Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the Lions organization, Lions fans around the world and those who still have a dog named Megatron:
The Lions were competitive in the second half of last season. That might seem like damning with faint praise. But they really did step it up once the calendar turned to November, so what do you want from me? That performance has people buzzing for this year, with the squad readying for its closeup on HBO's Hard Knocks. Could the Lions be the surprise team of 2022? Let's take a look.
One high from last season: Going 3-3 down the stretch. The Lions tied the Steelers in Week 10 -- which should have been a win for Detroit -- and then had close losses to the Browns and Bears before beating the Vikings for their first win of the season. This was a .500 team in the final six weeks, which included a win over the Packers in Week 18. Don't worry about who the quarterback was at the end of the game for Green Bay -- you won the contest. This really was a great way to finish.
Head coach: Dan Campbell. I know Campbell bears a striking resemblance to South Park character PC Principal. And sometimes his sound bites seem like they're from a coach in a teen movie. Or Riverdale or something. But let's put it out there: The Lions responded to him in his first season on the job. They played hard. They were winless through their first 11 games, but they never gave up. The players love him. There are times when you might want to disregard Campbell due to his bravado, but it feels like a clever character choice to me. Like when you watch The Office, there are times where Michael Scott actually reveals himself as a genius with a real grasp on leadership, a guy who isn't doing things just to be funny. Look at the episodes Survivor Man and Murder, where Michael shows that he's crazy like a fox. That feels like Dan Campbell. There might be a lurking genius behind those anecdotes of plucking chickens.
Quarterback: Jared Goff. Listen, I make my jokes about Jared Goff. But you're not reading this to see some negativity about the guy who is going to be the starting quarterback for this team. I think it's telling that, while people talk about Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo unseating potential starting quarterbacks in some other situations (looking at you, Seattle), the Lions seem committed to Goff. And let's share more positivity. Goff had an 11:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in Weeks 11-18 (second-best in the NFL; min. of 100 pass attempts during that stretch). Only Aaron Rodgers was better over those eight weeks. And in his final five starts of the season, the Lions went 3-2 and he posted a 107.1 passer rating.
Projected 2022 MVP: Goff. It's almost too easy to list the quarterback here, but when you look at the numbers mentioned above, it's clear that Goff's improvement tied directly to the Lions' success at the end of the 2021 season. I am going to write about other members of the Lions organization in this piece, but if Goff doesn't deliver this season, it's all moot.
New face to know: Aidan Hutchinson, defensive end. You know, a lot of good things are happening for the Lions. Hutchinson was ranked as the top prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft by my colleague Daniel Jeremiah, but the Jaguars went in another direction and selected Travon Walker No. 1 overall, leaving the Plymouth, Michigan, native available for the Lions. What a stroke of luck! Hutchinson could have a Nick Bosa-like impact for the Lions. Hutchinson posted 14 sacks in 2021, which set a Michigan school record and ranked second among players from Power Five schools. I need to talk more about the pass rush in a minute.
2022 breakout star: Levi Onwuzurike, defensive lineman. The second-year pro showed some flashes as a rookie, but was not healthy for much of the year. Fortunately, it sounds like he's putting those issues behind him. The former second-round pick will once again find himself in the rotation on a defensive line that includes 11th-year veteran Michael Brockers, who told reporters earlier this month that he doesn't think of himself as one of the old guys in the league, but will "pull my 'OG' card out a little bit." Anyhow, I predict there will be a point this season when Onwuzurike ends up being the dude at defensive tackle.
Three key dates:
- Week 2 vs. Washington Commanders. The Lions open with back-to-back home contests. And although they are currently underdogs against the Eagles in Week 1 and the Commanders in Week 2, they need to take at least one of the two if they want to quickly erase the memory of last season's woes.
- Week 10 at Chicago Bears. The Lions were swept by the Bears last season. If Detroit is going to improve this year, these are the games it needs to win.
- Week 18 at Green Bay Packers. The division title could be on the line! I mean, it's June. Why not be optimistic at the moment?
Will the Lions be able to ...
... get to the quarterback? We love that Hutchinson was selected, but he can't do it all on his own. He should be able to help, though. The Lions recorded 30 sacks in 2021, third-fewest in the NFL. Only the Falcons (18) and Eagles (29) had fewer. Now, in terms of pass coverage, the Lions did sign cornerback Mike Hughes in free agency. And if Jeff Okudah, the third pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, has a breakthrough season in his return from an Achilles tear, there is an opportunity for the secondary to be pretty good, thus giving the pass rushers a chance to get home. Linebacker Jarrad Davis is back with the team, and blitzing was probably his greatest strength in the first go-around. The ability to increase the heat on opposing QBs might come down to defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, who interviewed for head-coaching jobs in Denver and New Orleans this offseason and could be one of the leading candidates during the next hiring cycle. I mean, Goff is a huge part of things. But if the Lions come together on defense, look out.
... get a breakout season from D'Andre Swift? The fantasy football community loves Swift, who is entering his third NFL season. And the potential is there. But at some point, he needs to become the guy. Assistant head coach/running backs Duce Staley challenged him recently to fight through some of the nagging injuries that have held him back during his brief time in Detroit. Swift has started just eight games during his NFL career and shares time with Jamaal Williams, who started 11 games in 2021. Swift has logged 20 or more touches in just four contests. I think you could say that we just want to see more. And if you're looking for some similarities, Swift reminds me an awful lot of Dalvin Cook, who played just four games during his rookie year. He took another step forward in his second season and exploded for 13 rushing touchdowns during his third season in Minnesota. That would be the dream for Lions fans. Also, more consistent dominance from second-year OT Penei Sewell would be very helpful to that cause.
One storyline ...
... people shouldn't overthink: Who will lead the Lions in targets? Again, I'm letting my fantasy bias get the best of me with this topic. Many are looking to wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who was excellent for the Lions last season. But his breakout coincided with tight end T.J. Hockenson's absence due to injury. And I know that you're thinking, But yeah -- he broke out and is going to be the next Cooper Kupp. I understand you feel that way, but the Lions added D.J. Chark and Jameson Williams at receiver this offseason. Detroit traded up in Round 1 to draft Williams, who is coming off a torn ACL he suffered in the College Football Playoff National Championship. Prior to that injury, he did post 15 receiving touchdowns, which was tied for third in the FBS. It's a bummer to not have answers for you fantasy-wise. But when it comes to the Lions' receivers, this is a pretty good group for Goff.
... people shouldn't overlook: The Lions elevated Ben Johnson to offensive coordinator. I thought Anthony Lynn was an excellent hire for the Lions in 2021, but he lost play-calling duties in November and the team parted ways with him as offensive coordinator after the season-ending victory over the Packers. Campbell told reporters, "It just wasn’t a fit." And that seems fair. Lynn spoke very highly of Campbell and the Lions after moving on. Sometimes things don't go like you want them to. These things happen in sports. Johnson feels like a guy who is ready to take the next step forward. The former tight ends coach could help lead Hockenson to a great season.
For 2022 to be a success, the Lions MUST:
- Let's be fair. This team won three games last year. At the same time, there is so much buzz about the Lions. It feels like I can't be on the set of Good Morning Football or Total Access for more than a minute before somebody will bring up the notion the Lions are going to be the surprise team this season. I would offer that finishing above .500 seems like a realistic goal. That might get you to the playoffs, given the shape of some of these NFC teams. It's June. Dream big, Detroit.