The Detroit Lions finally caught a big break.
When they beat the resting Green Bay Packers 37-30 in the season finale, it was a positive way to end the season. They celebrated. Lions head coach Dan Campbell told the team how proud he was.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Campbell said in his postgame speech, via MLive.com. “And when we hit the offseason running — we’re going, man. We’re going places because we want to go places and we know the formula.”
But it seemed they blew a shot at a perfect draft pick for their rebuild.
With that win, the Lions lost the chance to get the No. 1 overall pick of the draft. The Jacksonville Jaguars instead got the first pick. The Lions seemingly missed the chance to take Michigan star defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Hutchinson was born in Plymouth, Michigan, went to high school in Dearborn about 13 miles from Ford Field and stayed in-state to be a Wolverine, and the Lions were going to watch him go to Florida.
Then it broke the Lions' way. The Jaguars took Georgia edge defender Travon Walker, a great athlete who didn't have the college production of Hutchinson. The Lions rushed the Hutchinson pick up to the podium so fast that the NFL got mad at them. Instead of a decade or more regretting the lost opportunity to get Hutchinson, the Lions picked a Michigan-born star who most analysts thought was the best player in this rookie class.
The Lions aren't used to good luck. They have one playoff win since 1957. Detroit hasn't won a division title since 1993, when it was the NFC Central, not the NFC North. As of late, the franchise is probably best known for pushing all-time greats Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson to early retirements.
Maybe things are changing.
General manager Brad Holmes made shrewd moves last season, like signing defensive end Charles Harris to a two-year, $13 million deal and watching him lead the team in sacks, and using a fourth-round draft pick on receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who broke Lions rookie records for receptions and receiving yards. Campbell had some wacky moments leading up to his first season, but his players responded to his leadership. They started the season 0-10-1, taking plenty of close losses, then finished the season by winning three of their last six. That streak started with a dramatic final-play win over the Minnesota Vikings, one of the feel-good moments of the 2021 NFL season.
Detroit still has a long way to go. Jared Goff doesn't profile as a franchise quarterback, and the Lions haven't found the right player to groom for that role. They still need to work on the defense, which can list linebacker, cornerback depth and interior defensive line as problem areas. The Lions still need to do something good that will distance themselves from decades of losing. There's a reason the Lions are the only team without a prime-time game this season (though they do get the traditional Thanksgiving game).
At least there are positive signs. The offensive line is good. The skill position group has intriguing talent, especially if first-round receiver Jameson Williams is healed from a torn ACL suffered at Alabama last season, and tight end T.J. Hockenson can stay healthy. There's good talent at edge rusher. The Lions made a couple moves to help a secondary that needed it.
Holmes seems to be the right hire at GM. It's fine to be skeptical if Campbell is the right long-term coach for the Lions, but players are buying into his message. You can see that by how hard they played late in the season, after not winning once over their first 11 games.
Maybe the Lions will start sliding again, and a solid finish to last season won't mean much. But it is long overdue for things to start breaking right for Detroit.
The Lions' approach to the offseason was clear: One-year contracts for players who might be overlooked for whatever reason but can help. Receiver D.J. Chark, safety DeShon Elliott, cornerback Mike Hughes and even the Lions' old first-rounder Jarrad Davis, coming back after a year with the New York Jets, are players who could step in and contribute right away. If they don't work out, they're all on one-year deals and the Lions aren't stuck with future cap hits. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin was the only notable loss in free agency, but Detroit should be able to absorb that. The Lions' draft went well. They grabbed defensive end Aidan Hutchinson with the second overall pick and speedy Alabama receiver Jameson Williams 12th overall. The rest of their draft had some smart picks that fit what Detroit is building, and their class was praised by just about every analyst. It was a solid offseason after a good one last year too.
Jared Goff once looked like a top-end quarterback with the Rams. Nobody views him as elite anymore. It's still questionable if he'll be the Lions' quarterback after this season when his contract would allow Detroit to cut him with significant savings on the salary cap. Goff played better late last season after Dan Campbell took over play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn following the team's bye. Goff had a 107.1 passer rating in five healthy games with Campbell calling plays, according to MLive.com. He also clicked with passing game coordinator Ben Johnson, who was elevated to offensive coordinator this offseason. Goff had the lowest average depth of target among all regular starting quarterbacks at just 6.8 yards. Was that due to Goff's conservative nature or the scheme and lack of reliable receivers? Goff will have more talent around him this season and presumably an offense that better fits his skills.
