Last off-season, after years of mediocrity and four straight playoff absences, the Lions were forced to start a rebuild, when long-time franchise quarterback Matt Stafford requested a trade, after 12 seasons and no playoff wins with the team he joined as the #1 overall pick in 2009. The Lions had offers that included first round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, including the Panthers’ 8th overall pick and the 19th overall pick and a third round pick from Washington.
Had they accepted either one of those trades, the Lions could have used their own first round pick, 7th overall, to select a quarterback of the future in one of the better quarterback classes in recent memory, with both Justin Fields and Mac Jones available to them at that slot. That would have given them a potential franchise quarterback on a cheap contract long-term, which would have been a great start to their rebuild, along with the extra draft picks they would have acquired for Stafford.
Instead, they opted to trade Stafford to the Rams for a package that included two first round picks, as well as a third round pick, which is more draft compensation than Washington or Carolina were offering, but it’s not as simple as that. The picks the Rams were offering were in 2022 and 2023, rather than 2021, and draft picks are usually valued equal to a round lower if they are a year in the future, meaning that in real terms the Lions only got a second round pick and two third round picks for Stafford.
On top of that, the trade required the Lions to take back Rams starting quarterback Jared Goff, which should have been a negative value, as acquiring him locked them into paying the mediocre starting quarterback 51.8 million for 2021 and 2022, rather than getting to use their first round pick to select a cheaper quarterback. Deciding to go with the Rams’ offer prolonged the Lions rebuild, unable to turn to a cheap, young starting quarterback until 2023. That does line up with when they’ll have used the two first round picks by and when the Lions will have more cap space available in free agency, but the Lions basically locked themselves into two bad years in 2021 and 2022 in the meantime, at the very least.
The first year went about as expected, with the Lions ranking 21st in offensive efficiency, 30th in defensive efficiency, and 27th in overall efficiency, while finishing with the 2nd worst record in the league at 3-13-1. That got them the #2 overall pick in the draft, but the Rams ended up winning the Super Bowl in Stafford’s first season with the team, pushing their draft pick to 32. This wasn’t a good quarterback draft anyway so it’s not a huge deal that they’re stuck with Goff for another season, as they would not have been able to find an upgrade in this year’s draft, but it was surprising they didn’t add a single quarterback in the draft, with backups Tim Boyle and David Blough being among the most underwhelming in the league.
Boyle was the backup last season and the 2018 undrafted free agent made the first three starts of his career, but he was a major liability, completing 64.9% of his passes for an average of 5.60 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, after having only attempted four passes in his career prior to last season. Blough, on the other hand, didn’t attempt a pass last season as the 3rd quarterback, but he did start 5 games and attempt 184 passes as Matt Stafford’s backup in 2019-2020 and, like Boyle, the 2019 undrafted free agent Blough also struggled mightily, completing 54.3% of his passes for an average of 5.61 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. Whoever wins the backup job in 2022 would almost definitely be a big liability if forced into significant action.
Given their backup quarterback situation, it would have made sense for the Lions to take a quarterback in this past draft, at least at some point, as a developmental backup option who could potentially push to start in 2023, when the guaranteed money on Goff’s contract runs out. Instead, the Lions will bring back the same quarterbacks for another year, clearly with an eye on taking their quarterback of the future with a high pick in a much better quarterback draft next year.
Goff wasn’t horrible in his first season in Detroit, but did not show himself to be a franchise caliber quarterback long-term, especially not one who is worth the kind of money he gets paid. In total, Goff completed 67.2% of his passes for an average of 6.57 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while finishing as PFF’s 31st ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. That was his worst PFF grade since his rookie season in 2016, but that’s not surprising, given that it was his first season since his rookie season without offensive mastermind Sean McVay as his head coach.
Goff completed 64.3% of his passes for an average of 7.71 YPA, 102 touchdowns, and 48 interceptions in 62 starts in four seasons on the Rams with McVay, but he benefited from great talent and coaching around him and it’s not surprising that the Rams were able to get over the hump and win a Super Bowl in their first season after upgrading on him with Stafford. Goff might get better play around him this season, which would make this team more competitive, but it’s hard to see them being a real playoff contender this season, still early in their rebuild, having not yet found their long-term quarterback.
