In an effort to examine how much the Detroit Lions roster has changed since Brad Holmes was named as general manager two offseasons ago, I am going position by position through the Lions’ 90-man roster following the 2020 NFL Draft (the season before Holmes took over) and comparing it to the current 2022 roster.
Previously, I took a deep dive into the offensive players on both years' rosters, broke down how things have changed, and explained why I believed each position group either improved or declined.
In this installment, I will dig into the defensive side of the ball, as well as special teams, and things get a bit more complicated because the schemes are very different between the two regimes.
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.
Interior defensive line
The 2020 team was a two-gapping front that deployed two down defensive linemen by combining two of the three positions above depending on play design. The Lions' 2021 scheme also relied on two-gapping concepts and deployed three down defensive linemen, but in 2022, they are shifting back to two down linemen and will feature more of a one-gapping four-man front.
Despite there being little consistency in approach for the interior defensive line, both regimes have targeted similarly skilled players. Both teams value stopping the run and have staffed their roster with players who can live in both gapping schemes. The main difference between the two rosters is the 2022 version highlights players who win with their first step.
When looking at the three players rotating through the starting roles, it’s fair to say the 2022 roster has a higher ceiling, especially with the introduction of an attacking scheme.
Brockers has a more proven track record than Williams, and even though Brockers is coming off a down year, Williams also failed to live up to expectations in Detroit. At nose tackle, Shelton also fell short in producing for the Lions, while McNeill is an ascending player who was starting to find his rhythm late in the 2021 season. Both Hand and Onwuzurike are athletic and position versatile players, but injuries have kept them from reaching their potential.
Cornell and Penisini are two years into their development (both rookies in 2020) but injury history (Cornell) and scheme fit (Penisini) could be concerning for them sticking in 2022—though the current staff really likes their upside. A big advantage Cornell and Penisini have seen, and are currently seeing, is that the backups on the roster (in both seasons) have limited experience and haven’t been much competition for reserve roles.
Last year, with three players holding starting roles, the Lions kept seven interior defensive linemen on their initial 53-man roster. But, the shift to just two starting roles figures to see the depth of this group cut almost in half, with just four (no more than five) players being active.
Bottom line for the interior defensive line: The lack of offseason additions indicates they have scaled back the importance of this group, focusing on keeping quality players at this position rather than a high quantity of players. Brockers, McNeill, and Onwuzurike seem like locks for the roster, but who they keep beyond that is up for debate. My early guess is Cornell.
The reduction in depth on the interior will likely benefit the edge rusher group most in 2022, where the Lions have invested significantly more capital than the 2020 roster. We also see the introduction of a hybrid position in the front-seven, which will make the defense more adaptable—a narrative the 2020 coaching staff pushed but never delivered on.
The picture above is damning evidence of the lack of emphasis the 2020 coaching/front office put on rushing that passer. On paper, they invested in just five pure edge rushers, highlighted by Flowers who was the only established player at the position. Remember, this was the offseason before Romeo’s breakout year, Julian was just a rookie and was coming off a broken leg, Bryant hadn't been able to stay healthy, and Wynn didn’t make the team. To top it off, after letting Devon Kennard go in free agency, they replaced him with Christian Jones, who was an edge rusher in college but had only played off-the-ball in the NFL.
The 2022 roster has nearly doubled in size with seven pure edge rushers and three hybrid players signed. The group not only retains both Okwaras and Bryant, but they also re-signed Charles Harris after a breakout season, and added three players in this draft cycle, including No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson, No. 46 pick Josh Paschal, and sixth-round hybrid James Houston.
Bottom line on the edge: The 2020 leadership group leaned on one pure edge rusher and a hybrid defender to pressure the quarterback. While in 2022, they did everything the 2020 group did, plus added another edge position to the scheme and invested heavily in both free agency and the draft. This group has seen the most drastic change of any position group on the roster.
In 2020, the linebacker group was considered the weakest on the roster, and in 2022, they still find themselves at the bottom of the position groups.
The 2020 group was comprised of inherited players in Jarrad Davis and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, invested one draft pick in Jahlani Tavai, and overhauled the rest of the group in free agency. The goal was to get bigger so they could take on blocks while maintaining gap discipline.
The 2022 group is comprised of a veteran leader in Alex Anzalone, a re-investment in Jarrad Davis, and a pile of young players who are still developing and have yet to consistently produce on the field. The goal is to add speed and limit gap assignments, allowing linebackers to flow to the ball easier.
Bottom line for the linebackers: While the 2022 approach has brought the Lions' defense into the modern-day of the NFL, this position group has only received minimal attention in the offseason and it’s difficult to say they’re an improved group at this time.
The 2020 cornerbacks room was constructed in a very similar way to the 2022 group. Amani Oruwariye was starting next to a high-profile athlete who was looking to prove something in the upcoming season (Trufant in 2020, Okudah in 2022). The slot featured a solid, but upgradable starter (Colemen, Parker). The top reserves were hungry youngsters (Okudah, Jacobs) and a veteran with inside/out experience that was acquired in the offseason (Roberts, Hughes), and a handful of players who excelled on special teams (Ford/Virgin/McRae, Price/Smith/Lucas).
