The Detroit Lions players exceeded expectations, and it set the Lions up for a successful 2022 campaign. That being said, the coaches and front office deserve acknowledgement for putting it all together. The coaches kept the team motivated and fighting, while the front office reaped the rewards of a thorough and dedicated offseason.
The Lions truly have a staff bleeding confidence, and it makes you optimistic for the franchise’s future with them at the helm. With 2023 being eagerly anticipated, let’s look at the 2022 season that was.
Brad Holmes struck gold in 2022
The Lions had a lot go right in 2022, and you can thank Brad Holmes for that.
Let’s start with the NFL Draft. It wasn’t a tough decision to select Aidan Hutchinson once the Jacksonville Jaguars had locked in their pick, but it was the moves afterwards where Holmes flexed his muscle. First, the Lions swindled the division rival Minnesota Vikings in their trade up for Jameson Williams. Williams may have had a quiet rookie season, but the flashes are certainly there for an exciting playmaker.
Chosen in the second round, Josh Paschal was largely a rotational piece in his rookie season. Much like Williams, he missed the first half with injury, so his development was slower than originally hoped. Regardless, a full offseason should help the young player blossom into an important part of the defense.
Speaking of important parts of the defense, who foresaw this production from the later picks? Kerby Joseph, the third rounder, stepped into the starting role early and never backed down. He had a few rough patches, but the rookie was a game-changer on defense. Intercepting Aaron Rodgers three times is a sure-fire way to endear yourself to the fanbase. He and Tracy Walker could be a fantastic safety duo for years to come.
The Lions demolished the sixth round, adding two stellar defensive rookies with room to grow. Malcolm Rodriguez wowed in camp and it continued into the season. After a 2021 season with poor linebacking, the Lions got exceptional value with Rodriguez on Day 3. The other rookie they added was James Houston. All he did was notch eight sacks in seven games. No big deal. After impressing in limited snaps, Houston has been given a larger role in run defense. He might still be a rotational guy come 2023, but if he can round out his game, watch out.
The only “misses” of the draft were James Mitchell, a tight end that also missed a chunk of training camp with an injury, and Chase Lucas, a seventh-round cornerback. Rookie tight ends typically have quiet first seasons, so Mitchell’s results shouldn’t be discouraging. His role could grow substantially in 2023—we’ll get to why in a bit. As for Lucas, getting any sort of production out of a late-round pick like that is a win, so there is no need to panic.
Oh, I still have to talk about free agency.
As if acing the draft wasn’t enough, Holmes made some smart moves last offseason. Alex Anzalone, Evan Brown, Kalif Raymond, and Josh Reynolds were brought back on affordable deals, and they each produced at a solid level. DeShon Elliott, Mike Hughes, and Tracy Walker were productive members of the secondary, though Walker suffered an early injury. Even running back Justin Jackson wound up contributing in the run game and as a returner.
Holmes will catch some flak for a few moves, but I don’t think he should. The backup quarterback situation was a mess, but at the end of the day, no harm came from it. DJ Chark started slow with the team and looked like a wasted signing, but he came on late and proved to be a valuable weapon on offense—including security the game-winning, Packer-season-ending first down in Week 18. As mentioned, the Lions didn’t get much production out of the Walker deal, but he was great early on—how can you blame a general manager for a freak injury? The Charles Harris move doesn’t look good in hindsight, but again, how can you predict an injury? Harris was a highlight of the 2022 season. It made sense to bring him back, and the deal was not a backbreaker.
Perhaps the best moves Holmes made all season involved castoffs. John Cominsky was a waiver wire pickup in late May that not only made the roster, but became an important part of it as well. The pairing of Cominsky with Hutchinson in a NASCAR package proved very successful throughout the season. Week in, week out, Cominsky was referred to as the best player nobody was talking about—by season’s end, the phrase had been so overused, it became a running joke. Best of all, Cominsky wants to be a Lion again.
The interior of the defensive line was also bolstered by a few seemingly minor pickups. Isaiah Buggs went from a camp body to a starter for most of the season, and a good one at that. Benito Jones, picked up off waivers from the Miami Dolphins, also contributed for a good part of the season, including a great final three games. It would make a lot of sense for the Lions to bring them back.
The Lions have had a quick turnaround, and Holmes’ offseason blueprint has been a key reason why.
Dan Campbell should feel like a coach of the year
Dan Campbell was snubbed for the Coach of the Year award after an incredible turnaround season in Detroit. While you can debate the deservedness of the nominees, none of it should takeaway the phenomenal job that Campbell did. Because of his interview quirkiness, many were quick to dismiss him as a bit of a goof. Whether talking about kneecaps or (pretending to) get distracted by the wave, it was easy for outsiders to overlook what he was building.