One reason to expect better play from the Lions’ supporting cast this season is they should be healthier, after having the third most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the league in 2021. No unit on this team was more affected by injuries than the Lions’ offensive line, with none of their expected starters playing every game and arguably their top most important offensive linemen, left tackle Taylor Decker and center Frank Ragnow, being limited to just nine starts and four starts respectively. This season, the Lions’ brought back their entire expected starting five from last season and, if they can stay relatively healthy, this offensive line has a good chance to be an above average unit.
With Decker and Ragnow missing significant time, Penei Sewell was their most important offensive lineman last season. Sewell was selected with the 7th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the pick that the Lions opted not to use on a quarterback, and, while the Lions could have had Sewell and a quarterback if they had sent Stafford to Carolina for the 8th pick, it’s hard to argue that the Lions made a bad selection with Sewell, after a rookie season in which he was PFF’s 25th offensive tackle.
Sewell began the season at left tackle with Decker missing the first 8 games of the season and then moved to the right side upon Decker’s return in week 10. Sewell will stay at right tackle in 2022 with Decker returning, which should be a good thing for his development, as he was PFF’s 8th ranked offensive tackle from week 10 on, after moving from the left side. Not even 22 until October, Sewell has a sky high upside and could easily develop into one of the best right tackles in the league for years to come, while also having the versatility to play on the left side if needed.
Decker still played like he usually does when he was in the lineup last season and he should have no problem returning to form and locking down the left tackle position in 2022, still in his prime in his age 29 season, having played in every game in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, since being selected 16th overall by the Lions in 2016. In his 4 healthy seasons, Decker has finished 16th, 37th, 17th, and 11th among offensive tackles on PFF and he was PFF’s 24th ranked offensive tackle from week 10 on last season. Barring another significant injury, he should be somewhere in that range again in 2022. He’ll be an obvious upgrade on Matt Nelson, a 2019 undrafted free agent who struggled mightily at right tackle when Decker was hurt, ranking 85th out of 88 eligible offensive tackles in the first significant action of his career in 2021.
Ragnow is also a former first round pick, selected 20th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. He spent his rookie year as the starter at left guard and was not bad, finishing 33rd among guards on PFF in 16 starts, but he excelled when he moved to center in year two, finishing the 2019 season as PFF’s 6th ranked center in 15 starts and then finishing 2020 as PFF’s 2nd ranked center in 14 starts. As a result of his high level of play in 2019 and 2020, the Lions gave Ragnow a 4-year, 54 million dollar extension last off-season.
That extension made Ragnow the highest paid center in the league in average annual salary, and he was off to arguably the best start of his career before getting injured, ranking #1 among centers on PFF through the first four weeks of the season. Only in his age 26 season, without a significant injury history, Ragnow has a great chance to bounce back in 2022 and could even have the best season of his career if he continues his dominant play from the start of last season. In addition to being a dominant center, Ragnow could also move to guard in a pinch if needed, though he probably wouldn’t be quite as good there.
At guard, Jonah Jackson and Halapoulivaati Vaitai return as the starters on the left side and the right side respectively, after starting 16 games and 15 games respectively in 2021 and finishing above average on PFF. For Jackson, his 24th ranked finish among guards on PFF was a big step forward from his underwhelming rookie season, when the 2020 3rd round pick finished 63rd out of 92 eligible guards on PFF. He’s unproven and could regress a little in 2022, but he also could have permanently turned the corner as a player and, in that case, will remain an above average starter going forward, possibly one with further untapped upside.
Vaitai, meanwhile, is a 6-year veteran heading into his 3rd season with the Lions, after signing a 5-year, 45 million dollar contract two off-seasons ago. It was a surprising amount of money, considering the 2016 5th round pick had only made 20 starts in four seasons with the Eagles as a reserve, with just 4 of those starts coming in the previous two seasons. Vaitai had shown some promise on occasion in his limited action, but finished 72nd out of 92 eligible offensive tackles on PFF in 2017 in his longest stretch as a starter to that point in his career, so he didn’t seem like someone who would command above average starter money in free agency.
