Back in January of 2021, the Detroit Lions’ world was changing a lot. None of that change felt good at the time. The Lions were coming off the last season under Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn, Matthew Stafford was about to leave town along with Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay. There were so many questions about how the Lions could get this train back on the track.
One year later, the future seems really bright. The Lions may have only gone 3-13-1 in 2021, but optimism is flowing and the rebuild blueprint is clear. It feels like we’re still in the early parts of this plan, but it turns out the path to success may not be that far down the road.
Since the end of the 2021 season, the world around the Lions has changed a lot and it appears it may keep changing. Both the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings are looking for new head coaches and general managers. Both teams could lose key players and both teams have questions that need to be answered at quarterback. Can Justin Fields turn potential into reality and do the Vikings have a plan after Kirk Cousins, who enters the final year on his deal?
For the Vikings, there’s another big problem. They are strapped for cash. The Saints currently have the worst cap situation in the league per Over The Cap. If you take your finger and move it up four spots, you’ll see the Minnesota Vikings. The Bears have another big issue too. They traded away their first round pick. A pick that would have been seventh overall by the way. On top of that, the Bears only have five picks while the Lions, Vikings and Packers have much more.
Then there’s the big one. The Green Bay Packers reign of terror looks like it may have crashed into an iceberg and the water is coming onto the ship. The Packers lost to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday, and they have a long road ahead of them. Let’s start with the cap. Remember when I said that the Saints had the worst cap situation in the league? Well the Packers are right on their tails, currently projected to be over $50 million over the cap.
On top of that, the Packers have to figure out how bring back free agent Davante Adams. That will likely require making him the highest paid receiver in the NFL. The Packers are also going to have to find a way to keep Robert Tonyan, Kevin King, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard. Oh, and Aaron Rodgers could be on his way out, too.
You might remember that the Packers had a hard enough time getting Rodgers to play this season. Now the Packers may be on the verge of a bit of a rebuild due to their cap issues, and they might have to do that without Aaron Rodgers. On Saturday after the Packers’ playoff loss, Rodgers made it clear that he wasn’t interested in going through a rebuild if he continued to play. There’s a gun to the Packers’ head now. They can’t afford to keep him and the other guys I listed while also bringing in new players and making Davante Adams the highest-paid receiver in the league. It’s a real cat's cradle situation. All of it looks like Aaron Rodgers won’t be playing in the NFC North next year. According to Rodgers, we’ll find that out soon.
To drive the point home just how rough of an offseason it could be for the division, take a look at this graph. On the x-axis is offseason resources, as defined by effective cap space and draft pick value:
To assess which teams are best set up for the future, I created an offseason composite score to evaluate which NFL teams have the most resources this offseason using the Fitzgerald-Spielberger draft value chart, and a team's effective cap space + available prorated money. pic.twitter.com/v22uYWJH30— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) January 13, 2022
The Bears, Vikings and Packers all find themselves on the wrong side of the graph (left). Meanwhile, the Lions are sitting pretty with the sixth most offseason resources in the NFL.
That said, the Lions still need to put in a lot of work to be fully competitive. We saw a lot in 2021 that made the future look bright for the Lions, but things aren't just going to come to the Lions. They need to hit free agency hard and they need a good draft. The Lions also need to further the development of the young players who showed some promise in 2021. That’s a lot of work and things could easily not work out, but if the Lions hit a home run in the offseason and continue that development, they may have a shot at pulling this thing off.
Detroit could also benefit from a very favorable-looking schedule in 2022. There are a bunch of teams looking for new head coaches right now. Eight teams to be exact. The Lions play five of them in 2022. They play the Bears, Vikings, Dolphins, Jaguars and Giants. That means seven of the Lions seventeen games will be against teams with new head coaches.
If that wasn’t sweet enough, the Lions only play five teams next season that made it to the playoffs this season. One of those teams is the Packers, who could be in turmoil by then, and the others are the Eagles, Cowboys, Patriots and Bills. Aside from those playoff teams, the Lions face just one other team that had a winning record in 2021. The team, the Dolphins, will have a new coach in 2022.
Or, to put simplest, the Lions currently have the NFL’s fifth easiest schedule based on 2021 records.
So with a gun to my head right now, do I think the Lions can win the NFC North next season? Right now I have to stick with maybe. I want to tell you that the Lions can do it all next year, but I’m not sure. I do believe the Lions are ahead of schedule on their rebuild, and they can totally win the division if they nail the offseason, but that still has to be done. What I will say is that the door is wide open for the Lions in 2022. They just need to walk through it.