For a 9-8 team, the Detroit Lions were a breath of fresh air.
After Year 1 of the Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes era, the Lions had more hope than talent. An early draft pick would certainly set the Lions up to get an important contributor, but they needed more to actually make the jump to relevancy. Could they shake the dark cloud of years gone by?
I’d say they did.
Early on, the season looked grim, but the team continued to fight, nearly fighting their way into the playoffs. In the past, we would try to look at the season that was with an optimistic perspective. Yet after the 2022 season, it truly feels like the Lions are making strides for the better. That competitive playoff team we have dreamt of could be closer than expected.
There are a lot of takeaways to be had on such an eventful season, but let’s try, starting with the players.
Jared Goff deserves to be the starter next season
Entering the season, I was one of many still not sold on Jared Goff as anything more than a bridge quarterback. The 2021 season was largely a disappointment for Goff. A late-season resurgence salvaged what would have otherwise been a rough first year in Detroit. Even with a bareboned receiving corps, it seemed like Goff was the true Achilles heel of the Lions offense. Yet without any investment in a young quarterback, there were no better options behind him. It was slated to be another long season.
I would like to apologize to Mr. Goff.
Not only did Goff put together a fantastic turnaround season, but he had one of the best seasons of his NFL career. A year made all the difference for the receiving corps, with Amon-Ra St. Brown getting another year under his belt, the addition of DJ Chark, and the duo of Josh Reynolds and Kalif Raymond thriving in tertiary roles. Chemistry and confidence have always been paramount to Goff succeeding in an offense, and he had them in spades in 2022.
Goff had some bad outings—the losses to the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys in particular—but as a whole, he established himself not only as a starting-caliber quarterback, but a good one. His second half of the season was stellar. From Week 9 onward, he threw 17 touchdowns to one interception, the lone pick coming in Week 9. Even in the Lions’ loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 16, Goff was one of the few aspects of the offense playing well. His Week 18 performance against the Green Bay Packers deserves praise as well. Despite a subpar first half in the frozen conditions, Goff rebounded nicely in the second half. While he didn’t record a touchdown, he had some throws that were instrumental in securing the victory. His deep pass to Raymond was perhaps the best throw of his season. The pressure was on, and he succeeded.
Goff isn’t on the level of Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, but he doesn’t need to be. The Lions offense was clicking with him at the helm and the surplus of talent surrounding him. If the Lions had even an average defense, they would certainly have made the playoffs, if not challenged for the NFC North.
Goff has earned the right to be the unquestioned starter entering 2023. For one, it seems unlikely they would acquire another starting-caliber quarterback this offseason, nor do they seem likely to trade Goff. Additionally, what kind of message would it send the team if Goff wasn’t the starter in 2023? The team has rallied around Goff. Benching him or shipping him out of town would go against the philosophy of this Lions organization. Good play gets rewarded. General manager Brad Holmes put it best:
This line is going to stick with me for a bit.— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) January 10, 2023
"I think it’s a lot easier to get worse at quarterback than to get better at quarterback in this league." https://t.co/cHORBNLeqk
...but don’t rule out a backup to challenge him
That being said, the Lions could still target a quarterback this offseason. From a pure backup perspective, the Lions have nothing—literally. Goff is the lone quarterback under contract, while Nate Sudfeld and Steven Montez are both free agents—Montez has since joined the Seattle Sea Dragons of the XFL. Not only do the Lions have to add a capable backup, but they could use someone to develop as well. The Lions will (seemingly) ride with Goff as their starter in 2023, but there’s no guarantee he’s that guy further down the road.
The Lions could opt for some low-ceiling veterans, such as Tyler Heinicke, Cooper Rush, Mike White, or Gardner Minshew. They aren’t the sexiest of signings, but they were be upgrades over the Lions’ 2021 and 2022 backups.
The Lions could kill two birds with one stone by drafting a quarterback early in the 2023 NFL Draft. The dust has yet to settle, but the first round prospects appear to be Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Will Levis, and Anthony Richardson. The Lions could target one of those players with either the sixth or 18th pick in the draft, perhaps earlier if they feel like trading up. Day 2 prospects haven’t had the best hit rate, but players like Tanner McKee or Cameron Ward could be options—again, it’s hard enough to project first-round prospects in January, let alone second- and third-round prospects. The Lions could go after a Day 3 prospect as well, but that is more of a dart throw than anything.
Is a first-round quarterback too rich for a Lions team with many other weaknesses? It will be on the general manager and his staff to decided.
Cornerback remains a massive issue—is Jeff Okudah part of the problem or the solution?
