had to take him when they did.
“Had to take him” would be a relative term, too, because the Lions already have good running backs. Plural! They just signed ex–Chicago Bears back David Montgomery to a deal that will keep him on the roster for at least two years. They already had D’Andre Swift, who gave them a very-good 5.5 yards per carry and 8.1 yards per catch last year. It seems like the Lions may not want to keep Swift, but that just begs different questions, like: “Why?” And “Did you have to replace him like this?” Part of the fun with Gibbs is that he can play receiver and help an offense in myriad ways, but running backs are not that valuable as receivers. (Even the best ones at shagging passes do not generate nearly the yards per target that good wideouts do.) It will be good and fun for the Lions to have Gibbs on their team, but they just spent the 12th pick in the draft to add a third good running back who likely could’ve been theirs much later. If Gibbs was the man they wanted all along, maybe they could’ve traded the pick and moved up to get one of the draft’s premier quarterbacks. Maybe they could’ve waited to take Gibbs and had their pick of any number of really good wide receivers to help current QB Jared Goff. There were a lot of things the Lions could’ve used, and another running back should’ve been lower on the list.
And there’s more: The Lions’ pick at No. 18 was also weird. They took Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell, another awesome college player who was, uh, not supposed to get drafted that soon. The industry consensus had him as around the No. 43 overall pick, in the middle of the second round. Campbell, like Gibbs, might be great. Campbell, like Gibbs, probably could have been theirs a good bit later in the draft, and in that reality, the Lions would’ve had more draft picks to get more good players.
Maybe it will all work out. If Gibbs and Campbell produce enough, the Lions will not get much long-term flak for how they handled Thursday night. And, hey: Maybe they had inside information that nobody else in the world had, and Gibbs and Campbell were both about to be picked when the Lions grabbed them. (A camera in their draft room did show Detroit brass hooting and hollering when they got Gibbs.) But we all get to decide where we extend our benefit of the doubt. I don’t know if the Detroit Lions get mine.