Vaitai was underwhelming in 450 snaps in his first season in Detroit in 2020, seeing action at both tackle and guard, and he looked like he would be a free agent bust. However, he was significantly better as a full-time guard in 2021, finishing 32nd among guards on PFF, leading to the Lions keeping him for 2022 at a non-guaranteed 7 million dollar salary, without a better option available. He’s still entering something of a make or break 2022 season, owed 9.5 million non-guaranteed in 2023, and he could easily struggle, given his history of inconsistency, in which case he would likely be let go after the season. He’s probably the weak point on what has the potential to be a strong offensive line, even if Vaitai does regress a little.
Depth is a bit of a concern for this group though. I mentioned that swing tackle Matt Nelson struggled mightily when forced into action last season. The same was true of backup guard Tommy Kraemer, who was forced into 238 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2021 and would likely struggle if forced back into action in year two. Their best reserve is backup center Evan Brown, a 2018 undrafted free agent who held up pretty well in the first 12 starts of his career in place of Ragnow last season, finishing 18th among centers on PFF, slightly above average. The Lions are obviously hoping he doesn’t have to see significant action again though, especially since this group has a lot of upside and talent if the starters stay relatively healthy.
The Lions’ receiving corps was their biggest weakness on offense last season by far and injuries weren’t even the problem, as they entered the season with arguably the least talented group of wide receivers of any team in the league. As a result, a 5th round rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown was able to lead this group with a 90/912/5 slash line and 1.74 yards per route run. St. Brown didn’t just lead this group by default either, finishing the season as PFF’s 17th ranked wide receiver. It’s a bit concerning that the whole league let St. Brown fall to the 5th round just a year ago and he might not have real #1 wide receiver upside long-term, but he has a good chance to remain at least a useful complementary receiver going forward.
The Lions built out the rest of this receiving corps around St. Brown this off-season, signing ex-Jaguar DJ Chark in free agency and trading up with their first round pick from the Rams to select Alabama’s Jameson Williams, so St. Brown will likely see a smaller target share this season, but he could also be more efficient on a per play basis if he’s no longer the focus of opposing defenses, with more talent around him. Williams and Chark will likely be the starters in three wide receiver sets with St. Brown, but both are also coming off of significant injuries, so they come with some questions.
That’s especially true of Williams, who tore his ACL in the college football playoff. If not for the injury, he likely would have been a top-10 lock and the first wide receiver off the board, but even if he’s on the field week 1, he might not be 100% right away and he could easily be behind the eight ball as a rookie, likely to miss most or all of the off-season program. He has the upside to be a long-term #1 receiver and one of the best wide receivers in the league, but he’s unlikely to show that in year one.
Chark, meanwhile, is coming off of a fractured ankle that ended his 2021 season after four games. The injury was early enough in the season that it’s unlikely to affect him into 2022 and he has 1,000 yard season on his resume, but he only averaged 1.69 yards per route run in that 1,000 yard season in 2019 (73/1008/8), achieving those numbers in large part due to volume. Even that is better than the middling 1.49 yards per route run that he has averaged in his career. He also only finished 27th among wide receivers on PFF in overall grade in 2019 and that is still the best finish of his career.
Chark is a 2018 2nd round pick with a lot of talent, who is still only going into his age 26 season, so he comes with some upside and wasn’t a bad signing for the Lions on a relatively cheap 1-year, 10 million dollar deal, but he’s more of a #2 receiver than a #1 receiver. Kalif Raymond was the de facto #2 wide receiver last season, finishing 2nd among Lions wide receivers with a 48/576/4 slash line, but he averaged just 1.23 yards per route run and finished below average on PFF. He also had just 19 catches in 5 seasons in the league prior to last season, as primarily a special teams player. In a much deeper position group in 2022, Raymond is unlikely to have much, if any role.
Quintez Cephus and Josh Reynolds only played 5 games and 7 games respectively for the Lions last season, but they weren’t bad, with averages of 1.57 yards per route run and 1.55 yards per route run, leading to slash lines of 15/204/2 and 19/306/2 respectively in their limited action. They’ll compete for the #4 receiver job in 2022, meaning they could see significant action early in the season depending on Jameson Williams’ readiness.
Cephus is a 2020 5th round pick who began last season as a starter after flashing on limited action as a rookie (1.62 yards per route run, 20/349/2) and he was off to a solid start to the 2021 season, but he went down for the year with a shoulder injury after week 5. He doesn’t have a clear role right now, but could play his way into playing time and, still only in his age 24 season, could still develop into a starter long-term. Reynolds, on the other hand, ended last season as a starter for the Lions, starting the final six games of the season after joining as a mid-season signing, following his release by the Titans.