But is the 2022 unit improved? Quite frankly, with the injuries and new additions, it’s hard to say with any certainty. On paper, they look improved—and they’re definitely deeper—but outside of Oruwariye taking noticeable steps forward, we are left with a lot of unknowns.
Trufant was terrible in 2020 and Okudah started the majority of games, making his fair share of rookie mistakes. But in 2022, both Okudah and Jacobs’ statuses are very much up in the air as they are still in the recovery phase of their rehabilitation.
Is Hughes an upgrade over Roberts? It looks that way, but it’s also very early to make that declaration. 2020 was Coleman’s worst season in the NFL, so again, Parker looks like an upgrade. But if Coleman was on this roster, would he fair better? It’s hard to say.
The thing that gives the 2022 group the edge for me is the on paper advantages, and the defensive back cross-training of Will Harris and Ifeatu Melifonwu—who could both play key roles in this scheme.
Bottom line for corners: Despite the player acquisition strategy being similar, the 2022 group has better athletes and players with greater upsides. This current group could certainly stumble, but they could also end up easily outperforming the previous roster.
Another defensive position group that has seen a big shift in roles. The 2020 team relied heavily on a single-high safety, a box safety and a third safety typically used in the slot or box. The 2022 team still incorporates single-high and box (robber) concepts, but also shows a lot of two-high looks in their split zone scheme. We have also seen the third safety spot transitioning into a safety/corner hybrid role, with varying positional responsibilities.
In 2020, Harmon was the veteran with two young developmental safeties in Walker and Harris, with Kearse as an insurance policy. Harris started the season alongside Harmon, but eventually gave way to Walker, who had proven all offseason he was the more ready player. But even Walker wasn’t long for the starting role. After serving a month suspension (from the NFL) and another month to acclimate, Kearse eventually took over the starting role and rotated with Walker. Late in the season, Kearse violated a team rule and was released by the Lions, which moved Walker back into a full-time role. Harris never played beyond 45 percent of snaps after the first two weeks.
Matt Patricia’s coaching staff was never able to tap into their young safeties’ best skills, constantly forcing them into roles that didn’t highlight their strengths. But things changed drastically in 2021 when former All-Pro corner turned defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and position coach Aubrey Pleasant arrived. They shifted Walker back to his more natural free safety spot, Harris into a hybrid role, and both players saw success.
Heading into 2022, Walker has signed a contract extension and is now a leader of the defense. Harris has shown the flexibility to start at multiple positions, they’ve added another veteran starter in DeShon Elliott (playing at his natural position), shifted last year’s third-round pick Melifonwu to a more position flexible role, and drafted Kerby Joseph—a ball-hawking safety with starting potential—in the third round of this year’s draft.
Bottom line at safety: This position group has not only added depth and talent, but they’re also using players in positions that maximize their strengths. Things are still being sorted with roles, and there is still room for development, but overall, this group has more big play potential, which is exactly what you want out of your safeties.
In 2020, the Lions had established veterans at kicker and long snapper, with a youth kicking battle at punter. In 2022, the situation has flipped.
Jack Fox not only beat Arryn Siposs for the 2020 job, but he went on to have a Pro Bowl season and is now the veteran fixture amongst the Lions’ special teamers. Scott Daly spent a year on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, a year in the AAF, and a year in XFL before doing what most thought was impossible: unseating the GOAT for the long snapper job. After a solid season in 2021, the Lions have elected to not bring in any competition and it appears will once again roll with Daly.
With needs all over the roster to fill, the Lions opted to save money on special teams. Both Fox and Daly are on league minimum contracts—$895,000 and $825,000 per year respectively—and that matches the Lions' approach to the kicker position as well.
As a veteran, Prater was looking for a contract beyond on the minimum—as he should—and while Detroit didn’t seem willing to offer him that option, the Arizona Cardinals seized the opportunity to land him on a two-year, $6.5 million contract. Last season he made $2 million and this year he is on the books for $4.5 million.
The Lions went through several kickers before they landed on Seibert (2022 cap hit: $965,000) and then added then rookie Riley Patterson (2022 cap hit: $825,000) after Seibert was injured. Regardless of who wins the job in camp, the decision to look for a cheaper option at kicker as opposed to re-signing Prater, essentially saved the team over $3.5 million in 2022.
So what did they sacrifice by saving that money?
The short answer: the ability to connect on field goals from long distances.
In 2021, Prater made 30 of his 37 field goal attempts (81.1 percent), which is actually a lower percentage than both of the current Lions’ kickers, as Seibert was 10-of-12 (83.3 percent) and Patterson went 13-of-14 (92.9 percent). The difference, Prater was 7-of-10 on field goal of 50 yards or longer, while Seibert was 1-of-2 (missed from 51 in Week in San Francisco) and Patterson was 0-for-1 (missed from 55 in Week 17 in Seattle at the end of the first half on an “it’s worth a try” kick).
Bottom line for special teams: The Lions return a Pro Bowl punter, a steady young long snapper, and will have a training camp battle between two young kickers who have both proven accurate, but lack consistency from long distance. Each member of this unit will be on a league minimum contract, but each player has arguably already outperformed those deals.