Not only have the Lions seen massive improvement on the field, but the culture has done a 180 from the Matt Patricia days. Detroit is now a team players want to play for. Players want to return to the team because the coaches believe in them. The positivity is through the roof, and you need to thank Campbell for that. It would have been easy for everyone in that locker room to check out after a 1-6 start, but they never did.
Patricia drove his players hard, but it came at the expense of a drill sergeant-like attitude that quickly soured the mood. Campbell has gotten his players to fight hard, all without draining the energy and culture of the team. Campbell is the coach you want to rally behind, and he doesn’t need an award to do that.
The Lions wouldn’t be here without Ben Johnson
Originally, this takeaway was titled “Ben Johnson isn’t long for Detroit” because he looked like a slam-dunk head coaching option. Yet to everyone’s bewilderment, Johnson opted to stay in Detroit for 2023. A monetary incentive is certainly part of the reason why he stayed, but going back to my previous point about Campbell, it’s clear that Detroit is a team people want to be part of.
As for Johnson, he deserves most of the praise for this successful season. Campbell was the locker room leader and engine of the team, but the offense would not have reached its highest of highs without Johnson. The Lions improved late in 2021 when Johnson took over play calling duties, but it seemed more like a honeymoon period.
Jokes on me, because the Lions were astronomically better in 2022. The Lions were fifth in offensive DVOA, and for good reason. The passing attack was electric all season long, a credit to Johnson for working so well with Jared Goff and his receivers. The offensive line held strong as well despite injuries along the interior. Even the running backs were productive, with Jamaal Williams etching his way into the Lions record books.
The Lions would have taken a significant step back without Johnson calling the shots in 2023. Hopefully he can put together another fruitful season and cement himself as the top head coaching candidate in 2024.
Can we stop with the whole “The Fords should sell the team”?
I always thought this notion was dumb to begin with, given that the Lions’ failures were more on the field than in the front office. Selling the team is not a magical way to fix the on-field product. Even if your owner becomes a general manager like Jerry Jones in Dallas, he still has to rely on an extensive and knowledgeable scouting department. If anything, selling the Detroit Lions would risk a relocation—how do the think St. Louis and San Diego fans feel?
We need to put to rest the mantra that the Fords should sell the team. For one, Sheila Hamp is at the head of the franchise, not a Ford. Yet more importantly, the team is making smart choices. 2021 was a bad season, but it was a necessary step in the rebuild. Since then, how can you not feel optimistic about the Lions? The franchise appears to be moving in the right direction with the staff they’ve built, and that is trickling down into on-field success. The Lions are caring about player safety with field improvements and rewarding coaches like Johnson for their exceptional value to the football team.
I can’t help but approve of the job Hamp is doing to lead this franchise.
The 2023 Detroit Lions—NFC North favorites?
If I had to summarize the 2022 season in one word, it would be promise. This was the type of year that the Lions were gunning for. A Super Bowl was never a likely outcome. Even the playoffs were considered a reach. Instead, the Lions needed to show that the rebuild was on the right track, and they exceeded those expectations. Detroit is building a winning culture and a winning football team, and that’s exciting.
As for the NFC North, it’s not hard to envision 2023 being Detroit’s year to sit atop the division. Despite their 13-4 record, the Minnesota Vikings were far worse than their record indicated. A negative point differential and 27th overall DVOA are not recipes for success, and Minnesota doesn’t have much cap space to maneuver with either.
The Green Bay Packers, meanwhile, might (finally) be entering the post-Aaron Rodgers era. With rumors swirling, who knows if he returns to Green Bay? Either way, his cap hit will hurt Green Bay. Without Rodgers, the reins would seemingly pass to Jordan Love, but he is an enigma after years of waiting in the wings. Considering their defense didn’t live up to expectations either, Green Bay is no lock for the division crown.
Finally, the Chicago Bears lucked their way into the first overall pick in the draft, but that is not enough to alleviate their woes. While their fanbase tries to convince themselves that a team will part with a king’s ransom of picks for it, the Bears sit at a crossroad. Justin Fields is indeed a special athlete, but is there a chance the organization isn’t happy with his progression as a passer? Even if they target a talented defensive player, that would fix just one of many holes on their roster.
Detroit’s defense still remains an issue, but in a division with a lot of uncertainty, they might be the team to capitalize on it.