DETROIT — On April 27, a little after 9:30 p.m., Jahmyr Gibbs was chatting it up with some friends at his NFL Draft party, unaware that his phone was about to ring with a call that would change his life forever.
You see, Gibbs thought he had time. Like, a lot of time. The whispers he’d heard before draft weekend told him he’d likely hear his name called somewhere in the 20s, maybe the teens. Aware of the position he plays and how running backs in this league are valued, Gibbs knew his time would come eventually.
He just didn’t know GM Brad Holmes would be on the other line, letting him know he’d soon be a member of the Detroit Lions as the 12th pick of the draft.
“(I) didn’t know I would get picked as high as I did because, you know, running backs don’t really get picked as high in this new-age era of the NFL Draft,” Gibbs told reporters that night. “Yeah, it was pretty shocking to me.”
Shocking to Gibbs, shocking to the outside, all part of the plan for the Lions. Holmes and company, equipped with two first-rounders, entered draft weekend plotting ways to walk away with Gibbs. Perhaps a trade-up from pick No. 18 would get it done, with Holmes hearing rumors of interested teams selecting him in the teens. Or maybe they’d be better off standing pat and taking him at No. 6 — something Holmes said he would’ve been comfortable doing had it come to that. No matter how it played out, Gibbs was a clear and obvious target for this front office, much to the chagrin of others.
But nights like Monday — a breakout game for Gibbs in front of a national TV audience, propelling the Lions to a 26-14 win over the Last Vegas Raiders — help explain why they felt he was worth the investment. Gibbs rushed 26 times for 152 yards and a touchdown behind an offensive line down three starters up the middle, and finished with 189 scrimmage yards overall.
“We wanted to get Gibbs going,” said Lions coach Dan Campbell, whose team improved to 6-2. “We wanted to be able to establish the run, and you could tell he was feeling it. … Every week, he’s just gotten a little bit better and a little bit better. I thought last week was his best game and this week certainly surpassed that. And I think the more he gains his own confidence in his own abilities in this league, he’s just going to continue to grow and I think this was kind of the tip of the iceberg, if you will, for what he is able to do and going to be able to do.”
— Detroit Lions PR (@LionsPR) October 31, 2023
When a team drafts a running back as high as Gibbs, immediate results will always be expected. It’s just part of the territory. Running back is viewed as one of the easier positions to find talent. Couple this with the shelf life of running backs and the natural injury concerns, and you have all the makings of a positional value debate that will make your head spin.
However, the Lions don’t view it that way. It’s Holmes’ job to improve areas of the roster that need it. All offseason, Lions coaches discussed their desire to turn 4- and 5-yard runs into 10, 20 or more. They felt they had a capable offensive line, but not the personnel at running back to make it happen.
Holmes hinted at it weeks before draft, telling a story of his days with the Los Angeles Rams and how they never regretted the years they got out of Todd Gurley after drafting him 10th overall in 2015. He said running backs are football players, and Holmes is in the business of acquiring football players. Last fall, he traveled to Texas to watch Gibbs play for Alabama and fell in love with his speed, the quickness, the acceleration, the pass-catching ability, you name it. He saw those same traits translating to the NFL game.
He didn’t hesitate to get his guy.
“At the end of the day, we acquire these players for a lot of different reasons, but ultimately, what are we trying to accomplish?” Holmes said on the final day of the draft. “We’re trying to win games. That’s why we acquire these players. I know a lot will be said about, ‘You acquired a running back in the first round.’ We didn’t acquire a running back in the first round, we acquired an elite weapon to keep our offense explosive in the first round.”
At times this season, though, Gibbs wasn’t asked to carry the load. He wasn’t lighting up the box score, relative to outside expectations. He didn’t always look comfortable, perhaps trying to do too much in limited opportunities. And he wasn’t getting the bulk of the touches, with David Montgomery around as a downhill runner capable of breaking tackles.
But eventually, the Lions knew they’d need Gibbs. And when they would, he’d be ready.
So, then, what better stage than “Monday Night Football”?
Lions going all out for ‘Monday Night Football,’ a rare event at Ford Field in recent years
Gibbs was excellent against the Raiders. He was slippery. He ran hard between the tackles. He absorbed blows, made defenders miss and pulled away from them in the second level — showing all of the qualities that made him such an intriguing talent.
His 152 yards rushing are the fifth most a Lions player has produced on Monday night and the 10th most in a game by a rookie in franchise history. His 189 scrimmage yards are the sixth most recorded by a Lions rookie in a single game. Gibbs’ 564 scrimmage yards through six games are the third most in franchise history, trailing only Billy Sims (914) and Barry Sanders (569). Gibbs has produced 315 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns in his last two games — something that only two Lions rookies (Sims and Kevin Jones) have done before.
And, most importantly, Gibbs’ 27-yard touchdown late in the third quarter gave the Lions a 23-14 lead and some much-needed breathing room over the Raiders (3-5) on the way to their sixth victory of the season.
“The more reps you get, you’re going to get more comfortable in the league,” Gibbs said. “I feel like in the beginning, I was playing too fast. I was a little bit nervous and stuff. These (last) two games helped me progress as a player, and slow me down a little bit for my reads and all of that.”
JAHMYR GIBBS BREAKOUT GAME 🔥
— NFL (@NFL) October 31, 2023
In other words, Gibbs has arrived.
“He looked like he had a clear mind and knows the game plan well, so to see him out there doing what he does best, it was just — it was honestly crazy,” Lions right tackle Penei Sewell said. “I didn’t know he was that fast. He just makes it look effortless out there and it makes us look better.”
“We knew it was coming,” Lions defensive tackle Alim McNeill said of Gibbs’ big night. “Jahmyr’s been doing some stuff in practice that — I’ve never seen a running back that fast in person. We knew that was coming. It was just a matter of time, you know? He’s a rookie. It might take a couple of games, but you saw it tonight.”
Like it or not, Detroit’s vision in drafting Gibbs came into focus Monday night. The Lions knew they had a chance to field a competitive roster and were looking for ways to avoid offensive regression. Look around these days and what you’ll see is a Lions team that can beat you any which way offensively. They can beat you with Jared Goff’s arm when he’s in rhythm and letting it rip. They can wear you down with Montgomery’s power. They can beat you to the pylon with Gibbs and his speed. They can beat you over the middle with Amon-Ra St. Brown and Sam LaPorta. They can beat you over the top with Jameson Williams when he’s engaged. They can even do it defensively when everything’s clicking.
The Lions now head into a much-needed bye week. Five of their six wins have been by double digits. They’re alone in first place in the NFC North and are second in the NFC overall, behind the 7-1 Philadelphia Eagles. They have a chance to get healthy coming out of the bye and stronger out of the trade deadline, if they choose to make a move.
There’s no one way to build a roster, of course. Every franchise in contention is doing so with a process that has worked for those in charge. And when the Lions are winning like this, it’s hard to fault the process that led them here and led them to Gibbs.
What you saw Monday evening was a vision turned reality.
(Photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)
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