The Detroit Lions are far from being a good team in 2021 but that doesn’t mean that they can’t at least be entertaining. The Lions have a ton of young players, some of which have already proven themselves and some of which are looking to use 2022 to show they belong in the starting lineup.
Those young players are the reason Detroit is worth paying attention to this season since we know they won’t be in the playoff conversation. Even though 2021 won’t be the Lions’ year, it doesn’t mean that they can’t compete in the future, and 2021 will be all about laying the groundwork for that.
It isn’t very often that the most intriguing player on the team is an offensive lineman but that is exactly the case for the Lions. All eyes will be on second-year tackle Penei Sewell during a very pivotal season for him.
Despite being so young, Sewell needs to prove immediately that he can not only be a starting left tackle but an elite one. He was a highly touted prospect coming out of college at the University of Oregon but didn’t play like the generational talent he was supposed to be. If it turns out that his disappointing debut season was just growing pains and not a legitimate season then it would go a long way toward solidifying the future of the franchise.
The Lions also got another future franchise cornerstone in this year’s draft when they selected defensive end Aidan Hutchinson with the second overall pick. Hutchinson will instantaneously become a fan favorite, not only because he is a great player but because he has already been playing in the state at the University of Michigan.
He’s got a chance this season to prove that he is going to be the leader of the defense for the foreseeable future. There isn’t too much pressure on Hutchinson this year, it’s not like he is expected to come in and get double-digit sacks right away (although that would be awesome_. All he needs to do is show that his game translates to the next level and that he can be a foundational player in Detroit.
There aren’t too many of those types of foundational players on the Detroit roster, hence the whole being a really bad team part, but there might already be one of the defense in cornerback Amani Oruwariye. He really came out of nowhere last year by grabbing six interceptions, one of the highest totals in the league.
Oruwariye will be going into his fourth season in 2022 but have the benefit of being under the radar this time around. He has already proved that he can be an elite ballhawk but this year could be when Oruwariye announces himself as a very credible all-around cornerback.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions do have one proven difference maker. Tight end T.J. Hockenson is probably the most talented player on the roster (although that isn’t necessarily a huge accomplishment). He is genuinely one of the better tight ends in the game, with consistent quarterback play being the last thing he needs to truly develop into a star.
Hockenson won’t have to shoulder all of the pass-catching responsibilities this year like he has had to at times. The Lions’ wide receiver group might be the most unproven in the league but that means it is just chock full of potential.
We saw some of that potential in the second half of 2021 when wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown was one of the most productive players at the position. It was a very surprising development that the fourth-round pick was as good as he was last year but it was a very welcome revelation for Detroit.
They are now able to build their receiving unit around St. Brown and this year’s first-round pick Jameson Williams. It is going to take a while for Williams to recover from a torn ACL he suffered late in the college season but once he gets on the field he will be electric. The Lions also have wide receiver D/J. Chark on a one-year deal to fill in at the start of the year and act as a more proven option out wide.
Detroit rounds out the offensive weapons with running back D’Andre Swift, who looks like a future star at the position. He has shown real potential as a three-down back so far in his young career without it taking too much of a toll on his body.
Detroit has also relied on running back Jamaal Williams, who had already proven himself during his time as a backup in Green Bay. Williams’ presence allows the Lions to be conservative with Swift’s usage, though this could be the year that they give him more of a full workload. Once they do that, Swift is going to take off and join the conversation of the best young backs in the league.
It will also help to have all five starters returning on the offensive line. Beside the aforementioned Sewell, all of tackle Taylor Decker, center Frank Ragnow, and guards Jonah Jackson and Halapoulivaati Vaitai will be back for the Lions. That continuity up front will just lead to even more success for Swift.
The defense doesn’t have as many potential stars on it as the offense but that doesn’t mean that side of the ball is without some good players.
Safety Tracy Walker may be one of the most underrated players in the entire league, although it’s a lot easier to be underrated in Detroit than in most other places. In his four seasons as a Lion, he has served in both a backup and starter role, doing both effectively. He has two seasons with over 100 tackles, including 2021 where he led the team with a career-high 108 tackles.
Now, it is hard to judge a player on a poor defense, which is exactly what Detroit’s defense was last year. But it is still obvious that the Lions have something in Walker and that he could be a valuable piece of the defense for years to come.
An improved secondary would help Walker’s production a lot and there is the possibility for that this season. There are two players that have a chance to drastically improve the Lions’ pass defense: cornerbacks Mike Hughes and Jeff Okudah.
Hughes doesn’t have the potential to make a massive difference but if he can be a solid option at one of the cornerback spots then that would be huge for Detroit. He hasn’t been an overwhelmingly productive player in his career but he still possesses the ability to be an average starter in the league.
Okudah, on the other hand, can completely alter the outlook of the defense if he lives up to his potential. He was the third overall pick in the 2020 draft but has not looked like it in the little amount of time he has been on the field.
He has played in just 10 games and missed all but one of the contests last year but even when he has been on the field it hasn’t looked great. Obviously, Okudah is still massively talented but it is reaching the deadline for him to show that talent in the pros. This isn’t his last chance to prove he can make it in the league but another bad season would not be great for his future.
The secondary is not the only area of the defense that needs to improve. The entire defense was bad last year, meaning every position is under pressure to get better in 2022. The group that has the highest likelihood of doing so this year is the pass-rushers.
Despite sacking the quarterback just 30 times in 2021, the third-fewest in the league, there are a couple of reasons to be optimistic for that unit going forward. The most obvious one is the arrival of Hutchinson, but he is not the only reason for hope.
Getting a full season from defensive end Romeo Okwara would go a long way toward getting the sack production up. Okwara was one of the most effective pass-rushers in the league in 2020 when he notched 10 sacks, but played in just four games last year and recorded one sack. Hopefully, Okwara will stay healthy this season and he will maintain his pass-rushing prowess that he demonstrated two years ago.
It would also help if Okwara’s younger brother Julian could learn a thing or two from his brother. The 2020 third-round pick has come along slowly so far in his career but this is going to be the year where he will have to prove his worth. With some NFL experience under his belt and some productive pass-rushers playing alongside him, this could be the younger Okwara’s breakout campaign.
The front seven may have its biggest holes up the middle, with middle linebacker and defensive tackle lacking marquee talent. The linebacking group is going to have to make up for the loss of Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who finished first amongst linebackers and third on the team in tackles last year. Between Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis, and Shaun Dion Hamilton, somebody is going to have to step up and makes plays in the middle.
The defensive tackle spot is in a bit of a better spot with a combination of young talent and experienced veterans. Defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill represent the future of the position while still contributing now. And other players like Michael Brockers provide veteran leadership while helping to mentor the younger guys as they learn the game.
It is clear that the Lions’ roster is not ready to contend yet but what makes that even more clear is the quarterback position. Despite leading his former team to a Super Bowl, quarterback Jared Goff is just not the long-term answer in Detroit. He has been fine as the starter so far, but the team is never going to reach the next level with him.
The one thing that can make a promising team unbearable to watch is poor quarterback play. Unfortunately, that is what Detroit is in store for again this year. The bright side is that by losing a bunch of games, the Lions will be in a perfect position to draft a quarterback in the 2023 draft.
I think that Detroit will be in a perfect position for drafting a quarterback because they are only going to win four games in 2022. A 4-13 record might sound bad but it would actually be an improvement over last year’s 3-13-1 outcome. It is possible that the Lions surprise a team or two and earn a shocking victory but even including those I don’t see a way this team ends up with more than four, maybe five wins.