The Detroit Lions closed up training camp on Wednesday. In total, I watched about 20 full practices over the past month, giving me a pretty thorough look at both how the team will be run under Dan Campbell and how the roster will look for the 2021 season.
So what did I learn? What will become of the Lions’ first season under Campbell? Here are 10 things I think I know about the 2021 Lions after the conclusion of training camp.
T.J. Hockenson is going to get eleventy-billion passes thrown his way
The offense just looks completely different when Hockenson is in the game. It’s clear he and Jared Goff have quickly developed on-field and off-field chemistry. They rarely spend more than a few minutes apart while on the field, and Hockenson is clearly Goff’s favorite target.
At this point, I would very surprised if Hockenson doesn’t lead the team in targets, catches, and receiving touchdowns.
The offense is going to struggle... significantly
That being said, I just don’t see much success on offense beyond Hockenson. The Lions’ wide receiving corps is just not particularly good, and I fear that all of the concerns about Jared Goff are still true.
Despite the Lions clearly trying to get his confidence up, Goff was consistently too timid in passing the ball downfield. Coaches may praise him for taking care of the ball in those situations, but when all you’re doing is looking for a quick completion or checking down, eventually the defense adjusts and will jump those short routes. We saw exactly that happen in camp, as Goff became a bit more turnover-heavy in the final couple weeks of camp.
Romeo Okwara might eclipse his 10-sack mark from 2020
Okwara continues to look like a stud as a pass rusher. Last year, he predominantly did it by himself. This year, he has the benefit of interior defenders who can create plenty of disruption on their own. So either Okwara will get the majority of attention, freeing up players on the inside, or Okwara will get one-on-one matchups and win. Either way, don’t be surprised to see him hit double-digit sacks again this year.
Jason Cabinda will catch at least 10 passes this year
Throughout all of camp, Cabinda was a strangely common target from Goff. Then, when asked which player surprised the most during training camp, Campbell immediately went to Cabinda.
“I’m a Cabinda fan because I know what the guy is,” Campbell said. “Shoot, I said this the first day I ever talked to you guys and I got this job, ‘Give me a guy that I know exactly what he is, what he can do, what he’s about, how he works, how he processes information and I’ll go to war with those guys any day.’ That’s what Cabinda is to me and to this team.”
Cabinda will play several roles with this team, whether it be fullback, halfback, or maybe even a little tight end/H-back. So don’t be surprised when he touches the ball more than at any other point in his career.
The Lions will regret letting Matt Prater walk
I wouldn’t call the Lions’ kicking situation a disaster, but given Detroit’s solid history at the kicker position, we could be in for a rough year. I know Matt Prater had a down season in 2020, but Detroit currently doesn’t have a kicker who can consistently hit from beyond 50+ yards. And even in the 40-49 yard range, we’ve seen little day-to-day consistency from Randy Bullock nor Zane Gonzalez. There are no more gimmies when it comes to field goals.
Detroit’s rookie class will be the best we’ve seen since, at least, 2013
I’m throwing caution to the wind here. It’s far too early to even think about assessing a rookie class, but the early returns on this draft class are ridiculously positive. Alim McNeill was the first to flash his crazy potential as a disrupter. Then Derrick Barnes balled out in the first two preseason games. Then after working through a back injury, Levi Onwuzurike immediately made his presence known. And I haven’t even talked about the Lions’ seventh-overall pick.
In 2013, the Lions got five solid contributors in Ezekiel Ansah, Darius Slay, Larry Warford, Sam Martin, and Theo Riddick. In a year or two, we could be looking at an even better class from the 2021 Draft.
Penei Sewell will go through some early struggles... and that’s okay
Let’s talk about that seventh-overall pick. Sewell has struggled early on, giving up a sack on his first drive of the preseason and getting consistently beat by Melvin Ingram in the second game. He’s also proven to be a mauler in the run game already.
As with any rookie, there will be ups and downs with Sewell in Year 1. And even though he’s a top-10 pick, some additional struggles should be understandable considering he spent a year away from football and is still transitioning from left tackle to right. That all being said, how he looks at the end of the season will be most telling. If he can show consistent improvement, there should be few concerns about his future.
Jeff Okudah will be significantly better, but will he be great?
Okudah came into camp looking like a completely different person from his rookie season. He’s brimming with confidence and is absolutely dialed in. If it weren’t for giving up a big pass in the preseason, we’d likely all be talking about what a solid camp he’s had—and the couple plays he made later in that Steelers game.
I have little doubt in my mind that Okudah is going to be a lot better than he was in his rookie season. But for some, that’s not enough. As the third-overall pick, you need to be great, but I’m not so sure he’s there yet. It’s a new system, new coaching staff, and he’s still just a second-year cornerback. Things take time, so I wouldn’t expect an All-Pro season out of Okudah, but it will be much better than 2020.
The Lions’ lack of depth is going to hurt them on defense
If Jamie Collins or Alex Anzalone suffer an injury, that likely means either starting a fourth-round rookie in Derrick Barnes or Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who was exposed against the Steelers. If Jeff Okudah or Amani Oruwariye are injured, the Lions are either starting a third-round rookie (Ifeatu Melifonwu) or a still unproven Mike Ford. If they lose Romeo Okwara or Trey Flowers, it means starting a still-raw Julian Okwara or an extremely untested Austin Bryant (or Charles Harris).
In other words, this depth on this defense at every position that isn’t defensive tackle is perilously thin. At some point, that’s going to cost them. The good news is that it’ll mean Detroit will play some young players and get them some valuable experience. The bad news is that it’ll mean some rough performances in the interim.
Detroit will add a third tight end from another team
Simply put, the Lions don’t currently have a player capable of filling the shoes of Hockenson nor Darren Fells, let alone someone capable of doing both. Alize Mack and Brock Wright have struggled all of camp, and I don’t see a breakout performance coming on Friday night. The Lions need someone they can even mildly trust to back up both tight end positions and these guys just aren’t it.