In order to see where you’re going, it’s often a good exercise to look back at where you’ve been. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at what happened during the Detroit Lions' 2022 offseason that got them to where they are today.
The Lions ended the 2021 season on a positive note, winning three of the final six games, including three of the last four when quarterback Jared Goff was under center. Detroit entered the 2022 offseason with conviction that the rebuild was headed in the right direction.
At this time, the roster was still very much a work in progress, but the organization surely felt good about where they were with their coaching staff, especially coach Dan Campbell. While Campbell’s quotable moments during his first year as the Lions coach didn’t always translate to positive national attention, the effort the Lions players put forth down the stretch illustrated his ability to lead and forced a national audience to take notice.
Coaching staff: Retention and reward
One of Campbell’s boldest moves during the 2021 season was to take over offensive play-calling duties from then-offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn halfway through the season, a move that sparked a turnaround of offensive success. But Campbell wasn’t alone in helping the team find its offensive footing, as tight ends coach Ben Johnson played a critical role as the team's new passing game coordinator.
When the season came to a conclusion, it wasn’t long before the team parted ways with Lynn and left the Lions with a coaching vacancy at offensive coordinator.
Finding an offensive coordinator
The game plan for finding a replacement broke down into two parts, each culminating in interviews in late January during the Senior Bowl.
The Lions were one of the teams selected to coach one of the rosters during the 2022 Senior Bowl, but the organizers changed their approach to coaching staff roles for this year's event. Instead of leaning on a team’s full coaching staff, they asked head coaches to step aside and promote individuals from within the organization to take on bigger roles—the Lions selected assistant coach/running backs coach Duce Staley for the head coaching role, promoted Johnson to offensive coordinator, and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant to defensive coordinator.
This unique setup allowed Campbell more free time to work on other projects, including internal staff evaluations and outside interviews for coaching vacancies.
While no names were ever leaked, Campbell acknowledged that the team did interview candidates from outside the organization as part of the first step in filling the offensive coordinator position while in Mobile, Ala.
The second step in the interview process was a bit more predictable. While holding down his Senior Bowl offensive coordinator duties, Johnson was simultaneously interviewing for the Lions vacancy. In addition to formal interviews, Campbell got an up-close look at Johnson in action while working with the college seniors.
In the end, Johnson’s hand in the Lions’ late-season success, his earned respect from players, showing his value during the interview process, and notable upside as an NFL coach landed him the job. The Lions officially hired him as Detroit’s next offensive coordinator on Feb. 2, just two days after the Senior Bowl concluded.
While the Lions felt comfortable promoting Johnson to the offensive coordinator role, they nearly needed to replace two important defensive coaches, including defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn.
Glenn has long been considered a head coach in waiting, and this offseason he began interviewing for the position. His first interview came with the Denver Broncos in early January, and the second was with the New Orleans Saints—where Glenn had spent the previous five seasons coaching defensive backs before joining the Lions.
Both the Broncos and Saints eventually went in different directions with their coaching hires, but they delivered a clear message: Glenn will be a head coach in this league sooner rather than later. In the meantime, his current goal remains “to be the best coordinator the Lions have ever had.”
While Glenn was interviewing with New Orleans during the Senior Bowl, Pleasant acted as the team’s defensive coordinator, which served as another ominous warning. On Monday after the event concluded—the same day the Lions promoted Johnson—Pleasant interviewed with the Minnesota Vikings for the open defensive coordinator position.
The Vikings, too, went in another direction, but like with Glenn, this process offers food for thought for the Lions. If Glenn leaves in the near future, they likely have a legitimate defensive coordinator in waiting in Pleasant. But at the same time, they also need to be prepared for him to leave for bigger opportunities if Glenn sticks around longer than anticipated.
Filling out the 2022 coaching staff
Despite having two up-and-coming coaches on the defensive staff, the Lions' overall defensive performance in 2021 underwhelmed and some adjustments were necessary. One of the first decisions was to adjust the defensive scheme to adapt to their players and with that came coaching changes.
Outside of Lynn, the only other coach who was relieved of their duties this offseason was linebackers coach Mark DeLeone. He was replaced by Kelvin Sheppard, who was previously coaching the outside linebackers/edge rushers in 2021, working alongside defensive line coach Todd Wash. Sheppard played off-ball linebacker for eight NFL seasons—including with the Lions—so this was a natural fit.
