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Sneak peek: Pride of Detroit Direct’s bye week grades from Jon Ledyard

Our guest analyst, Jon Ledyard, hits your eyeballs once a week at Pride of Detroit Direct.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Every week during the 2023, Jon Ledyard has written outstanding analysis pieces for Pride of Detroit Direct featuring a closer look at the Lions’ players film and advanced metrics. As part of our bye week sneak peek at PODD, we’re giving you Jon’s midseason grades for free!

If you like what you see, subscribe and get more of Jon’s great analysis.

Hello Pride of Detroit readers. On the Detroit Lions’ bye week, we’re giving you two articles directly from the Pride of Detroit Direct premium newsletter. This is the sort of expanded content you can expect to read three times per week during the season and regularly in the offseason when you subscribe.

During the Lions’ bye week, we’re running a special where you can sign up for Pride of Detroit Direct for 20% off. You’ll get your free 7-day trial and then it’s only $40 for an entire year of PODD! Click here to sign up and use the promo code GOLIONS20.

You can also snag a Pride of Detroit Direct subscription by donating more than $100 to POD’s Movember campaign.

The Detroit Lions were on their bye this past weekend, which means there is no new tape to break down. Nevertheless, I’ve still got some content for you this week, as I’ve graded up each positional group with half a season in the books.These grades are based on film study of each player on the roster, with supportive advanced stats to accompany that analysis.

Quarterback: A

I don’t think anyone could ask much more of Jared Goff this season. Once upon a time, Goff put the ball in harm’s way as much as any quarterback in the NFL. Even last year amidst a strong season, Goff was charted with 24 turnover-worthy plays per PFF. Fast forward to 2023, and it’s a different story. Goff has just 6 turnover-worthy plays (TWP) this season, tied for the fourth-best mark in the NFL. That puts his TWP percentage at just 1.9 percent, easily the lowest of his career.

A wiser Goff does not necessarily mean a less aggressive one. What has put Goff back into the top-10 quarterback performers this season is his desire to throw the football down the field. Against Las Vegas, Goff lived underneath, dropping his average depth of target (ADOT) on the season to just seven yards. That’s not gonna put him near the top of the league, but his “big time throw” percentage is the highest it has been since 2019. That means Goff is testing tight throwing windows and consistently making it work. He’s been everything the Lions hoped he could be this season. Can he keep it up and lead this team deep into the playoffs?

Running Backs: B

The Lions’ backfield is coming off its best performance of the season after taking the first half of the year to figure out itself. With David Montgomery sidelined, Jahymr Gibbs looks like he’s on his way to an impressive rookie season, averaging 3.24 yards after contact per attempt, good enough for seventh amongst all running backs, per PFF. He’s been outstanding as a rusher, and has 11 forced missed tackles as a receiver too.

Montgomery should be a solid third-down back when he returns, and is still the Lions’ best back in protection. There are only a handful of NFL running backs that consistently impress in pass protection, and Montgomery is one of them. But the emergence of Craig Reynolds as a well-rounded rotational back who provides burst, power and outstanding effort off the bench has been a revelation, as well. Detroit’s backfield has taken some time to sort itself out, but I think it could be one of the league’s best over the second half of the season.

Wide Receivers: A-

Amon-Ra St. Brown or Josh Reynolds have been at the top of their games this season. St. Brown has obviously been the team’s best weapon, and is averaging career highs in yards per route run, contested catch rate (64%!) and average depth of target (more downfield targets). It’s been an unquestioned career year for Reynolds, who has been the do-everything receiver the Lions desperately needed to complement St. Brown.

Reynolds is one of the game’s better blocking wide receivers, but there is very little he can’t do. He’s consistently made tough grabs outside his frame, and has been a ridiculous 71.4 percent on contested catches this season. But the most surprising thing is how effective Reynolds has been down the field, averaging more than 18 yards per catch. Without Jameson Williams for much of the year, the Lions really needed that vertical playmaker. Reynolds has given them that option, after spending most of his career as a possession guy.