Reynolds was a disappointment in his lone season in Tennessee, averaging 1.14 yards per route run and getting released after week 8, but he wasn’t terrible in three seasons as a #3/#4 receiver with Jared Goff and the Rams from 2018-2020, averaging 1.25 yards per route run. Drafted in the 4th round by the Rams in 2017, Reynolds seems to at least have decent chemistry with Jared Goff and, while he would be an underwhelming starting option, he’s a decent #4 option and would give them especially good depth as the #5 receiver if the promising Cephus wins the #4 receiver job. This is a much deeper wide receiver group than a year ago.
Tight end TJ Hockenson was expected to be the focus of the passing game last season and, while St. Brown’s emergence took away some targets as an underneath option, he still was a good receiving tight end for them until he went down for the year in week 13, posting a 61/583/4 slash line in 12 games, which extrapolates to 86/826/6 over a full 17 games. Selected 8th overall by the Lions in 2019, Hockenson also had a 67/723/6 slash line in 16 games in 2020 and has averaged 1.53 yards per route run over the past two seasons combined. He has struggled at times as a blocker, but he’s still only going into his age 25 season and has the upside to get better, both as a blocker and a receiver. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he had a career best receiving total, even with the Lions having more wide receiver talent this season.
Brock Wright took over as the starting tight end down the stretch last season when Hockenson was out and the undrafted rookie predictably struggled, finishing 57th out of 63 eligible tight ends on PFF across 305 snaps. Wright could open the 2022 season as the #2 tight end and he could be a little bit better, but he could also be pushed for his job by raw 5th round rookie James Mitchell and, even if Wright keeps the job, he’s unlikely to be used as more than just a blocking tight end. The Lions also won’t need to run many two tight end sets this season, given their depth at the wide receiver position. They might lack a true #1 wide receiver, but this is a deep group overall with some promising young players.
Lacking talent in the receiving corps, Jared Goff frequently checked down to his running back last season, with 24.1% of the team’s targets going to running backs, the majority going to their primary passing down back D’Andre Swift, whose 78 targets were 3rd on the team behind St. Brown and Hockenson. Running back check downs tend to be low yardage plays and, unsurprisingly, the Lions averaged just 5.59 yards per pass attempt on throws to running backs, with even Swift averaging just 5.79 yards per target. A 2nd round pick by the Lions in 2020, Swift is a talented receiving back, but his career 1.48 yards per route run is underwhelming compared to what a good wide receiver would average, so the Lions are unlikely to target him in the passing game quite as much this season, with more downfield options available.
Their other primary running back Jamaal Williams is not as good of a receiver (1.13 yards per route run in his career) and only received 28 targets last season, but he was a much better pass blocker than Swift, who struggled in that aspect, and Williams was also the better runner as well. Swift and Williams both saw pretty even carry totals, seeing 151 carries and 153 carries respectively, with both backs also missing four games each with injury, and Swift actually had a slightly better yards per carry average with 4.09, as compared to 3.93 for Williams, but Swift ran in more favorable situations and Williams was significantly better in carry success rate, ranking 18th at 54%, while Swift was dead last among 50 running backs at 36%.
Williams’ yards per carry average was low because he only had two carries for 15 yards or more, going for just 39 yards total, which has always been a problem for him, with just 11 carries of 15 yards or more across 500 total attempts in the first four seasons of his career from 2019-2020. Williams still averaged 4.30 YPC and 4.24 YPC respectively in 2019 and 2020 though despite his lack of long runs, ranking 7th and 6th respectively among running backs with carry success rates of 53% and 57% respectively.
Williams was playing on a much better Packers offense in 2019 and 2020, but he showed the ability to consistently keep the inferior Lions offense on schedule at an above average rate last season as well and he should be able to continue that this season, likely at a higher rate with a higher YPC, on what should be overall a better offense. Williams might not do much on passing downs, but he’s a useful early down runner to have and would take on close to an every down role if Swift missed time with injury again (7 games missed in his first two seasons in the league).
