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2022 NFL projections: ESPN predicts Detroit Lions to have league’s worst defense

ESPN’s Mike Clay offers a sobering projection of the 2022 Detroit Lions season, especially on defense.

NFL: JAN 09 Packers at Lions Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last week, Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes and assistant general manager Ray Agnew gave a rosy outlook for the team’s defense. Though Detroit allowed the second-most points last season, some schematic and personnel changes, combined with a solid coaching staff, has many inside the building believing a big jump could happen in 2022 for this unit.

But that feeling is not shared by Mike Clay, the stats-heavy prognosticator for the ESPN. On Sunday, Clay dropped a huge 2022 season preview article, projecting the best and worst units in the NFL, along with his own power rankings based on a statistical model of his creation. Safe to say, the Lions are hoping Clay’s model will need some tinkering next year.

Most damning of all, Clay has the Lions projected to be the worst defense in the league, predicting Detroit to allow 445 points this season after they allowed 467 last year.

“Things may not be much better this season, as the defense has weak spots all over the lineup, exacerbated by injuries to Romeo Okwara, Jerry Jacobs and rookie Josh Paschal,” Clay wrote.

At the end of his article, he provides unit-by-unit rankings, and it really highlights where Clay believes the weaknesses lie with this defense. He ranks the interior defensive line (29th), linebackers (32nd) and cornerbacks (31st) as bottom-five units, while the edge defenders (21st) and safeties (26th) are not much better.

To be fair to Clay, those bottom-five positions were ones we all highlighted a month or two ago as biggest reasons for concern on defense. The defensive interior could struggle due to injuries to Levi Onwuzurike and the diminishing play of Michael Brockers. We all agreed that this linebacking corps was the biggest weakness on the roster, and quite likely the worst linebacking unit in the league. There were far more questions than answers at cornerback.

But training camp and the preseason has changed those perspectives a bit locally. Alim McNeill looks pretty darn good, and Detroit added a few interior pieces (Isaiah Buggs, Benito Jones) to help stuff the run. Malcolm Rodriguez looks like a future star at linebacker, while Derrick Barnes has shown signs of a Year 2 jump. Jeff Okudah decisively won a starting job, putting to bed some questions about his rehab from a torn Achilles.

So has Clay not accounted for this shift in expectation, or has the preseason and training camp glossed over some serious concerns about this Detroit defense? The answer likely falls in the middle.

Offensively speaking, Clay’s projections aren’t that much better. Last year, the Lions finished 25th in scoring. This year, Clay has the Lions offense ranked 23rd in the league. Detroit is hurt by Clay’s ranking of Jared Goff (28th), and he’s surprisingly low on the team’s receiving corps (19th). That said, he ranks the team’s offensive line as fourth and tight end group 10th.

Put it all together, and Clay’s power rankings push the Lions all the way down to 27th, just barely out of the bottom five.

What do you think of Clay’s projections? Too gloomy or an important dose of reality as we head into game week?