Now that the Detroit Lions roster is relatively finalized, it’s time to look at the squad they have assembled and take note of its strengths and weaknesses. Sure, the Lions will tinker with the roster from now until January, but the core of this team has been established, we know who the starters will be at just about every position, and so now is a good time to grade the roster.
For a bit of perspective, you can check out our grades from last year’s squad here.
This year, these grades are based heavily on the starters at each position, but depth—including the practice squad and players who are scheduled to return from injury—is considered in the final marks.
Starter: Jared Goff
Backup: Nate Sudfeld
Goff has had an excellent training camp, and there are certainly reasons to be optimistic that carries over into the regular season. We all saw how Goff finished the 2021 season, and his supporting cast is way better than it ever was last year.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Goff still has a lot to prove. He’s played just a single drive of competitive football this preseason, and questions remain about how he can handle both literal pressure from other defenses and the pressure of increased expectations.
The backup situation is a bit of a mess. Sudfeld is acceptable in terms of talent level, but seeing as he was just added to the team, the Lions are really vulnerable if Goff suffers an injury or illness early in the season. They’d have to limit the playbook considerably if he had to step into the game, and Sudfeld is probably not the best teacher’s aid for Goff right now.
Starters: D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams
Backup: Craig Reynolds
Practice squad: Justin Jackson, Jermar Jefferson
Injured to return: Jason Cabinda (reserve/PUP)
The Lions are talking Swift up quite a bit, but will the former second-round pick ever live up to expectations? Like Goff, it feels like the Lions have put Swift in a perfect position to excel, and now he must prove it. We’ve seen enough flashes of Swift’s game to know what he’s truly capable of, now it’s just a matter of putting it all together for a full season. Williams is an average “thunder” to Swift’s “lightning,” but he has taken on a new leadership role on the team, and he’s a relatively dependable short-yardage back.
The Lions managed to keep all of their impressive depth from the preseason—save Godwin Igwebuike—giving them a pretty well-rounded unit with high upside.
Starter: T.J. Hockenson
Backups: Brock Wright, Shane Zylstra, James Mitchell
Practice squad: Garrett Griffin, Derrick Deese
It’s time for Hockenson to prove if he’s just an above-average tight end or if he can truly jump into the elite category. His developing blocking skills remain the biggest hurdle to taking the next step, but he could also improve at yards after the catch.
As for the team’s depth, it’s all youth. Wright and Zylstra—both second-year players after going undrafted last season—look improved in camp, but they still have a long ways to go to prove they can be consistent contributors. Mitchell, the team’s fifth-round pick, has the most potential of the group, but he’s not close to ready right now.
Starters: DJ Chark, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds
Backups: Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus
Practice squad: Tom Kennedy, Maurice Alexander
Injured to return: Jameson Williams (reserve/NFI)
Last year, this group got an F, and rightfully so. Oh, what a difference a year makes. St. Brown is on the cusp of stardom. Reynolds gave the Lions a spark towards the end of last season and has been hailed as one of the most improved players this camp. Throw in a hungry DJ Chark and Jameson Williams halfway through the season, and this group has a chance to make some serious noise this year.
Even the depth is filled with players who have proven capable of contributing on offense. Raymond is a guy who will still get a lot of looks on offense, while Cephus, when healthy, brings some physical skills to the position.
Starters: Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Penei Sewell
Backups: Matt Nelson, Evan Brown, Tommy Kraemer, Logan Stenberg
Practice squad: Dan Skipper, Obinna Eze
Expectations are sky high for the starters in this group. We’ve seen all five of these guys play well individually, but as a group, they’ve only played together in the preseason. They could literally have three Pro Bowlers on this unit by the end of the year—that’s how high expectations are for a group that features three first-round picks.
There are certainly some legit concerns with the depth, though. The Lions don’t have a reliable backup offensive tackle, as Nelson struggled in that role last year, and Dan Skipper and Obinna Eze are “break in case of emergency” options. The interior depth, however, is much more promising. Brown may be the best backup center in the league, and while Kraemer and Stenberg are both inexperienced, they have shown a lot of growth in the past year.