Swift had a better year as a runner as a rookie in 2020, ranking 16th in carry success rate at 54% and averaging 4.57 YPC, and he has the potential to be a better runner in 2022, even if he’s still likely to split carries with Williams. With Williams and Swift both missing time last season, backups Godwin Igwebuike, Craig Reynolds, and Jermar Jefferson all saw some action and they all were pretty good, averaging 6.56 YPC on 18 carries, 4.18 YPC on 55 carries, and 4.93 YPC on 15 carries respectively.
Igwebuike and Reynolds are both former undrafted free agents, in 2018 and 2019 respectively, who both just saw the first carries of their careers last season, while Jefferson was just a 7th round rookie a year ago, so they’re very unproven, but they’re good depth to have, with the three of them expected to compete for the #3 running back job. This isn’t a great backfield, but they’re not bad and they have good depth.
The Lions weren’t horrible on offense last season and should be at least somewhat better on that side of the ball this season, with their offensive line expected to be healthier and their receiving corps being more talented, but the Lions’ biggest weakness last season was their defense and they’ll need to be significantly improved on that side of the ball if they are going to be remotely competitive this season. The Lions didn’t make any big free agent additions to their defense this off-season and are unlikely to be improved enough for them to seriously compete to make the post-season, but there are still some reasons to be optimistic that the Lions can at least be somewhat better on this side of the ball as well, even if only by default.
For starters, they used their 2nd overall pick on edge defender Aidan Hutchinson, an NFL ready player who many considered the best prospect in the draft. Hutchinson doesn’t have a huge ceiling and probably would go outside of the top-5 most years, but he still has the potential to have a big impact in year one and ultimately to develop into a consistently above average starter long-term. The Lions also used a 2nd round pick on another edge defender Josh Paschal, but he’s much less certain to make a big impact in as a rookie. He could carve out a rotational role, but Hutchinson should be locked into something at least resembling a starter’s snap count and has a good chance to lead this position group in snaps played.
The Lions also get Romeo Okwara back from a torn achilles that ended his 2021 season after four games, a big re-addition, given that he led this team with 10 sacks in 2020, while adding 9 hits and a 14.4% pressure rate, leading to the Lions re-signing him to a 3-year, 37 million dollar deal in free agency. Okwara is not an effective run defender and he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a double digit sack producer, but he totaled 19 sacks, 24 hits, and a 11.0% pressure rate in 45 games in his three seasons from 2018-2020, prior to his injury, so, if he can be at least close to 100% in 2022, he should be at least a solid starter, still only in his age 27 season. It’s concerning that he’s coming off such a serious injury, but he will be close to a year removed from it by week 1, which gives him a better chance of returning to form in his first season back.
Charles Harris led this position group with 871 snaps last season and, while he figures to have a much smaller role in 2022, with Hutchinson and Paschal coming and Okwara returning, Harris actually played pretty well last season and was brought back as a free agent on a contract worth 13 million over 2 years, so he’ll continue having a significant role. Harris especially fared well as a pass rusher last season, leading the team with 7.5 sacks and adding 8 hits and a 11.6% pressure rate.
It’s the kind of play that the Dolphins were envisioning for Harris when they drafted him in the first round in 2017, but he didn’t show much in three seasons in Miami, nor did he in his lone season in Atlanta in 2020, before breaking out in his first season in Detroit in 2021. In total, Harris had just 6.5 sacks, 16 hits, and a 9.1% pressure rate in 54 career games prior to last season, so he’s a complete one-year wonder and could easily regress, but he should benefit from playing fewer snaps and it’s very possible that the talented first round pick is a late bloomer who has permanently turned a corner and will remain at least an above average rotational player, still only going into his age 27 season.
Aside from Harris and the limited action Okwara played before his injury, most of the edge defenders who played for the Lions last season were underwhelming at best, but 2020 3rd round pick Julian Okwara, Romeo’s younger brother, showed promise on 361 snaps, especially flashing talent as a pass rusher, with a 12.1% pressure rate. He’s still very inexperienced, only playing 69 underwhelming snaps as a rookie before last year’s limited role, but he could easily continue being effective in a rotational role and he has the upside to develop into more than a rotational player long-term. The Lions lack a top level edge defender, but have a deep group with some promising young players, led by #2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson.