For all the positive that came on the offensive side of the ball, the defense remains problematic, and you need look no further than the cornerback group. The Lions were again a bottom-tier defense in 2022 despite notable improvements from the front seven. Losing safety Tracy Walker definitely hurt the secondary, but the cornerbacks were rarely locking down receivers.
Safety-turned-corner Will Harris was the highest-rated Lions cornerback per PFF, but he had a mere grade of 63.7. We saw good moments for Harris, Jerry Jacobs, and Mike Hughes, but consistency was a massive issue. Harris and Hughes are free agents, yet even if they are brought back, can they be relied upon as starters? The answer is probably closer to no than yes.
In the spotlight is Jeff Okudah, and despite finishing his third season in the NFL, he still remains a mystery. 2022 was almost a full season for Okudah, a positive given his previous Achilles injury. That being said, it was a roller coaster season. Some weeks, he flashed the shutdown talent he was drafted for. Other times, he was flying in the run game. Yet towards the end of the season, his role became unclear. He was benched on multiple occasions without an obvious reason—sure, he had struggles, but so, too, did his replacements. He missed the Week 18 affair with an elbow injury, yet that didn’t appear to be an issue in the prior weeks.
I still don’t know what to make of Okudah. If he can play like he did against the Dallas Cowboys, then the Lions are in good hands. But can he reach that level of play more frequently? Can he put the late-season benchings behind him? Okudah is well worth a roster spot, as he was arguably the best corner on the team before a poor late stretch, but he needs to take that next step sooner than later. The Lions might already be in the market for another starting corner, so his starting spot is far from safe.
Hockenson went from focal point to expendable, and the Lions were better for realizing it
Entering training camp, the big question on everyone’s mind was if and when T.J. Hockenson’s extension would happen. In 2021, Hockenson was one of the few reliable aspects of the offense. Yet despite acting as a safety net for Goff, Hockenson never truly felt like the tight end he was drafted to be. He was good, but he was no Travis Kelce or George Kittle, a true game-changing talent. He was more of a supplementary role player to some, but he was still viewed as an important piece going forward.
Until, of course, the trade. The Lions traded away Hockenson—to a division rival, no less—without a clear replacement on the roster. Yet despite this, the Lions came away from the trade with multiple positives.
For one, the Lions got excellent production from their reserve tight ends. While none of Brock Wright, James Mitchell, or Shane Zylstra blossomed into a starting-caliber tight end, they each played their roles well. With talented receivers around them, the Lions didn’t need a pass catching tight end. Instead, blocking and red zone prowess became the key aspects of their tight end group. Best yet, defenses seemingly slept on these tight ends, and it led to some magical moments.
Additionally, the Lions don’t have to worry about paying Hockenson. He is due to a pay bump in a year, but Detroit is no longer the team that has to foot the bill. Instead, they are likely content with their draft picks gained from the trade. The Vikings, meanwhile, have to decide if Hockenson is worth paying elite tight end money. The Lions might still be in the market for a starting tight end, but it feels like they can get better value elsewhere. That’s a win for the Lions.
Lions youth movement leads the way
The Lions were the youngest team in the NFL this past season, an expected ranking given their rebuild. What wasn’t expected, however, was the production the Lions got from their young players. The likes of Aidan Hutchinson and Penei Sewell being important parts of the rebuild are not surprising, given their draft position. Yet the Lions received notable contributions from players of lesser pedigrees.
You need look no further than the 2022 draft class. The Lions got productive snaps from every day of the draft, including multiple starters. Kerby Joseph looks primed to be an opening day starter at safety next season, shining immensely in his rookie year. Malcolm Rodriguez was a starting linebacker from Day 1, and with Alex Anzalone a pending free agent, his role could grow even further in 2023. James Houston went from an easy roster cut to a budding pass rusher, exploding onto the scene in the back half of the season. Houston finished second in rookie sacks—behind fellow Lion Hutchinson—despite playing a minuscule number of snaps. Houston saw increased action in run defense later in the season, signaling that the coach staff wants him on the field.
That’s a lot of production from the 2022 class. This isn’t even including Jameson Williams and Josh Paschal, two rookies that missed time recovering from offseason injuries.
You can see how the Lions are shaping up to do damage in the coming years. The core of this team is young—Jonah Jackson, Alim McNeill, Amon-Ra St. Brown, D’Andre Swift, Frank Ragnow are each 26 years of age or younger. Even the aged veterans on the team are on the right side of 30—Tracy Walker turns 28 on Wednesday, Taylor Decker will turn 30 in August, while Jared Goff will enter his age 29 season. The Lions have two first round picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, so the young talent pool will only grow this offseason.
For years, we kept talking about how the Lions could be a good team if their draft picks panned out. That, sadly, rarely happened, but 2022 felt like a different story. The future is bright in Detroit.