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Veteran mentors are the secret sauce to Detroit Lions’ youth movement on defense

The Detroit Lions have built their defense around youth. But veteran mentors like Alex Anzalone and Cameron Sutton are also key pieces to their plan.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s clear that when coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes took control of the Detroit Lions over two years ago, they wanted to build around youth—particularly on defense, where the cupboard was bare. They’ve clearly succeeded in that goal, sporting the youngest defensive unit in football last year 2022, and one of the youngest teams in modern NFL history.

But part of that plan included clearing the easiest path for those young players to succeed. It’s not enough to just have a young roster; they need developmental plans. And while a coaching staff full of energetic, former players helped, Campbell and Holmes knew they needed a built-in mentorship program among the players themselves.

“I thought it was always important to have—you really wanted a veteran guy that certainly they understand what it’s supposed to look like and can kind of lead the group,” Campbell said on Wednesday.

The first piece in that puzzle was defensive tackle Michael Brockers, whom the Lions quickly traded for in Year 1 of the new regime. They immediately bookended Brockers with rookies Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill in the draft that April. And while Brockers is gone now, that leadership torch has been passed.

“(McNeill) is a leader for us now because he understands. He knows what it’s supposed to look like,” Campbell explained. “He was around a guy like Brockers who was in that room, and that’s the value of it.”

Around the same time, the Lions were planning a similar mentorship at the linebacking corps. Free agent signee Alex Anzalone was not only someone with four years of NFL experience, but he was well versed in the defense they were trying to run in Detroit. The Lions quickly filled up the room with youth by drafting a linebacker in three straight drafts: Derrick Barnes, Malcolm Rodriguez—and now their biggest investment—2023 first-round pick Jack Campbell.

“Alex, I think, is big. You can learn a lot from him,” Dan Campbell said. “And he doesn’t have to directly sit there and just spoon-feed (Jack) Campbell because he’s not spoon-feeding Barnes. But he is helping, I’m not saying he’s not, but the point is just to watch him work and how he sees things ... You can learn a ton from a player who knows what they are doing.”

The Lions haven’t had that sort of succession plan take place among the defensive backs—a mistake Dan Campbell admitted he regrets.

“We never quite got that in the secondary and I wish we would’ve done that because I just think it just helps the whole room,” the Lions coach said.

However, they remedied that this offseason. Not only did the Lions sign six-year veteran Cameron Sutton to lead the cornerback group, but they added star defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson, a firecracker to liven up the group and provide yet another example for the younger players around him.

“I’m just a leader by nature,” Sutton said last week. “So that just kind of rubs off by my work ethic and how I show up every day. It’s just contagious. The guys just follow along.”

Meanwhile, we’ve heard from just about everyone how Gardner-Johnson’s intensity has trickled down to players across the entire defense.

“We added straight dogs back there,” McNeill said. “And not even just talking about their game, their mentality. Their attitude on the field has changed us so much as a defense because I’m listening to C.J. and Cam and them back there. High energy and just talking trash or whatever it is, and it just gets me going.”

These metaphorical passing of the torches are just getting underway. McNeill still needs to prove he can become that group’s leader. Jack Campbell’s career has only just begun. The Lions secondary is coming off a season as one of the team’s worst pass defense.

Still, it’s easy to see this plan starting to come to fruition.

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.