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After a stellar offseason, Lions are in the NFC North driver’s seat

These aren’t your typical Lions.

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

After the Detroit Lions victory in Week 14 over the NFC North leading Minnesota Vikings, 34-23, quarterback Jared Goff stepped up to lead the breakdown in the locker room.

“Aye, it feels different, right? It feels different.”

It was the team’s fifth win in six weeks, and for the first time in a long time, things did feel different in Detroit.

“The work and the results speak to that,” Goff elaborated.

The results were different. And although the Lions fell just short of the playoffs on a tiebreaker with the Seattle Seahawks, their 9-8 record — after a 1-6 start to the season nonetheless—was their first winning season in five years; it was the mark of a team that head coach Dan Campbell famously said, “can and will” back in August of 2022 on HBO’s Hard Knocks.

Year 3 of the ‘Retooling’

Free Agency Acquisitions

As the Lions entered this year’s offseason, still riding high on not letting the Green Bay Packers go to the playoffs, there were tangible reasons to believe Detroit could put some pieces in place and leave their rebuild that started in 2021 behind. The team was equipped with plenty of cap space for general manager Brad Holmes to operate a bit differently than he had in his first two offseasons with Detroit, but whether a splash signing in free agency fit into Holmes’ team-building philosophy remained to be seen.

It wouldn’t take long to find out the Lions weren’t going to rest on the laurels of a winning season.

On the first day of the league’s legal tampering period, the Lions signed cornerback Cameron Sutton from the Pittsburgh Steelers to a three-year, $33 million deal with $22.5 million guaranteed—the largest deal Holmes has given to an incoming free agent in Detroit.

Sutton, a former third-round pick in 2017 with two very productive seasons since becoming a full-time starter in Pittsburgh, figures to be Detroit’s top cornerback. A smart player and incredible communicator who can line up all over the place in the defensive backfield, Sutton tallied 15 passes defended and three interceptions in 2022, and the Lions hope he can be a similar type of playmaker for a Detroit defense that ranked 25th in passes defended (62) and 20th in interceptions (12) last season.

A day later, it was another patented move from Holmes, signing San Francisco 49ers free agent cornerback Emmanuel Moseley to a one-year, $6 million prove-it deal after suffering a torn ACL just five games into his 2022 season. An undrafted free agent who went from the 49ers practice squad in 2018 to starting nine games in 2019, Moseley played a prominent role in San Francisco as an outside corner who can tackle and cover, and Detroit hopes he can be healthy enough to contribute sooner than later.

“I would definitely say (rehab is) going well,” Moseley said back in March at his introductory press conference. “I’m putting in a lot of work. About five months out now. We got a lot of time between [now and] training camp, so I’m going to continue to do that and then when it’s time for me to get out there and go, I’ll go.”

It was obvious Holmes was dedicating his resources to reimagine and vitalize a Lions secondary that finished 23rd in pass DVOA and allowed the second-most net yards-per-pass attempt (7.0) in 2022, but his next move to bolster the Lions secondary made their goals understood.

When the Lions signed C.J. Gardner-Johnson, not only did it surprise the NFL world, but it signaled Detroit as a destination for high-profile players. After a 2022 season where he was tied for the league lead in interceptions (6), Gardner-Johnson, one of the most versatile defensive backs in the league, chose to sign a one-year deal worth up to $8 million with Detroit. He reportedly turned down a three-year, $24 million deal to return to the Philadelphia Eagles, the defending NFC Champions, to play for Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn — someone he feels like he has a “father-son relationship” with that spans over a decade, including their time together in the New Orleans Saints organization.

Another chess piece for the Lions defensive backfield, Gardner-Johnson looks to be the Lions answer at covering the slot, but he can just as easily move back into the box or play deep safety if Detroit wants to disguise coverages and make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Much is made about Gardner-Johnson’s ball skills, but the way Glenn and the Saints used him as a pass rusher in New Orleans (29 QB pressures) proves just how impactful he can be in a variety of phases. Gardner-Johnson gave Lions fans a scare when he went down with an injury in an early training camp practice, but he thankfully avoided any serious repercussions and is currently listed as questionable for Week 1 vs. the Chiefs.

Holmes’ priority in overhauling the Lions secondary less than a week into free agency showed an aggressiveness towards improving an area of weakness we hadn’t seen in his tenure, but his scope wasn’t limited to revamping the defensive backfield.

