There is no doubt the Detroit Lions roster feels very different than it did two years ago in the season before Brad Holmes took over the general manager position. But how much has it really changed?
In this exercise, I will attempt to explore an answer to this question, by going position by position through the Lions' 90-man roster following the 2020 NFL Draft and compare it to the current 90-man roster.
Note: Players are highlighted in the traditional positional colors I use for depth charts with a slight variation of highlighting players that were on both rosters in black.
Might as well rip the bandaid off right out of the gate.
Quarterback is often identified as the position potentially holding the team back and it’s understandable to feel that way. Matthew Stafford is arguably a top-10 quarterback in the league bordering on elite status, while Jared Goff is a solid middle-of-the-road NFL quarterback but is not currently on the same level.
There isn’t much to quibble about among the backups with David Blough on both rosters and deciding between Tim Boyle and Chase Daniel seems to be a matter of coaching preference.
Bottom line at quarterback: Regardless of how you rank the reserves, this is clearly a position group that has taken a step back from two seasons ago.
Swift was a rookie in 2020 and has developed over the last two seasons, so it’s fair to say the current group is slightly better at the starter position. He does remain injury prone and the team continues to rotate backs, so it’s important to look at the entire position group.
This was Kerryon Johnson’s final season in Detroit as his knee injuries finally took their toll on his career. The 2020 Lions would recognize this and actually make a move in training camp to bring in Adrian Peterson, who started the first half of the season. Regardless, neither showed the range of efficiency—especially in the passing game—that Jamaal Williams brings to the roster.
When looking beyond those players, this is where we see Holmes’ biggest impact on the roster: Depth.
On the 2020 roster, none of the remaining four backs contributed in any way—most were released ahead of or early into the season—while the current roster saw significant contributions last season from Reynolds, Jefferson, and Igwebuike. The Lions also reportedly guaranteed $100,000 of UDFA Bell’s contract, indicating they believe he will have a realistic chance of cracking the rotation.
Bottom line at running back: the Lions have seen an increase in talent amongst the co-starters, but the depth makes this position group better overall.
Comparing these two groups is an interesting cross between an established group of producers (2020) that are ready to cash in on their next contract (Golladay, Jones, and Agnew) or nearing retirement (Amendola) versus a completely rebuilt group that is young and loaded with potential, but lacking experience.
Just looking at the top six of both groups—the group that made the team in 2020 versus the anticipated group in 2022— it’s very much up for debate which is better.
Kenny Golladay established himself as a top wide receiver and was paid accordingly, while Jameson Williams has a chance to dominate opponents but may not even see the field until halfway through his rookie season due to an ACL injury. Similarly, Marvin Jones is a model of consistency, while DJ Chark possesses a WR1 ceiling but needs to stay healthy and prove it.
In the slot, Amon-Ra St. Brown flashed more skills than Danny Amendola showed in Detroit, while the gadget open favors 2020, with Jamal Agnew showing more big-play potential than Kalif Raymond—though Raymond is a more established receiving option.
The fifth and sixth spots favor the current group as Quintez Cephus is a better player now than he was as a rookie, and Josh Reynolds has a more versatile skill set than Marvin Hall, who was little more than a deep threat.
Bottom line for the wide receivers: The 2020 group was comprised of a better group of players for a win-now team, but with the Lions just entering year two of a rebuild, they appear better served with the current group of high ceiling players that may collectively be better with a bit more seasoning.
Hockenson made the Pro Bowl in 2020, but hasn’t elevated his game much since. So, while he’s still a highly-talented weapon on offense, this is not a situation—like at running back with Swift—where we can say the position was upgraded through development.
At first glance, the depth seems to favor Jesse James and Isaac Nauta. But the reality is, Brock Wright’s 2021 was on par with James’ stats/grades heading into 2020 and blew Nauta out of the water.
Wright in 2021: 5 starts over 10 games, 12 receptions (17 targets) for 117 yards, 8.9 yards per reception, 2 touchdowns, and a PFF grade of 53.5 overall.
James in 2019: 11 starts over 16 games, 16 receptions (27 targets) for 142 yards, 8.9 yards per reception, 0 touchdowns, and a PFF grade of 53.7 overall.
The biggest difference between the two? James' contract had a cap hit of $2.3 million in 2019 (with a contract average of $5.7 per year), while Wright cost less than half a million ($477,734) last season.
From there, the depth continues to favor the current roster. James Mitchell looks like a real talent at the position and a solid complement to Hockenson. Garrett Griffin has experience working with coach Dan Campbell and could make the team based on experience. While Jason Cabinda has settled into his role as “superback”—he had only just converted to fullback in 2020 and actually opened spring camp as a linebacker—and is a critical piece on offense.
Bottom line at tight end: Once Mitchell recovers from his ACL—he is expected to be ready for fall camp—he should immediately upgrade the group. Add in another year of development from Wright, along with the reliability from Griffin, and it should make for solid competition for the spots behind Hockenson. Cabinda will be unopposed for his role but expect the depth trio to cross develop in case he suffered another injury.
With four starters from 2020 still holding roles in 2022, you wouldn’t think this group was upgraded much, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker remain stalwarts on the line, but the other three starting spots were all upgraded.
Jonah Jackson was just a rookie without a settled position in 2020, and now in 2022, he is coming off a Pro Bowl season. Halapoulivaati Vaitai has kicked in to guard, and as a mauling interior player, is an upgrade to Oday Aboushi. And to most notable move was replacing Vaitai at right tackle with Penei Sewell, who arguably may have the highest ceiling of the bunch.
As far as depth, in 2020, Matt Nelson was just one year removed from converting to offensive tackle from defensive line, and now with two more years of experience, he is one of the best sixth-offensive linemen in the game. Evan Brown had a career year last season and getting him back in the fold seemed like a steal this offseason. Tommy Kraemer may not have Kenny Wiggins experience, but he was consistent as a rookie and it looks like he will stick around.
Losing Tyrell Crosby and Joe Dahl hurts on the surface, but both fell out of favor with their coaching staff and neither has resurfaced in the NFL since leaving the Lions—although Crosby is expected to if he can regain his health. Dan Skipper and Logan Stenberg replacing them is not a fix-all, but they’re not the worst options either. Expect them to be pushed for their roles by the 2022 UDFAs, most notably, Obinna Eze.
Bottom line on the offensive line: If the Lions starting five can stay healthy, they will be in the conversation as a top-five offensive line in the NFL. Returning their top six reserves, as well as adding three UDFAs who could surprise, and this is arguably the best position group on the roster.