One of my favorite future bets this season is Lions over 6.5 wins. That's not a unique thought; the Lions over is one of the most popular bets this offseason at BetMGM. Perhaps it's too early to get that excited since the team still has holes to fix. But each season we see teams make big jumps, and there's reason to believe the Lions can be much improved. Last season the Lions were 11-6 against the spread, a great record for a team that went 3-13-1 straight up. They were already good to bettors and ahead of the market. The Lions were a very unlucky 1-4-1 in games decided by three points or less, including some brutal beats. They weren't as far off as as it seemed, but bettors probably knew that already.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Amon-Ra St. Brown is one of the trickiest calls of the 2022 fantasy season. He was an anonymous rookie for three months last year, a fourth-round draft pick who saw limited playing time. But injuries smothered the Lions down the stretch and St. Brown was ready when his number was called, posting an absurd 51-560-5 line over his final six games, making him fantasy’s No. 2 wideout over that period. St. Brown commanded double-digit targets in each of those games.
"St. Brown obviously enters the fresh season with an established role, but there will be additional competition for the ball. Tight end T.J. Hockenson, who missed most of the final month, is back. D.J. Chark was added in free agency, though he landed a modest one-year prove-it deal. Rookie wideout Jameson Williams was drafted in the first round, though he’s coming off a torn ACL and could miss several weeks at the beginning of the season. The Lions aren’t going to rush Williams.
"The good news for Yahoo drafters is that St. Brown comes at a reasonable price. His ADP is 56.8 in early NFFC pools, but you can land St. Brown 15 picks later in a typical Yahoo room. Perhaps the rules of Signature Significance apply to St. Brown’s electric finish last year; until the Yahoo ADP corrects, I’ll be looking to add St. Brown to my receiver portfolio."
Amon-Ra St. Brown was a fourth-round draft pick having a mediocre rookie season with six games remaining. He had 39 catches for 352 yards and hadn't scored a touchdown. Down the stretch, with Dan Campbell calling plays, St. Brown finished with a stunning 51-560-5 line in Detroit's final six games. Over 17 games that would be a monster season for anyone, much less a fourth-round rookie. If T.J. Hockenson can stay healthy, Jameson Williams has an impact coming off an ACL injury and D.J. Chark regains the promise he showed early in his Jacksonville Jaguars career, the Lions' passing game could be much improved. St. Brown is a huge part of that, now that the Lions know what he's capable of.
Can Jeff Okudah deliver?
Okudah tied the record for the highest cornerback ever taken in the NFL draft, going third overall in 2020. He seemed like a near-perfect prospect at the position. In Year 1, he allowed an NFL-high 579 yards in coverage on 251 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He missed time with injuries. Then in Week 1 of his second season, he gave up a long touchdown to Deebo Samuel and then ruptured his Achilles tendon later in the game. That's a rough injury for a cornerback. The Lions had to shoot down offseason rumors they'd move Okudah to safety. The fact that it was even speculated says a lot about how Okudah's career is going. Year 3 is huge for his career, and it's big for the Lions, too. They found a good starting corner in surprising Amani Oruwariye, and if Okudah can play up to his draft status that would give the Lions' defense a massive boost. The big question is how Okudah recovers from injury. He returned to OTAs in late May.
"He’s excited," Oruwariye said, according to the Detroit Free Press. "I think people who try to write people off, they got to just kind of stay in your lane 'cause to me I think, there’s a reason he went No. 3 overall in the draft and the minute he gets on the field I think he can make an immediate impact. It’s just a matter of staying healthy for him. We’re all wishing for that."
It's hard to get past the Lions' history when being hopeful about their future. They've been bad seemingly forever. But if you remove the past few decades and understand this is a new group from the front office down, the optimism seems justified. Both lines are good. If skill-position players like D'Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams, D.J. Chark and T.J. Hockenson play well, that makes life easier on Jared Goff. The defense needs work but it could improve, especially if Aidan Hutchinson plays well as a rookie. Nobody will be picking the Lions to win the division, but imagine how much excitement there will be going forward if they finish near or just above .500.
The Lions finished 3-3 in their last six games. In the second-to-last game they lost 51-29 against a Seattle Seahawks team that wasn't close to being in the playoffs. Maybe we should be focusing on that when it comes to projecting the next step for this team. It's still a team with a bad defense and an offense that didn't get nearly enough explosive plays in the passing game last season. Had Detroit not come back to beat a Packers team playing for nothing in Week 18, they would have been the worst team in the NFL last season and picked first in the draft. Maybe the Lions will be in play for that first pick again.
The Lions were 2-5-1 last season in games decided by seven or fewer points, and 1-4-1 in games decided by three points or less. That's a sign of some bad luck and perhaps shows they're not far off from a breakout. If that record in close games is closer to .500, and the Lions take some of their momentum from late last season into this season, it's feasible they could go from 3-13-1 to a seven- or eight-win team. It seems like a team on an upward trajectory. We should know by the end of this season if they're on the right path.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
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23. Washington Commanders
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11. Denver Broncos
10. Cincinnati Bengals
9. New England Patriots
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