Starters: Aidan Hutchinson, Michael Brockers, Alim McNeill, Charles Harris
Backups: Levi Onwuzurike, Isaiah Buggs, Demetrius Taylor, Benito Jones, Julian Okwara, Austin Bryant, John Cominsky
Practice squad: James Houston, Bruce Hector
Injured to return: Romeo Okwara (reserve/PUP), Josh Paschal (reserve/PUP)
Detroit looks a lot better on the edges after Charles Harris’ breakout season last year and the addition of second overall pick Aidan Hutchinson. The two have looked like a nasty duo in training camp, even going up against Detroit’s talented pair of offensive tackles. Austin Bryant has had a great offseason as a rotational reserve, and what little we saw of Julian Okwara was promising. If Romeo Okwara can come back and provide any meaningful play, this could be one of the deeper, most talented units on the team.
There are far more questions on the interior, however. Michael Brockers is not getting any younger and just doesn’t look like the disrupter they want or need. Levi Onwuzurike and Josh Paschal are not close to returning from injury, meaning they will miss valuable time to get better. Demetrius Taylor looks like a nice find, but expectations should remain relatively low for an undrafted rookie. Detroit’s pair of nose tackles—Isaiah Buggs and Benito Jones—are the newest members of the team and have a combined seven starts at the NFL level.
Alim McNeill, however, could be a star. We saw the flashes last year, and Lions’ coaches have not been able to hide their excitement about his growth in Year 2.
Starters: Alex Anzalone, Malcolm Rodriguez/Derrick Barnes
Backups: Chris Board, Josh Woods
Practice squad: Jarrad Davis, Anthony Pittman
Expectations going into camp were extremely low for this unit. We scoffed when coaches told us competition was going to bring out the best in a bunch of young, unproven players.
Well, fast forward a month, and sixth-round rookie Malcolm Rodriguez has played so well he’s in consideration for a starting job in Week 1, and second-year Derrick Barnes is catching compliments like this from his position coach:
“Derrick Barnes is coming, and that’s a real thing. That player is a very explosive, very violent, very strong linebacker.”
I’m not ready to crown this unit yet by any means, though. Alex Anzalone is still a player with serious limitations, and I’m not ready to give Rodriguez or Barnes the benefit of the doubt until they start performing the regular season.
I do like the depth on this team, though. Both Chris Board and Josh Woods are excellent special teamers with a fair amount of upside on defense.
Starters: Amani Oruwariye, Jeff Okudah, Mike Hughes
Backups: Will Harris, Bobby Price, Chase Lucas
Practice squad: AJ Parker, Saivion Smith
Injured to return: Jerry Jacobs (reserve/PUP)
This is another unit that came into camp with a lot of questions. Many of them remain unanswered. Okudah did a nice job proving he’s not physically limited from his Achilles injury, and his improvement throughout camp was extremely promising. But with only 10 games under his belt, he’s still underdeveloped and has a lot to prove.
Amani Oruwariye didn’t play much in the preseason. And while he showed some serious growth last year, it remains to be seen whether he can be more than a mid-to-low CB1 in this league.
Depth is an extreme concern here, as the Lions don’t have an outside cornerback they can trust right now amongst their reserves until Jacobs comes back from PUP—and even he remains a really young player.
Nickel is in a relatively good position. While Hughes isn’t a top-level player at the position, the Lions have a young developmental piece in Chase Lucas and experience in AJ Parker on the practice squad.
Starter: Tracy Walker, DeShon Elliott
Backups: Ifeatu Melifonwu, Kerby Joseph, JuJu Hughes
The Lions understandably feel good about Walker as a starter and a leader of this defense. Opposite him, Elliott needs to prove he can stay healthy for an entire season, but he has shown flashes of being—at the very least—an average safety on the field.
Again, though, depth is a serious concern here. With Melifonwu starting the season injured, Detroit is an injury away from starting extremely-raw rookie Kerby Joseph or JuJu Hughes—who has played a total of 35 career NFL snaps on defense.
Starters: Jack Fox (P), Austin Seibert (K), Scott Daly (LS)
Practice squad: Aldrick Rosas (K)
I can’t imagine the Lions feel great about their kicking situation after both Seibert and Riley Patterson showed a fair amount of inconsistency throughout camp. But Seibert has a big leg, which will help on kickoffs and gives the team an opportunity to win games late with 50+ yard field goals.
No concerns at all at punter or long snapper, as Fox remains one of the best punters in the league, and Daly has had no issues in his year as Don Muhlbach’s heir.