With the outside linebackers coaching position now open, the Lions promoted David Corrao to the assistant coaching role. Corrao has been with the organization for five seasons, previously holding the director of football research role, though he had filled in as an assistant defensive coach in the past.
Another defensive coach who got a promotion was Brian Duker, who was elevated from his defensive assistant role to safeties coach. As he did in 2021, he will work hand-in-hand with Pleasant.
Additionally, when Johnson was promoted to passing game coordinator in 2021, offensive assistant Tanner Engstrand was elevated to tight ends coach. When Johnson was officially made the team's new coordinator, Engstrand was officially made the tight ends coach, while also being named the new passing game coordinator, which speaks to how highly they value him as a coach.
The Lions rounded out the rest of the coaching staff by adding five new assistant coaches:
- John Morton, a 20-year veteran NFL coach, joined the Lions as a senior offensive assistant.
- J.T. Barrett, a former NFL quarterback, was hired in the fall as an offensive assistant.
- Cameron Davis was hired as an assistant defensive line coach, dedicated to helping Wash.
- Wayne Blair, who was part of the Lions’ Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship program in 2021, was hired as a defensive assistant.
- Addison Lynch, who was a defensive backs assistant coach with the Raiders in 2021, joins as a defensive quality control coach.
Front office growth: Creating succession plans
While the coaching staff was busy making adjustments to the staff in an effort to grow, the front office also made some positive adjustments of their own, promoting Mike Disner to chief operating officer and hiring Brandon Sosna as senior director of football administration.
Like Glenn and Pleasant, Disner is a rising talent who is projected to outgrow his role, even though it’s among the top roles in the organization. Meanwhile, Sosna is also considered a rising talent and is just starting to scratch the surface of what his NFL career may become. If Disner were to depart Detroit, Sosna is a logical successor.
2022 ‘Hard Knocks’ and 2024 NFL Draft
Two other significant events from the offseason were announced during the NFL owners' meeting in March: The Lions would be featured on the 2022 installment of HBO’s “Hard Knocks”—something they requested—and the city of Detroit won the bid to host the 2024 NFL Draft, in a joint effort between the Lions and the Detroit Sports Commission.
Roster Moves: The grass isn’t always greener
After the Lions put a bow on the 2021 season with a Week 18 win over the Green Bay Packers, general manager Brad Holmes and staff immediately got to work, signing 12 players to futures contracts over the next week. Re-signings and exclusive rights tenders began in February, leading up to an unexpectedly quiet free agency period in March.
Note: We kept tabs of all the offseason moves in a tracker, with links to every article written about every signed player and their contract.
Re-signings were about culture; continuity
The Lions re-signed 13 players this offseason, a surprising number considering the team only won three games, but the majority of these moves were made for two reasons. First, players who worked hard to help further the team’s progress were rewarded with new, earned contracts, and second, there was a deliberate approach to create continuity between players and staff to ease the next step in the rebuild and team culture development.
Here’s what Holmes said about the grass not always being greener in free agency:
“When they have seasons like they had and (were) productive, and to have the continuity that we’re bringing back with the coaching staff and relatively same system, I think it’s going to be an advantage for us.”
One of the more notable decisions the team made was to address the leadership on defense. It was clear that the Lions could not afford Trey Flowers’ contract, so they made sure to get Tracy Walker re-signed and immediately put him into a leadership role. Once Walker was under contract, Flowers was released in a cap-saving move the next day.
“My main objective right now is to continue to grow with this coaching staff, continue to grow with this group of guys I’ve got surrounding me, and just continue to try to build a foundation. One thing I’ve been saying all year is we’re trying to establish a foundation, and that’s something I want to be a part of. I just want to do the best and be the best player I can possibly be.”
“He’s bought into everything that we’re trying to get done in this defense as far as a safety’s perspective and he’s grown. He’s grown in that and he’s also become a leader as far as linebackers, as far as getting everybody together and watching some tape. That’s what we expect of our safeties.”
Other players who re-signed with the expectation of holding starting roles include fullback Jason Cabinda (who is currently on reserve/PUP with an ankle injury), wide receiver Josh Reynolds, edge rusher Charles Harris, and linebacker Alex Anzalone.
