Gone are the days of the ex-Patriots in Detroit. It took well into last season, but then the moment was finally there. General manager Bob Quinn was allowed to leave after five years and head coach Matt Patricia was also ready for the Lions. Quinn spent 15 years with the Patriots in various front office roles. Patricia has held all kinds of coaching positions there since 2004. The latter returned to the Patriots as a senior football advisor.
Quinn and Patricia’s replacements, Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell , respectively , are the opposite in personality. Holmes is young and charismatic while Campbell is an energetic and unorthodox head coach. Quinn and Patricia were none of that. The new owner, Sheila Ford Hamp, who took over from her mother, Martha Firestone Ford, clearly has a major rebuild in mind. However, the change of head coach and general manager was not the biggest shock in Detroit.
That was the departure of long-time Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. After 12 years in Detroit with only three appearances in the playoffs, none of which were won, the cake was over. Stafford has been the only constant variable in Detroit since 2009, but he will play with the Rams next season and Jared Goff is going the opposite way. Incidentally, the Lions will receive two first round picks (2022, 2023), a third round pick (2021) and Goff’s solid contract.
The Lions were not expected to be very active during the free agency period. Since the focus is on the rebuild, Holmes and Campbell need to be given the space to organize the roster their way. That mainly means divesting firm contracts or players that require firm contracts. Wide receiver Kenny Golladay was the leading candidate and he left for the New York Giants. A big loss, but not surprising given the rebuild.
However, the Detroit Lions did have enough cap space to extend key players. Take, for example, Romeo Okwara (25). He is by far the best pass rusher in the team and by signing a three-year contract, he is one of the pillars of the rebuild.
Apart from Golladay and Okwara, little talked about happening at the Lions. Wide receiver Marvin Jones left for the Jaguars and good old kicker Matt Prater signed in Arizona. Furthermore, Tyrell Williams , Jamaal Williams and Breshad Perriman were recruited to have some attacking power. Also next off-season and possibly the off-season after that, free agency will revolve around making room in the salary house in order to build a sustainable roster.
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For a team that is so clearly going into a rebuild, it is essential to make the right choices in the draft. With the seventh pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Detroit Lions chose offensive tackle Penei Sewell; a safe but essential choice. As Okwara is a defensive pillar in the rebuild, Sewell is for the attack. He is described as a generational talent and will be of great value to the Lions quarterback.
In the second round, Detroit again went for a player of size, literally. Defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike is huge and will be right there like Sewell. In the third round, the Lions continued the line of the first two rounds. With DT Alim McNeill another big player was added to the roster. For him, too, he can actually go straight onto the field. The second choice in the third round was cornerback Ifatu Melifonwu. Not big in stature and not necessarily a starter, but he does provide decent and much-needed depth at the cornerback position.
Prior to their very last pick in the seventh round, the Lions got to pick two more times in the fourth round. They went for receiver Amon Ra St. Brown (USC) – the brother of Packers WR Equanimeous St. Brown – and linebacker Derrick Barnes (Purdue). The arrival of St. Brown is necessary, because the wide receiver position after free agency was sparse. Barnes was traded up to attract the best player available for the Lions need. He’s a player after head coach Campbell’s heart: tough and fearless. The final choice fell on running back Jermar Jefferson (Oregon State). A capable player who can occasionally take the wind out of his sails for franchise running back D’Andre Swift.
The biggest impact on the Detroit Lions offense is the departure of Stafford and the arrival of Goff. For Goff, it represents a fresh start after his game with the Los Angeles Rams steadily declined. The fact that his contract has been restructured with the Lions suggests that they see something in him for the long term. That thought was reinforced by the fact that Justin Fields was not chosen in the draft. In principle, this idea is not strange either. After all, there is only one quarterback who has won more times than Goff since 2017 and that is Tom Brady.
However, this statistic ignores the so-called eye test and other statistics. Judging by the many turnovers, Goff was simply not good. For every four touchdowns he threw, there were three interceptions. With Anthony Lynn as offensive coordinator, he should be able to make strides. Before joining the Chargers, Lynn was considered one of the best offensive coaches in the National Football League (NFL).
Either way, Goff is going to have a hard time. Golladay and Jones have left, which is why the wide receiver group has no obvious WR1. Williams and Perriman were recruited in free agency, but they are not high-flyers. Quintez Cephus stayed in Detroit and St. Brown was chosen in the draft, but the average NFL defense is not afraid of that either. It means a big role for tight end TJ Hockenson. Since his rookie year he has made a strong impression and next season he will be the main target through the air for Goff.
In terms of running backs, things look good for the Lions. Swift will once again show growth and with Williams he has a very solid backup. The same goes for rookie Jefferson, even though he was only selected in the seventh round. The gentlemen can line up behind an offensive line that is bursting with talent. With three first-round players— Taylor Decker , Frank Ragnow, and Penei Sewell—along with Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Jonah Jackson , this is one of the strongest O-lines in the NFL.
The Detroit Lions defense was an absolute drama last season. That’s very remarkable considering that then-head coach Matt Patricia served seven years as a defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick. Despite this, the Lions had to concede a whopping 519 points and 6,716 yards in 2020. New head coach Dan Campbell and his defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn have a different take on defense. Therein Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara play an important role in the D-line. The same goes for new signings Michael Brockers , Levi Onwuzurike and Amil McNeill.
The first question marks arise with the group of linebackers. Jamie Collins returns and is guaranteed to create danger for the opponent. Bringing on Alex Anzalone was also a good move, but it doesn’t end there. Barnes was chosen in the draft, but he will only be able to really add something in the long term.
When it comes to the secondary, there is more enthusiasm. DC Glenn has done a good job in New Orleans before and will know what to do with the group in Detroit. Jeff Okudah suffered an injury last season but is still bursting with talent. Together with Amani Oruwariye and Quinton Dunbar there is a capable core. In the safety position, Tracy Walker is a certainty, provided he can reach his old level. Will Harris will battle with former Buffalo Bill Dean Marlowe for the spot next to Walker.
The Detroit Lions are a long way from entering the playoffs, but with a new head coach and general manager, a serious rebuild begins. It will take several years, but in Buffalo they have recently shown that sensible and sustainable rebuilding can lead to a strong foundation. This is subject to the condition that the owners accept this and that is the case in Detroit. The rebuild has started this off-season and the kick-off looks promising.