Why ESPN writer likes what Detroit Lions did in 2021 — and their 2022 outlook

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Free Press sportswriter Dave Birkett already told you how the Detroit Lions' future looks brighter than most of their division rivals' and a prominent football analyst agrees.

Bill Barnwell, one of ESPN's most respected NFL writers, gave the Lions credit in two separate "Insider" articles this week. He shouted out the front office for bringing in Charles Harris and also said Detroit could be a team that takes a leap in 2022.

Barnwell on Monday assessed each last-place team this season and ranked which are most likely to jump to first place next season — as the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals did. The San Fransisco 49ers aren't going to win the NFC West but are headed to the playoffs after finishing last in the division in 2021. That wouldn't be a bad trajectory for Dan Campbell's club.

Joe Burrow celebrates the Bengals' win over the Chiefs.
Joe Burrow celebrates the Bengals' win over the Chiefs.

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Then on Wednesday, Barnwell ranked nine top free agent moves the past offseason and the Lions were included. More on the Lions' wise move and interesting future:

A Lions leap in 2022?

Ranking the Lions' fifth out of the nine last-place teams doesn't sound like much, but think about who fell to last place this season: The 6-10 Seattle Seahawks and their Pro Bowl talent at quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker and safety. They've the postseason eight of the last night years. The 7-9 Denver Broncos, who appear a difference-making QB away from a playoff run thanks to a solid defense and one of the league's deepest receiving corps.

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The Cleveland Browns may end up winning four times the amount of games the Lions do this season, but in the AFC North that's good enough for fourth place; this team that won a playoff game last season and should return several with playmakers on defense and its three-time Pro Bowler in the backfield.

The only rebuilding team ahead of the Lions is the 5-11 Carolina Panthers, who have lost six straight games. There is talent on their defense, ranked in the top five in points allowed and yards allowed per game, if Christian McCaffery and Sam Darnold can stay healthy. But with a second straight season of 11 losses or more, there is less excitement heading into Matt Rhule's third year.

Barnwell, like many fans, says the 2021 Lions are better than their record shows — and he has the numbers to prove it. News flash: The Lions are not lucky.

"While they will hit Week 18 with a 2-13-1 record, they are 1-5-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer," Barnwell writes. "Their point differential suggests they would have won 4.3 games with average luck this season.

"Of course, 4.3 games is still far away from winning a division, but don't underestimate how quickly things can change from year to year."

The 2016 Jacksonville Jaguars, 2007 Miami Dolphins and 2011 Vikings each had similar profiles to the 2022 Lions before emerging next season as division winners or wild-card participants.

Barnwell still likes the Packers to win the NFC North in 2023, but he also likes what the Lions have started with Penei Sewell, Amani Oruwariye, D'Andre Swift and Amon-Ra St. Brown. At least two projected Week 1 defensive starters who missed most of the season should be back as well.

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"With two first-round draft picks and approximately $50 million in cap space after some expected cuts, Detroit will be able to add more talent this offseason," Barnwell writes. "The most important factor for its 2022 chances, though, might come down to what happens in Green Bay after the season ends."

Lions GM Brad Holmes (right) and coach Dan Campbell talk after training camp in Allen Park on Thursday, July 29, 2021.
Lions GM Brad Holmes (right) and coach Dan Campbell talk after training camp in Allen Park on Thursday, July 29, 2021.

Now it's up to Brad Holmes to keep the momentum going.

"Given how (the Lions) competed from week to week, though, it's hard to feel like they are worse off heading into 2022 than the Giants, Bears or Panthers, who have major questions about their present and future identities," Barnwell writes.

Lions get a shoutout

Birkett has also told you all about Charles Harris, the outside linebacker who has surprised many in racking up 7.5 sacks this season. Barnwell has been so impressed by Harris, he included the Lions bringing Harris in as one of the eight best free agency moves from last year's offseason.

"Harris, the No. 22 overall pick in the 2017 draft, failed to impress during his first three seasons in Miami," Barnwell writes. "The Dolphins declined his fifth-year option and dumped him to the Falcons in 2020. Harris signed a one-year, $1.8 million deal with the Lions last offseason, and given a chance to play regularly, he has been one of their best players.

"He has 7.5 sacks, 15 knockdowns and 10 tackles for a team that has faced the third-fewest pass attempts in the league. He often pops up in Detroit's best moments, like when he had a sack and a half and made three tackles on one drive in December's upset win over the Cardinals."

He praises Harris for going from "bust" status to a meaningful contributor; he has more sacks this season than he did in his previous four NFL seasons.

The Lions will have to decide if they want to reward Harris, an impending free agent, with a new contract. The team did so with Romeo Okwara after his 10-sack 2021 season but he missed most of this year with an Achillies injury.

Regardless of what the decision with Harris is, Holmes has shown some ability to find help with smaller signings — Harris, Josh Reynolds — even if other acquisitions — Trinity Benson, Brashad Perriman — don't work so well.

Bonus Lions mentioning: Barnwell thinks Jarrad Davis, a top pick of the past regime let go by Holmes and Campbell, could be a sneaky-good signing this upcoming offseason.

"Davis was a highly regarded player coming out of Florida in 2017, but after Matt Patricia took over in Detroit, the Lions didn't get much out of their first-round pick. Davis signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Jets last offseason, but he missed the first half of the season because of an ankle injury and has allowed a passer rating of 127.8 in coverage this season. He won't get that much money this offseason, which would make him an interesting buy-low option for teams at linebacker."

Follow the Free Press on Facebook and Twitter for more news. Tyler Davis can be contacted at tjdavis@freepress.com or on Twitter @TDavisFreep.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why 2022 Detroit Lions could make a leap, says ESPN writer