Free agency was focused
Entering free agency, the Lions had one primary goal: sign a game-breaking WR-X. It didn’t take long for the Lions to accomplish this goal, agreeing to terms with D.J. Chark during the “legal tampering” period. Chark, who was looking for the right “culture fit” after his time in Jacksonville, turned down several multi-year deals from other teams in order to sign in Detroit.
“The games looked completely different (from Jacksonville's). I appreciated the hustle, the grit, and the way that they persevered, and went from tying games to winning games, and playing better. I truly appreciate the way this staff kept that team together and have faith in those guys. I know that means a lot to them and I’m ready to be a part of it. I feel like it’s definitely a different feel than what I’ve been experiencing.”
Chark was the Lions' only splash in the first wave of free agency, but Holmes waited patiently for market prices to drop, then added linebacker Chris Board and safety DeShon Elliott in the second and third waves. Both are in the mix for starting roles in 2022.
NFL Draft was about the future
Note: We kept tabs on all of our 2022 NFL draft articles—over 100 in total—in a tracker, with links to every article written about every rookie.
Picking second overall presented a tremendous opportunity for the Lions to add another elite talent to the roster, and the team wasted no time (literally) selecting Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, arguably the best player in this draft cycle. Pairing Hutchinson with 2021 first-round offensive tackle Penei Sewell, gives the Lions two foundational pieces to build around.
But the Lions had another trick up their sleeve on draft night. With a second first-round pick acquired via the Matthew Stafford trade, the Lions threw in some more draft capital and traded up to pick No. 12 overall, where they selected Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams. With his next-level speed, he has the potential to be the team’s starting WR-X or WR-Y for the next 10 to 15 years.
Williams, arguably the top offensive player in this draft class, slid to pick No. 12 due to an ACL injury that is projected to keep him on the shelf for a portion of the season. He’s currently on the reserve/non-football injury list. Most experts agree that teams passed on Williams because they needed an instant contributor, but the Lions provided a perfect opportunity. With ownership offering patience to Holmes during the rebuild, he was able to land a top-five talent simply because he had the time to allow the speedster to properly recover.
This was a bit of a theme for Holmes during the 2022 draft, selecting value over availability. He selected two other players also dealing with injuries, including defensive end Josh Paschal (sports hernia) No. 46 overall and tight end James Mitchell (ACL) in the fifth round. Paschal practiced in rookie minicamp, but a re-aggravation of his injury led to the team electing for him to have surgery. He’s currently on the reserve/PUP list as well. Mitchell missed rookie minicamp, but he was able to return for training camp and has slowly been acclimated to the NFL. The Lions don’t have to rush the rehabilitation process.
Another theme for Holmes during this draft was to select fast, athletic defenders who have flown under the radar due to a perceived flaw.
Third-round pick Kerby Joseph only had one year of starting experience in college, but he possesses elite range and ball skills, which is something the Lions were desperate for in the secondary. He likely won’t start in 2022, but he looks like he will be the long-term answer next to Tracy Walker.
If linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez were 6-foot-1 instead of 5-foot-11, he would have likely been a Day 2 pick instead of sliding to the sixth round. Rodriguez has quickly risen up the depth charts and could end up the starting WILL for the Lions in 2022.
Hybrid pass rusher James Houston had a record-setting season at Jackson State, learning under former NFL star Deion Sanders, and while he has a steeper learning curve coming from an HBCU school, the flashes of potential have been exciting. Houston landed on the Lions’ practice squad heading into the season.
Cornerback Chase Lucas slid to the seventh round likely because of his age (25 years old) and needing to add functional strength, but he has seized the opportunity in front of him in training camp and is working his way into the nickel corner conversation. He continues to stack days in camp with his intelligence and athleticism, and is very close to turning a corner.
The Lions have continued to stay active in upgrading their roster throughout the summer and fall months. They claimed defensive lineman John Cominsky off of waivers, and his presence has helped soften the blow during Paschal’s missed time. Fan favorite John Penisini unexpectedly retired in the spring and the team signed a replacement nose tackle in Isaiah Buggs. Both Cominsky and Buggs were able to secure spots on the 53-man roster.
In training camp, the Lions began to put the pieces of the 2022 puzzle together. They continued to take it very slowly with injured players, made progress in installing the new offensive and defensive schemes, and sorted out where players fit on the depth chart, eventually settling on a 53-man roster for the 2022 season.