Talk about impact. This season, the 2023 rookie class for the Detroit Lions might be the best class that general manager Brad Holmes has drafted. While the 2021 and 2022 classes have had some great players come out, the 2023 class has a chance to go down as the most impactful. While pundits and even Lions fans questioned some of the picks in April, as the season progressed, everyone eventually realized that Holmes made the right decisions with whom he picked.
The Lions saw multiple rookies play well and start cementing themselves as some of the best players in their positions in the entire NFL. It’s not often that rookies significantly impact the team in their first season, and it’s rare to have a class where multiple are leaving their mark. The future is bright in Detroit, and with the NFL Draft happening in less than three months, this team could add even more explosive young players to its roster.
Check out my winners and losers from the 2023 rookie class for the Detroit Lions.
No rookie on this roster broke more records and had as enormous of an impact than tight end Sam LaPorta. Entering the season, LaPorta was getting love in OTAs and training camp, and I believed he would have been quarterback Jared Goff’s best tight end he has ever played with, and he ended up being that and more. LaPorta finished with 86 catches for 889 yards and 10 touchdowns, finishing fifth in the NFL in receiving yards for tight ends.
LaPorta was breaking and setting records all over. Still, the biggest were the most yards, catches, and touchdowns in a season by a tight end in Lions franchise history and the most receptions by a rookie tight end in NFL history. He has quickly become an impact player and a focal point in the offense to work as intended. He had big shoes to fill in former Lion and Iowa Hawkeye T.J. Hockenson, and LaPorta has already become a top-five, arguably three, tight end in the NFL. He is a finalist for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and if Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud wasn’t the clear favorite, LaPorta would have had a chance to win it.
Coming in at No. 3 in our countdown of the top 10 plays (so far) is Sam LaPorta's flea-flicker touchdown against the Panthers! pic.twitter.com/eMRVasbx9H— Detroit Lions (@Lions) November 3, 2023
The most polarizing pick in the 2023 draft class was running back Jahmyr Gibbs. The Lions already had David Montgomery as their starting running back heading into the season, but the team wanted more help in the backfield, and they made the right choice. Gibbs started slowly this season, but when Montgomery got injured, Gibbs had to take over as the starter. In those few games, he grew and became another weapon in the offense.
Gibbs finished the year with 945 rushing yards and the most rushing touchdowns by any rookie running back in the NFL with 10. He also was used as a receiver, getting 52 catches for 316 yards and a touchdown. Gibbs will be a long-stay in Detroit with his play and how he works in the offense. Like LaPorta, Gibbs is also a finalist for Offensive Rookie of the Year, so having two players on this team up for the same award is a nod to Holmes and his drafting process.
Offensive players aren’t the only ones to get the love in this rookie draft class. Defensive back Brian Branch had a solid season for Detroit. He impressed greatly in OTAs and training camp and was a possible candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and while he didn’t stay up there in the end, he still had a great rookie year. Branch finished with 74 tackles, 13 pass deflections, seven tackles for loss, three interceptions, one sack, and a forced fumble.
Branch was a big part of the defense this season, and head coach Dan Campbell wanted him on the field as much as possible. Branch can play nickelback or safety, and he fit in as the nickelback in the end and played lights out this season. While the outside cornerback position struggled throughout the season, Branch helped contain the inside.
Another polarizing pick was linebacker Jack Campbell. While Campbell didn’t have as big of an impact as some would have hoped, he still did well enough to be a winner this season. Fans expected Campbell to take over as the starting middle linebacker from Alex Anzalone, but Anzalone had the best season of his career by moving to the WILL position, and Derrick Barnes ended up taking the majority of snaps in the middle.
Campbell would try out different roles on the defense during the year, given chances as an edge rusher, blitzing up the middle, and while nothing stuck out as his role in the defense, he did well with what he was trying to do. Campbell finished the year with 95 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, and a pass deflection. Campbell might see more playing time and a more prominent role next season, but he helped bring valuable depth in the linebacker role, and he has a chance to be another long-term option on this team.
Jack Campbell’s first sack in the NFL.— Mitch Fick (@MCFick) September 24, 2023
Cedar Falls, Iowa roars. pic.twitter.com/NngrLGd9KR
So far, the biggest disappointment in this rookie class has been defensive tackle Brodric Martin. The Lions traded up, giving up a fourth-round and two fifth-round picks to select Martin at pick 96. Martin had some flashes of potential in training camp, but they never led to much once the preseason and regular season rolled around. Martin only appeared in three games in 2023, finishing with just three tackles.
Holmes saw something in Martin, so he traded up to get him on the team. Though you usually trade up for a player you are looking to impact the roster right away, whether as a starter or rotational piece, Martin was neither of those this season. There was always an expected developmental time period for Martin—seeing as he was coming from Western Kentucky—but it’s still disappointing to see him as a healthy scratch by the end of the year.
With an entire season under his belt and another offseason coming up for him, he could be looking to have a strong summer and be a more significant contributor in 2024.
Getting drafted as a depth piece for the offensive line, Sorsdal played often this season. He played in 16 games, primarily as special teams, but started three on the offensive line. He saw 123 snaps at right guard, 94 at left guard, and 36 at right tackle. Sorsdal finished the year with a 41.8 grade from PFF, which was the worst of all of the Lions offensive linemen who played this year.
Sordal was a tackle in college, and expectations weren’t high for him this season. He had flashes of good play in the three starts but also showed signs of being a rookie. In the playoffs, when left guard Jonah Jackson got injured and the team needed a backup to fill in, the team went with veteran Kayode Awosika over Sorsdal. Sorsdal can improve and grow in the offseason and become a better player. His NFL career is far from over, but for a rookie year, it could have been better for him.
The first of two players that we didn’t see enough of to grade this season is quarterback Hendon Hooker. Hooker was recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered back in November 2022, and the Lions expected his rookie season to essentially be a medical redshirt year. Hooker would be removed from the Non-Football Injury list, start practicing with the team, and make the 53-man roster, but he never saw any game action.
Fans hoped to see him play in Week 18 against the Minnesota Vikings, but even backup Teddy Bridgewater didn’t see the field in the game. While it was good to see Hooker practicing this season and getting activated off the NFI list, it was also disappointing that he didn’t have a chance to showcase what he can do. I understand why the staff didn’t throw him out there, though, so it was the best move for the team.
2024 will be the season the fans and the NFL see what Hooker can do. Training camp will be interesting to see how Hooker competes for the backup job and against who. We will have the preseason games to see him in action against an opposing defense in a live game. Until we see that, I can’t get an idea of how Hooker will be early on in his career.
Another player I need help understanding is wide receiver Antoine Green. Green played in nine games and only had a 2-yard catch against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2. Expectations are always relatively low for a seventh-round pick, and he didn’t make any big plays one way or another to determine how he did in 2023.
The Lions have some wide receivers up for a contract in the offseason, which opens the door for Green to move up the depth chart this summer if he can outperform the others in OTAs, training camp, and preseason. Like Hooker, another season is going to need to happen before I can come to grasp where I think Green belongs.