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Detroit Lions midseason rookie review

Examining how the Lions 2021 rookie class performed during the first half of the season

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The first half of the 2021 season has not been kind to the Detroit Lions. Injuries and bad bounces have played their roles in the 0-8 start, but make no mistake about it, this team is just not good right now. And that is somewhat to be expected when your roster is as young and inexperienced as the Lions currently are.

Rookies were always going to be part of the plans this year, but injuries at many key positions have accelerated those timelines significantly. Instead of sitting and learning for a year, several rookies have been thrown into the fire, forced to learn and adapt on the fly.

Let’s take a look at how each player has fared halfway through their rookie campaigns.

Penei Sewell, LT

Selected seventh overall in the 2021 draft, Sewell has had a lot to live up to during his first year as a pro. Originally, the plan was to have him cut his teeth at right tackle, with veteran Taylor Decker at left tackle. But when Decker suffered a thumb injury prior to the season opener, plans quickly changed and Sewell has been at left tackle since.

With Decker returning to left tackle this week, the coaching staff is going back to their original plans with Sewell on the right.

Regardless of which side he is on, we have seen a lot of why many were so high on Sewell as a prospect coming out of the University of Oregon. He will still have his rough reps in pass protection, particularly against speed rushers, but he adapts quickly. His power at the point of attack seems to flash multiple times per game and his ability to get to the second level and punish overmatched linebackers and safeties is truly a spectacle.

The next step in Sewell’s progression will be to eliminate some of those bad reps that occur during the early stages of games, before Sewell has had a chance to feel out the pass rusher. Putting together a complete, error free game would be a big boost for an offense that desperately needs it.

Levi Onwuzurike, DL

Onwuzurike appears to be carving out more of a role for himself, with a career high 29 snaps in Week 8 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

His totals for the season (11 total tackles, one batted ball, and one hurry) don’t jump out at you, but with veterans like Michael Brockers and Nick Williams struggling in recent weeks, Onwuzurike may get more reps, sooner rather than later.

This defense sorely needs more from the defensive tackle position, both in run support and interior pass rush. If the rookie out of Washington can elevate his game even slightly, I think that is enough to warrant him taking snaps away from the veterans in the room.

Alim McNeill, NT

McNeill’s playing time, probably more than any other rookie, fluctuates weekly, depending on the opponent and the corresponding game plan. When he does see the field, he is often lined up over the center as a nose tackle.

Coming out of NC State, McNeill was expected to be an immediate contributor against the run and while he has played well in spurts, the Lions need more consistency on a down to down basis.

Being stout against the point of attack and a reliable anchor for the run defense should be McNeill’s goals during the back half of the year. Any pressure he generates against opposing quarterbacks, would just be gravy.

Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB

When second year cornerback Jeff Okudah was lost for the year with an achilles injury, things changed abruptly for Melifonwu. He went from thinking he was going to have some time to learn on the sidelines to having to play the majority of his team’s snaps.

And prior to the thigh injury that has sidelined him since Week 2, it looked like he was up for the challenge, despite appearing fairly raw coming out of college.

Lions head coach Dan Campbell was non committal when asked if Melifonwu would be ready for action again this season, but did mention the rookie corner was progressing in his rehab. Getting him back on the field, even if it is just for the last few weeks of the season, would be crucial to his long term development.

Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR

With how inept the Lions offense has been through eight weeks, Dan Campbell is ready to shake things up. And for St. Brown, that means more opportunities as an outside receiver.

Through eight games, St. Brown has 27 receptions for 250 yards. Certainly not a stat line to write home about, especially when you consider St. Brown is third on the team in receptions, behind only tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back D’Andre Swift. But with more reps on the outside as the Z receiver, perhaps St. Brown can provide some big play ability for an offense in dire need.

Admittedly, St. Brown was one of my favorite rookies of this draft class. He may not be an elite athlete, but he struck me as a very polished route runner, who understood what defenses were trying to do to him.

Hopefully, for the Lions’ sake, there is more to unlock with St. Brown’s abilities this year.

Derrick Barnes, LB

A fan favorite since training camp in August, Barnes has seen a steady amount of action in his rookie year. He is explosive and flows well sideline to sideline, something this linebacking corps has lacked in recent years.

However, he is still a rookie and is learning the ins and outs of defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn’s defense. Veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone mentioned that he is mentoring Barnes, having him make the calls with him on the field in real time. This should help Barnes in the long term when as soon as next year, he could be wearing the defensive headset full time and making the calls on his own.

Jermar Jefferson, RB

Active in the offense for the first time in Week 8, Jefferson provided one of the few highlights that came from the Lions abysmal showing against the Eagles. Since he is not really a factor on special teams, Jefferson’s role might continue to be limited, as long as running backs Jamaal Williams and Swift are healthy.

Jerry Jacobs, CB

One of the true feel good stories from this season has to be UDFA rookie Jerry Jacobs. Coming into training camp, Jacobs looked to be somewhat of a long shot to make the final roster.

Then he made the roster. Then injuries took Okudah and Melifonwu out in back to back weeks. And before you know it, Jacobs was starting at outside cornerback for the Lions.

A strong tackler and willing competitor, Jacobs doesn’t back down. When he does get beaten, he appears to possess the highly underrated ability to quickly forget, and move on to the next down.

His growth and maturation process speaks volumes to what defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant is doing with young players like Jacobs. If he can continue to ascend, it would be a major positive for the future and foundation of this team.

AJ Parker, NB

Another UDFA rookie thrown into the fray, Parker started off the season strong, but has since taken his share of lumps.

And even though his play has been inconsistent at best, the Lions are so thin in the secondary, getting Parker back for their Week 9 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers would be huge.

Similar to the situation with Jacobs, if the Lions can definitively conclude that they have unearthed another gem during this painful, rebuilding season, that would be another building block for 2022 and beyond.

Mark Gilbert, CB

Originally signed off of the Steelers practice squad, Gilbert has been active a handful of times and notched his first defensive snaps (14) in Week 8.

Tommy Kraemer, OL

Activated for the first time against Philadelphia, Kraemer has since been released and brought back on to the practice squad.

Brock Wright, TE

With veteran tight end Darren Fells asking for his release, expect yet another UDFA rookie to get a lot of snaps with Wright (for now) being tight end No. 2 behind Hockenson.