On offense, David Montgomery was inked to a three-year, $18 million deal to ensure Detroit stay committed to a physical ground game, but they wanted a running back who could turn some of those average runs into something more.

“These four and five-yard runs,” offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said this offseason, “they really should be eight, nine or even more if we can break a tackle.”

Since 2019, Montgomery is fifth in missed tackles forced (185) per Pro Football Focus, and according to Fantasy Points, Montgomery was tied for the highest forced missed tackle rate among all backs with at least 125 carries (0.31)—whereas Williams ranked near the bottom in that category (0.12).

Familiar faces Graham Glasgow (one year, $4.5 million) and Marvin Jones Jr. (one year, $3 million) returned to the Lions after stints with the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively — yet another indication the organization has turned a corner since the departure of former head coach Matt Patricia.

Glasgow has an opportunity to start at right guard or serve as the team’s primary backup along the interior offensive line, improving the depth of a highly ranked unit. Marvin Jones could have a significant role right out of the gate with the impending six-game suspension of fellow wide receiver Jameson Williams. While Detroit will have to wait for the explosive dynamic Williams could provide to put this Lions offense over the top, Jones has the ability to steady the ship as a reliable target for Jared Goff.

Key departures

While Holmes’ approach to free agency this year looked more aggressive than it had in years past, Detroit saw quite a few contributors to last season’s success move on to other teams, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

First and foremost, after setting a Detroit Lions franchise record with 17 rushing touchdowns in 2022 and establishing a career-high in rushing yards (1,066), running back Jamaal Williams signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the Saints. Although Williams and the Lions had mutual interest in reuniting, discussions led nowhere and Detroit moved forward, signing Montgomery with the resources they had set aside prior to free agency for the Williams. A month and a half later, during the third day of the 2023 NFL Draft, Detroit dealt D’Andre Swift to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for draft picks, and the running backs room suddenly looked dramatically different than it did a year ago—even assistant head coach/running back coach Duce Staley had moved on to the same job with the Carolina Panthers to be closer to his mother.

Speaking of the Panthers, Detroit also lost wideout D.J. Chark this offseason to another opportunity for the veteran receiver to earn a long-term deal in Carolina. A one-year pit stop in Detroit for Chark didn’t result in the productive season many were hoping for after he signed his own prove-it deal with the Lions. The surgically-repaired ankle that derailed a promising start to his career in Jacksonville reared its ugly head early last season in Detroit and landed him on injured reserve, limiting him to just 11 games.

Despite the time missed, Chark was Detroit’s best deep threat when he was healthy. Over the final six games of the season, Chark had 21 receptions for 388 yards (18.38 yards per reception!) and a touchdown, but with Jameson Williams entering the picture this year, Chark moved on to a situation with more opportunities in Carolina.

The blow of losing interior offensive lineman Evan Brown to the Seattle Seahawks was softened by adding Glasgow, but Brown was a very reliable center replacement when Frank Ragnow missed time and provided replacement-level play at right guard when he was needed to fill in after Halapoulivaati Vaitai’s season-ending back surgery before the 2022 season even started.

Much like Brown and Chark, safety DeShon Elliott was certainly part of the Lions’ successful step forward last year. Elliott, who signed a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins, saw his role last year become even more vital after Detroit lost safety Tracy Walker for the season to an Achilles injury. According to PFF, Elliott was an extremely productive run defender (15 defensive stops, 10th among safeties) and reliable tackler (8.9 percent missed tackle rate, 15th among safeties) in his lone season with Detroit, but adding the likes of Gardner-Johnson and second-round pick Brian Branch—with the emergence of Kerby Joseph and return of Tracy Walker—left Elliott the odd man out.

Something to pay attention to when it comes to Detroit’s final roster is how they plan to replace key contributors on special teams. The Lions released C.J. Moore immediately after he was suspended indefinitely under the league’s policy for wagering on NFL games. Josh Woods signed with the Arizona Cardinals after logging 332 special teams snaps in 2022 as the Lions captain on special teams, and Chris Board, the definition of a special teams ace, decided to go to New England for a pay raise from the Patriots.

