Whenever an organization goes through a complete regime overhaul, like the Detroit Lions in 2021, there are a lot of unknowns about how the new staff will operate. What is their approach to the roster? What scheme will they implement? How will they deal with adversity? Will they add a player who will exceed expectations under their leadership?
We examine these questions in this installment of our 2021 Lions midseason superlatives series, as our staff picks their choices for the biggest surprise of the season.
Note: In order to get these articles submitted on time, some of these responses were given before Week 8’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
What has been the biggest surprise for the 2021 Detroit Lions?
Jeremy Reisman: Aggressive Dan Campbell
The biggest overall surprise to me is how aggressive Dan Campbell has been in his game management. While the team is still annoyingly run-heavy in neutral downs—but at least understandably so—Campbell has not been afraid to dial up the aggression when it comes to fourth downs.
The Lions have attempted to convert 21 fourth downs this year (three more than any other team). Also, Week 7’s game against the Rams was a masterclass in “we’re not going to sit here and let you steamroll us.”
I still wonder how much of this aggressiveness is Campbell and how much of it is the desperation of an 0-8 team and a flailing offense, but I’m just going to enjoy the ride for now.
Ryan Mathews: How Detroit has weathered the storm on the injury front
There’s no way I would’ve anticipated AJ Parker as the team’s starting nickel corner prior to this season. I never thought we would have seen Bobby Price, the safety converted to corner and start at outside cornerback. And there’s certainly not a chance I would have seen Jerry Jacobs, a player who somehow snuck his way onto this roster to begin with, playing against the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver and giving them hell all game long. This team is absolutely tapped at a position where they stood pretty stout heading into the season. Remember, there were supposed to be veterans like Quinton Dunbar, Corn Elder, and Nickell Robey-Coleman to help these young cornerbacks along their way and, poof, all up in smoke.
On top of that, the one unit where this team was earning national recognition was for their offensive line. This group was primed and ready to help establish an identity for this football team until injuries prevented them from ever playing a single snap together. Taylor Decker has been on injured reserve for the entire season—he returned to the active roster on Tuesday—and Frank Ragnow’s season ended early with a trip to the injured reserve. Penei Sewell had to flip positions after repping at right tackle all off-season long because of Decker’s injury. Players like Evan Brown and Matt Nelson have filled in for two of the most critical pieces to this offensive line, but it hasn’t been for the best, and it’s been tough to watch this once-promising unit completely flame out before it even got a chance to burn.
Kyle Yost: Penei Sewell at LT
Maybe it is disingenuous to call Sewell playing well a surprise, but few expected to be having “trade Taylor Decker” conversations a month into the rookie’s career. He has had some bumps in the road for sure, but how many times has a Lions’ first-round pick failed to look like a stud right away, let alone ever? Seeing him excel at a position he was unexpected to play this season is a huge win.
Andrew Kato: Defense is in better shape than the offense
Not a specific player, but just the general sense that Detroit’s biggest problem is on offense (the passing game in particular). Most of the young players generating buzz before the season were on that side of the ball (Hockenson, Ragnow, Swift), the defense had a much deeper hole to rise up from, and things looked pretty bad at the start of this season defensively. Near the halfway point in the season, though, it looks like the defense is getting better and the offense is the albatross weighing the team down.
Kellie Rowe: Special teams
We all know Jack Fox is a talented punter, no surprise there, and Austin Seibert has successfully made a respectable 10 of 12 field goals. But the showing against the Los Angeles Rams was a fantastic surprise I didn’t see coming. Two fake punts and a successful onside kick to spark fire against a Super Bowl contender? That takes guts and it paid off. This remains the most consistent unit on the team.
John Whiticar: Cutting Jamie Collins
Entering the season, many of us expected Collins to be a key contributor on defense—he was ranked ninth in our preseason roster rankings. Instead, he found himself on the outs early and, when a trade couldn’t materialize, he got cut. Normally cutting a player like that has a negative impact, but the Lions' defense is playing better without him. I’m not going to speculate on his presence in the locker room, but cutting him seemed to spark something. Alex Anzalone has seen a significant improvement since Collins got cut. Meanwhile, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Derrick Barnes are providing some much-needed speed and are looking comfortable in their expanded roles. Cutting Jamie Collins was a big surprise, but in hindsight, it looks like a great decision.
Erik Schlitt: Jerry Jacobs
From bubble player in training camp to starter a month into the season, Jacobs has been the biggest surprise on the roster. It’s not just his role that is surprising, but the fact that he is now so important to the defense that the fan base was panicking when he missed one day of practice last week because he was sick.
Now, he may lose his starting role to Ifeatu Melifonwu when (if?) he returns from injured reserve, and Jeff Okudah should have a leg up on both of them next season, but Jacobs has established himself as a young player with a future with the Lions.
Morgan Cannon: Jacobs
Thrust into action early in his rookie season due to multiple injuries, Jerry Jacobs has shown a lot of promise through the first half of the year. He has taken his lumps against top competition, but more often than not, Jacobs is where he is supposed to be.
Hamza Baccouche: Jacobs
This pick is a toss-up between A.J. Parker and Jerry Jacobs, both of whom have been stellar given the expectations placed upon them in the offseason. Jacobs has filled in admirably at CB2 given how quickly he was thrust into the situation, and Parker has continued his dominance in the run game as well as being a formidable nickel corner. I give Jacobs the edge here because Parker stood out in the preseason, but we didn’t really have Jacobs on the radar until the regular season started. Nonetheless, both are guys who weren’t expected to make the roster in July and are now cornerstones to a defense playing well above its talent level. I should also give a very honorable mention to Kalif Raymond, who is equally deserving.
Mike Payton: The undrafted rookies
AJ Parker and Jerry Jacobs did what most undrafted guys don't get the chance to do: they showed out at camp and made the team. Then they earned starting roles and showed out doing that too. It’s nice to see that general manager Brad Holmes is a guy that can find value without having to use draft picks. It’s crazy neither of these guys went in the draft. Good for Holmes for finding a couple of diamonds in the rough.
What has been the biggest surprise for the 2021 Detroit Lions?
This poll is closed
Aggressive Dan Campbell
Weathering the storm on the injury front
Penei Sewell thriving at LT
Defense is in better shape than the offense
Cutting Jamie Collins
Impressive play from Jerry Jacobs/AJ Parker