The interior defender position was a big weakness for the Lions last season and, unlike the edge defender position, the Lions don’t have any key off-season additions or players returning from injury on the interior. Nick Williams, who was awful last season as the team’s leader in snaps played by an interior defender, is no longer with the team, after he finished 103rd out of 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF, and that is addition by subtraction, but, aside from that, the Lions are just hoping for more out of second year players Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeil, who they selected in the second and third round respectively last season.
Both were only rotational players as rookies last season and they saw similar snap counts, but McNeil actually played slightly more (422 vs. 396) and was the significantly better of the two overall, finishing in the 54th percentile among interior defenders on PFF, while Onwuzurike finished in the 9th percentile, despite his higher draft status. Onwuzurike especially struggled as a pass rusher, with a 1.6% pressure rate, as opposed to 5.5% for McNeil, who was also the better run defender. Both still have the upside to develop into starters long-term and both are likely to get a chance to play significantly more snaps this season, but McNeil seems like the more likely of the two to do so.
The Lions are also hoping for a bounce back year from veteran Michael Brockers, which they could get, but that’s far from a guarantee, given that Brockers is going into his age 32 season. A first round pick in 2012, Brockers finished average or better on PFF in each of his first 9 seasons in the league prior to last season, not playing at a high level as a pass rusher, but consistently being above average against the run. However, Brockers struggled in both aspects last season, finishing 137th out of 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF in overall grade across 622 snaps. He could bounce back a little bit in 2022, but it’s also possible last season was the beginning of the end for him and, either way, his best days are almost definitely behind him.
The Lions don’t have much depth behind Onwuzurike, McNeil, and Brockers, so they’ll likely have to turn to John Penisini as a reserve again, even though he’s struggled mightily in that role, since being drafted in the 6th round in 2020. He was forced into 576 snaps as a rookie, finishing 130th out of 139 eligible interior defenders, but he wasn’t much better in a smaller snap count in 2021, when he played just 276 snaps total. The Lions would probably prefer him closer to that number in 2022, but this isn’t a deep position as it is, so if injuries strike, Penisini would likely be forced into a larger role. This position is still a big weakness.
Linebacker was also a big position of weakness last season and it could be an even bigger weakness in 2022, with Jalen Maybin-Reeves, their best linebacker by far last season, no longer with the team. Maybin-Reeves was only a middling player across 615 snaps, but he was still significantly better than Alex Anzalone (827 snaps) and Derrick Barnes (448 snaps), who finished 87th and 92nd respectively out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF last season and who could easily be their top-2 off ball linebackers in 2022.
Anzalone played better in the first four seasons of his career with the Saints, prior to joining the Lions last off-season, but he never played more than 525 snaps in a season in New Orleans, missing most of the 2017 and 2019 season with injury and only being a part-time player in his healthy seasons in 2018 and 2020. He might be better in a smaller role in 2022, but the Lions might not have a choice except to play him in a significant role again and he could easily struggle again, even if he may have a little bit of bounce back potential and could be better, even if only by default. Barnes, meanwhile, was a 4th round rookie last season and could take a step forward in year two, but there is no guarantee he ever develops into a capable starter.
The Lions signed veteran Jarrad Davis in free agency to give them some depth at the position and he could compete for a significant role, given their lack of other options. This is a homecoming for Davis, who spent the first four seasons of his career in Detroit, before spending a single season with the Jets in 2021. Davis’ year with the Jets was a disaster though, as he missed the first half of the season with injury and was awful upon his return, finishing dead last among off ball linebackers on PFF across 209 snaps.
Davis was a lot better in 2020 in his final season in Detroit, finishing 30th among off ball linebackers on PFF, but that was only on a snap count of 329 and, as an every down linebacker in the first three seasons of his career, Davis struggled mightily, proving to be a bust as a 2017 1st round pick. Davis could be a good part-time linebacker this season, but even that isn’t a guarantee he would almost definitely struggle if forced into a significant role, which could easily be the case, given how thin this position group is. Sixth round rookie Malcolm Rodriguez could also push for snaps at some point, especially if the Lions want to give their young players action down the stretch in an otherwise lost season.
The Lions also had a lot of problems in the secondary last season, but there are reasons to believe they can be better this season, even if largely by default. For one, they added a couple of veterans in free agency who will likely start, signing safety DeShon Elliott and cornerback Mike Hughes. Neither came at an expensive price, signing 1-year deals worth 1.1 million and 2.25 million respectively, but both have a good chance to be valuable for the Lions.