The free agent departures for the Lions were different this season than they’ve been in recent years: Detroit has let talent walk they’d otherwise entertain keeping around to see if something’s there—Chark, Elliott, Brown—and it’s because the floor of the roster’s talent has been raised each year with Holmes in charge.

Detroit’s draftees

In addition to the cap space they had to be more aggressive in free agency, the Lions held nine selections heading into the 2023 NFL Draft—which included five picks in the top 55. With so much valuable draft capital and so few glaring needs on their roster, Detroit was in a unique position to truly take the best-player-available approach, providing them the freedom to maneuver around the board should they choose to do so in pursuit of the guys they coveted.

Holmes did just that.

After the Seahawks selected cornerback Devon Witherspoon—a player Detroit was connected to by countless analysts and writers in the pre-draft process—the Lions moved from the sixth overall pick to No. 12, trading back with the Cardinals and acquiring an extra second-round pick (No. 34) and fifth-round pick (No. 168) in the process.

At 12, the Lions thumbed their nose to positional value and drafted running back Jahmyr Gibbs, someone Holmes believes to be a special weapon with his ability to run routes like a receiver. Situated at +1000 odds to be the Offensive Rookie of the Year on DraftKings Sportsbook, Gibbs is significantly more of a long shot to win the award than fellow first-round selection, running back Bijan Robinson (+275), but Gibbs’ touted ability as a receiver has drawn comparisons to the likes of Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara—two players who had 80+ receptions in their respective rookie seasons. Add in the abundance of opportunity available for Gibbs to claim in this offense and you have an impact player who could put up big numbers.

If the Lions shocked people with Gibbs at 12, those same people were sent reeling with Detroit’s selection of Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell at No. 18. A player many draftniks had estimated to be a Day 2 pick, Campbell was one of 14 players Holmes had identified as a first-round talent in the draft and an anchor for the team’s defense moving forward.

“When you have a guy like Jack Campbell that’s 6’5, 250, that’s extremely instinctive, he’s heavy in the run game, he’s extremely smart, I just love how the kid is wired,” Holmes said. “I mean, he’s wired to fit what we’re all about. We’re all about grit, doing it the right way, like truly earning it, and this guy just loves football. He’s all business.”

The Lions then added tight end Sam LaPorta, Campbell’s teammate at Iowa, in the second round to supplement the position after trading T.J. Hockenson to the Minnesota Vikings at last year’s trade deadline. LaPorta has already made quite the impression as a standout receiver at this year’s OTAs and minicamp. After some surprising selections in Round 1, Detroit earned high marks for taking Alabama safety Brian Branch, although his path to the field on defense will be one of the more interesting things to suss out during this year’s training camp.

An area the Lions needed to address at some point in the draft was the interior of their defensive line, a group that was thin on depth. Holmes moved up in the third round to select Brodric Martin from Western Kentucky—a massive nose tackle to help shore up Detroit’s run defense with the upside of contributing as a pass rusher with development.

While nearly all of Detroit’s draft picks on Day 1 and 2 stand to play substantial roles for the team in their rookie seasons, one player was chosen with an eye on the future. Only two years remain on Jared Goff’s contract, and even though his performance in the second half of last season helped quell some of his dissenters, Holmes still decided to invest in Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker. With Goff as the clear starter heading into 2023, the Lions have the luxury of being able to bring Hooker back slowly as he rehabs his torn ACL and gets acclimated to a pro system after thriving in Josh Heupel’s take on the Air Raid offense—often viewed as having less pro-style principles.

While some have questioned Detroit’s strategy of drafting players like Gibbs and Campbell at positions of lesser value in today’s NFL, the argument of both players being able to align themselves in different spots is a valid counterpoint by Holmes. But this Lions team needed more high-end talent, more star players to complement the depth they’ve built over the past two seasons. They’ll be counting on the likes of Gibbs and LaPorta to be ready immediately and contribute statistically, and both Campbell and Martin need to emerge as pieces to the puzzle of this reimagined defense.

The Lions’ win total opened at 9.5 (-120) on DraftKings, and even though the hype train hasn’t slowed down, the line hasn’t moved. Detroit is the favorite (+140) to win the NFC North, something they haven’t done in over 30 years. They’re the fourth-favorite team to win the NFC (+1000) and have the ninth-best odds to win their first Super Bowl (+2200).

Things are different.

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