Unfortunately, the lack of a quality WR3 keeps this grade from being higher. Marvin Jones has stepped away from his career and been released. Williams has returned from suspension, but the results have been highly inconsistent. He can still create splash plays and has at times, but drops and route-running mistakes have been frequent, as well. In his career, Williams has 23 targets, seven receptions and seven drops. Five of those have come this season. That is very bad.

Can newcomer Donovan Peoples-Jones add another quality option to the Lions’ wide receiver room? The fourth-year receiver fell out of favor in Cleveland this season, but had more than 800 yards receiving a year ago. Peoples-Jones can block, stretch the field and battle for contested catches too. Plus, he has experience in the slot and outside. I think he’ll be a very good fit in Detroit.

Tight Ends: A

I’m not sure how you can give anything less to an ‘A’ to a group that boasts one of the best rookie tight end seasons we’ve ever seen. A notoriously slow-starting position in the NFL, Sam LaPorta has hit the ground running and is just getting better each week. He’s on pace for more than 922 yards receiving this season, which would be the third-best campaign ever by a rookie tight end.

It isn’t just LaPorta’s production that has been so stellar. He’s been marvelous as a route runner, creating separation consistently against man coverage – even cornerbacks. LaPorta has the league’s fifth-most YAC amongst tight ends, and he’s reeling in contested catches at a 70 percent clip through eight games. Only four tight ends have more yards per route run than LaPorta this season. To top it off, LaPorta has contributed more as a blocker than most expected him to at this point in his career.

Brock Wright isn’t a great no. 2, but I’m not getting lost in the weeds in giving out this grade. It’s a LaPorta grade. And he’s been exceptional.

Offensive Line: A

How can it not be an ‘A’? The Lions have two of the best players in the NFL at their positions in Frank Ragnow and Penei Sewell. PFF has charged them with allowing nine and five pressures, respectively. Taylor Decker is enjoying a very good season, and Graham Glasgow is playing the best ball of his career. Hal Vaitai and Jonah Jackson have been solid, too. Because of injuries, the Lions have had to call on unknowns like Kayode Awosika and Corby Sorsdal, and even those guys have filled in admirably. This is probably one of the best-coached units in the league, and it shows in their play each week. Detroit is also probably one of the more varied run schemes in the league, so having versatile blockers up front is critical to their success.

Defensive Line: B-

At their best, the Lions defensive line has been a unit that has won them games. At their worst, they’ve fallen short of influencing a few outcomes this season. Aidan Hutchinson has emerged as a very good edge rusher, but even his limitations have shown up at times. He’s very dependent on speed-counter as an edge rusher, and has one of the nastiest spin moves in the league to make it work. Will he ever have the burst/bend combination to be more of a threat to offensive tackles at the top of the arc? Even if he doesn’t, Hutchinson’s performance has made it clear just how high his floor is. He’s going to be a force for a while in Detroit.

Defensive tackle Alim McNeill is the other constant. He’s having an incredible year in Detroit, piling up four sacks and 20 pressures. McNeill has also been dominant against the run, with five tackles for loss and consistently strong tape. Outside of Hutchinson and McNeill, almost every player has mixed reviews.

John Cominsky is a capable power rusher, but lacks the athletic ability and pass-rush skill to be much more than a rotational piece. Charles Harris is a pure speed rusher who has seen his playing time decrease of late, probably due to how he plays the run. Hopefully the increased playing time for the Okwara brothers pays dividends, but right now Romeo and Julian look more like solid backups than anything special. If Detroit falls short defensively in these playoffs, it might be because they lack one more difference-maker up front.

Linebackers: B

These guys haven’t been perfect, but nobody was expecting that coming into the season. Alex Anzalone has had a career year, especially in coverage. He’s the Lions ‘ fourth-highest graded defensive player per PFF, after Hutchinson, McNeill and Brian Branch. That matches the eye test, too, as Anzalone has had a couple of the best games of his career this season. Weeks 4-6, he may have played better than any linebacker in the league.

The seven-year pro is allowing just over eight yards per reception in coverage, and already has tied his career best in pass breakups with four. Perhaps most impressively, Anzalone has 26 stops (tackles that constitute a “failure” by the offense, per PFF) in 480 snaps already this season. Last year he had 34 in almost 1,100 snaps. If he can clean up the missed tackles, making a Pro Bowl shouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility.