Elliott’s biggest problem is injuries, as, not only did his 2021 season end after six games due to injury, but he also suffered season ending injuries in 2018 and 2019, limiting the 2018 6th round pick to just 40 snaps total in his first two seasons in the league. Elliott has always been a solid player when on the field in his career, including a 2020 season where he was a 16-game starter, and he’s still only going into his age 25 season, so he has a great chance to be at least a solid starter for the Lions this season if healthy, but that could be a big if.
As long as he’s on the field, it won’t be hard for Elliott to be an upgrade on incumbent starter Will Harris, who will be the 3rd safety at best going into the 2022 season, after finishing 97th out of 98 eligible safeties on PFF as a 17-game starter last season. A 3rd round pick in 2019, Harris also struggled on snap counts of 668 and 312 in 2019 and 2020 respectively. If Elliott is healthy, Harris could see some action in three safety sets, which the Lions ran somewhat frequently in sub packages last season to mask their lack of depth at linebacker. Harris could still struggle in that role, but it’s better than having him in the starting lineup.
Tracy Walker remains as the other starting safety next to Elliott, after being retained on a 3-year, 25 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. Walker has been inconsistent, falling from 26th among safeties on PFF in 2019 to all the way down to 86th in 2020, before bouncing back to a middling 46th ranked finish in 2021, so it’s hard to know what to expect from him this season, but the 2018 3rd round pick at least has some upside and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him at least be a middling starter again in 2022.
Hughes will likely start in three cornerback sets alongside Amani Oruwariye and Jeff Okudah, the latter of whom is returning after a lost season due to injury and will return this season, another reason why the Lions’ secondary should be better this season. Okudah struggled mightily as a rookie in 2020, finishing 125th out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF, before being limited to just 48 snaps by a torn achilles last season, but he’ll be a full year removed from the achilles tear by week 1 and the former 3rd overall pick is still only going into his age 23 season, so he still has plenty to time to make good on his high upside. He’s something of a wild card and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he struggled again, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise if he was a real asset in the third season of his career in 2022.
Hughes was something of a flyer for the Lions this off-season, but he comes with a lot of upside, as the 2018 1st round pick is still only in his age 25 season and is coming off of a career best season, finishing 8th among cornerbacks on PFF on a career high 509 snaps in Kansas City. He’s a complete one-year wonder who has never been a full-time starter in his career and injuries were a big problem for him early in his career, costing him 24 games across his first three seasons before he played in all 17 last season, but if he can stay healthy, he has the upside to be an above average starter. Oruwariye led this position group with 937 snaps last season and will likely remain a starter, even though the 2019 5th round pick has been mediocre in that role over the past two seasons (29 starts).
It’s possible Oruwariye and Hughes could face competition from 2021 3rd round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu, who flashed on 242 snaps as a rookie and who could push for a larger role in year two. AJ Parker (556 snaps) and Jerry Jacobs (535 snaps) saw significant action last season as well, despite being undrafted rookies and, while Jacobs flashed a little potential, Parker struggled mightily and both are unlikely to have much, if any role this season. This isn’t a great secondary and it might not even be a good secondary, but it will be much more serviceable than last season.
The Lions actually had an above average special teams last season, ranking 10th in special teams DVOA. They have a good chance to be above average again in 2022, bringing back all of their key players. Austin Seibert and Riley Patterson both saw action at kicker last season and will compete for the starting job, with Jack Fox locked in as the starting punter again and Godwin Igwebuike and Kalif Raymond returning as their returners. Jason Cabinda and CJ Moore headline their special teams coverage unit, with both finishing in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF last season, as well as free agent acquisition Chris Board, who was also in the top-50 last season as well, as a member of the Ravens. At the very least, this should be at least an average special teams unit.
The Lions should be better than a year ago and their offense has a good chance of being at least a decent unit, but their defense is likely to remain among the worst in the league and overall this team still seems like it’s at least a year away from being legitimate playoff contenders, still in the middle of a multi-year rebuild process. They’ll likely be competitive in most of their games, but ultimately they’re likely to finish sub-.500 for at least another season. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC North