The Detroit Lions will have an unfamiliar name atop the running back depth chart in Week 14 against the Denver Broncos. Starter D’Andre Swift is still dealing with a shoulder injury and top backup, Jamaal Williams, is on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. That leaves rookie seventh-round pick, Jermar Jefferson, as the team’s potential lead back, even if it’s just for one week.
Jefferson was the Lions’ seventh-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft after a successful career at Oregon State, which included a remarkable freshman season in 2018. He finished that year with 1,380 yards and 12 touchdowns, earning him Freshman All-American honors. An ankle injury in 2019 and a shortened 2020 season (COVID-19) knocked his trajectory off its path a bit, but he presented good value to the Lions in the seventh round. Now, it’s a pick that’s proving to be even more valuable.
Jefferson (5-foot-10, 212 pounds) isn’t the kind of player who’ll challenge Swift—or even Williams—for carries when they’re healthy and available, but he’s a running back who does have enough speed and one-cut ability to gain some chunk plays against a Broncos defense that’s allowed opposing offenses to average 4.4 yards per carry against them. Jefferson’s limited (extremely limited) sample size this year—10 carries, 65 yards—hasn’t provided enough evidence that he’ll be able to handle a full NFL workload, but he did have this impressive touchdown run against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 10:
Jefferson’s college tape offers more than just a few reps of his ability to rip a field flipping run too, even if his 40-yard dash is generally average for the position (4.56). He hasn’t had a long-gainer yet in the NFL, but the ability is there:
Jefferson’s patience and vision, two traits that pop off his college tape, came through on this touchdown run (the first of his career) in Week 8 against the Philadelphia Eagles:
So, yeah, Jefferson is an unknown commodity at this point in his NFL career, but there’ve been some flashes of upside. He simply hasn’t had the reps to prove what he’s capable of, and while he has had a few splash plays in his limited opportunities, they don’t guarantee that he’ll successfully transition from deep reserve to starter so quickly.
To date, Jefferson has totaled—TOTALED—just 27 snaps. Not carries… not touches… snaps. To call him inexperienced would be an understatement, but in those 27 plays, he’s earned the Lions’ third-highest grade on offense via Pro Football Focus. Sure, a grade can plummet with more reps, which could lead to missed assignments, poor decisions, and just all-around poor play. But if we take an optimistic look at the data, there’s a chance Jefferson could play at the same level with a full workload. And if that’s the case? Maybe he will challenge for more reps once Detroit’s top two backs are back in the mix.
For now, the Lions will get an extended look at a member of their 2021 draft class who could suddenly emerge as a quality depth player for the foreseeable future. Building a competitive team doesn’t just mean fielding a top-notch starting lineup. Good teams have good backups, too. It’s Jefferson’s time to prove he can be that kind of player for Detroit, beginning in Week 14.