Derrick Barnes has quietly had a stellar season as well, and is the best blitzer of the Lions ‘backers. His limitations show up in coverage at times, but overall he’s been a stellar part-time player in Detroit. The man he splits time with, Jack Campbell, has struggled even more in coverage, despite only playing 266 snaps. He’s given up 16 receptions on 20 targets for an average of more than 12 yards per catch. Campbell has played on the edge a bunch, but hasn’t been an effective rusher in that role, although his run defense has been solid. I think he’ll be a good player in time, but this season they should lean more into the combination of Barnes and Anzalone. To Campbell’s credit, he has not missed a tackle yet this season, per PFF.

Early in the season, Malcolm Rodriguez was getting 14-20 snaps a game, and I wrote in this space that Detroit needed to move away from playing him regularly. The Lions have done that, with Rodriguez playing just eight snaps since Week 3.

Defensive Backs: B-

After losing Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Emmanuel Mosley, nobody would have blamed Detroit for falling off in the secondary. Somehow, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has pushed this group to a level most would not have thought possible from looking at the talent on paper. The Lions will enter Week 10 as the seventh-best defense in EPA/dropback (expected points added per dropback) by opposing teams, a very impressive mark.

On tape, it hasn’t always been perfect. In fact, there were games where Detroit was probably lucky to not give up more big plays down the field (Tampa Bay) and a game where they got completely shredded (Baltimore). The inconsistency of Kerby Joseph, whose highs are sky-high and whose lows leave the defense extremely vulnerable on the back end, is worth monitoring.

Tracy Walker is a heck of a third safety to have on the shelf, capable of playing in the slot and in the box in addition to his deep-half or middle-third responsibilities. He has been very steady stepping in to replace Gardner-Johnson. Walker won’t make many plays on the ball, but he won’t give up many either. There’s a lot to be said for a high-floor third safety that can wear a bunch of hats on defense.

Even when the fourth and fifth safeties have had to step in, the results have been strong. Ifeatu Melifonwu, a converted cornerback, was absolutely awesome against Atlanta and Green Bay, the two games he was inserted for an injured Branch. Melifonwu played mostly at free safety, but made a big stop in space around the line of scrimmage to prevent a would-be Jonnu Smith touchdown on a screen pass.

Will Harris, much maligned in the past, was probably lucky not to give up more production against Tampa Bay. He’s almost exclusively a slot cornerback at this point, so the Lions better hope Branch can stay healthy. He’s easily the team’s best player in the secondary.

Branch’s performance against Atlanta was one of the best I’ve ever seen from a rookie. Not many slot cornerbacks can play every snap and every coverage against different types of receivers and not take anything off the table for their defensive coordinator. Branch might be one of the few slot defenders worth a high value selection. He’s giving up less than eight yards per reception allowed, and has missed just two tackles to go with a ridiculous 17 stops. That’s tied for eighth-best amongst all defensive backs in the NFL, but every player above Branch has played over 200 snaps more than the Lions standout rookie. Remember, Branch missed two games with an injury. The fact that he’s doing this as a rookie is pretty remarkable.

On the outside, Jerry Jacobs has paced the team with three interceptions and impressive play in coverage. I’m not sure how many expected that after Moseley went down, but Jacobs has been the biggest surprise in Detroit’s defensive backfield. Both he and Cam Sutton are beatable, but the duo competes on every snap, contends at the catch point and will play the run with fervor. Down the road, it’s easy to see how the lack of an elite outside cornerback could impact the Lions’ chances at a title, but the floor is high with this group, which should help them navigate a top-heavy NFC in the playoffs.

Hello Pride of Detroit readers. On the Detroit Lions’ bye week, we’re giving you two articles directly from the Pride of Detroit Direct premium newsletter. This is the sort of expanded content you can expect to read three times per week during the season and regularly in the offseason when you subscribe.

During the Lions’ bye week, we’re running a special where you can sign up for Pride of Detroit Direct for 20% off. You’ll get your free 7-day trial and then it’s only $40 for an entire year of PODD! Click here to sign up and use the promo code GOLIONS20.

You can also snag a Pride of Detroit Direct subscription by donating more than $100 to POD’s Movember campaign.

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