The Detroit Lions leaned on their rookie class early and often last year—the first under head coach Dan Campbell. In fact, in terms of percentage of play, no NFL team played rookies more than the Lions last year. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2022, Lions rookies accounted for a total of 6,172 snaps—or 20.9 percent of the team’s overall playing time. The next closest team—the New York Jets—had 5,795 rookie snaps. No other team had more than 5,000.
There were several reasons the Lions utilized rookies so much. For one, injuries forced Detroit to rely heavily on their young players. With Jeff Okudah, Da’Shawn Hand, and Tyrell Williams out long-term for the Lions, they had to lean on Jerry Jacobs, Levi Onwuzurike, and Amon-Ra St. Brown, respectively.
However, some of Detroit’s reliance on their rookie class was just part of the plan. Knowing they were at the beginning of the rebuild, the Lions clearly saw 2021 as an opportunity to develop their young talent. They purposely moved on from Jamie Collins so that Derrick Barnes could get some serious playing time in his first year. They didn’t invest heavily in free agency so that players like AJ Parker and Alim McNeill would compete for starting jobs and see the field.
Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn more or less teased this strategy before the 2021 season even began, talking specifically about Parker.
“I learned this from a big-time scout back in the day: you can’t be afraid of young players,” Glenn said last August. “You can’t do it, and (Parker) is a young player. If he’s going to make plays for us, he’s going to be on the field, and we know there’s going to be growing pains, but like with all rookies, we’re going to continue to coach and get him to where he needs to be.”
Here’s a look at all the rookie snaps for the Lions last season, ranked by most (on offense or defense):
Penei Sewell: 1,039 offensive snaps, 26 special teams
Amon-Ra St. Brown: 816 offensive snaps, 81 special teams
AJ Parker: 557 defensive snaps, 28 special teams
Jerry Jacobs: 536 defensive snaps, 76 special teams
Derrick Barnes: 448 defensive snaps, 110 special teams
Alim McNeill: 442 defensive snaps, 36 special teams
Levi Onwuzurike: 396 defensive snaps, 79 special teams
Brock Wright: 301 offensive snaps, 106 special teams
Ifeatu Melifonwu: 242 defensive snaps, 34 special teams
Tommy Kraemer: 238 offensive snaps, 34 special teams
Ryan McCollum: 101 offensive snaps, 47 special teams
Shane Zylstra: 82 offensive snaps, 32 special teams
Mark Gilbert: 47 defensive snaps, 27 special teams
Jermar Jefferson: 36 offensive snaps, 12 special teams
Brady Breeze: 14 defensive snaps, 72 special teams
Tavante Beckett: 64 special teams snaps
Riley Patterson: 33 special teams snaps
Be on the lookout for more content from Football Outsiders and the Football Outsiders Almanac 2022, as we reprise our Q&A series from years past. In the meantime, you can purchase the almanac here.