It's no wonder the Detroit Lions were one of the NFL's most competitive teams in 2021 after watching them on the first two episodes of the 2022 edition of HBO's "Hard Knocks." Seeing head coach Dan Campbell deliver his "welcome to training camp" speech would make anyone ready to jump out of their seat and run through a brick wall to grab a victory.
"Doesn't matter if you have one asscheek or three toes, I will beat your ass." That has to be one of the most non-discriminatory, motivational quotes in the history of the series.
Despite entering into a clear rebuild in 2021 after trading the franchise's all-time passing yards and passing touchdowns leader, Matthew Stafford, to the Los Angeles Rams for Jared Goff and three draft picks (one 2021 third-round pick, one 2022 first-round pick and one 2023 first-round pick), the Lions clawed their way to the finish of all 17 games in Campbell's first season.
Detroit had the third-best record in the NFL against the spread (11-6) last season even though it had the second-worst win-loss record (3-13-1). The Lions by far had the worst record among the NFL's top teams against the spread. How is that possible? Well, the Lions had six one-score losses, tied for the second most in the NFL, with only the Minnesota Vikings having more (eight), and they found their groove late in the season, playing .500 football (3-3 W-L) in their final six games after a 0-10-1 start.
NFL's best records against the spread in 2021
* Made playoffs. ** Made Super Bowl
The Lions did not win more than five games in any of the past three seasons, but with tantalizing, young talent on both sides of the ball and slight improvement on fourth down, there's plenty of optimism for why Detroit could surpass their Vegas' win total projection of six victories for 2022.
The youth movement
Defense was clearly Detroit's most glaring weakness in 2021 as it ranked in the bottom five of the entire league in multiple categories.
Lions 2021 defensive rankings
Opponent red zone TD pct
Total yards/game allowed
Opp 3rd down pct
Rushing yards/game allowed
The Lions couldn't have submitted their second overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft -- Michigan Wolverines defensive end and Michael Jackson impersonator Aidan Hutchinson -- fast enough. After the Jacksonville Jaguars chose Georgia Bulldogs edge rusher Travon Walker No. 1 overall, the Lions sent in their pick for Hutchinson in under a minute.
"We turned the card in so fast the league got mad at us," a Lions official told Peter King of NBC Sports.
Hutchinson's 14 sacks were the third most in college football last season, so the Lions are expecting his presence to bring some much-needed juice to their defense. Their sacks leader last year was Charles Harris, who had only 7.5. Hutchinson's preseason debut against the Atlanta Falcons flashed promise as he totaled two tackles on 10 defensive snaps, which led to him earning Pro Football Focus' highest grade for a rookie defensive player in Week 1 of the preseason (88.0). Only one Lions rookie has ever had double-digit sacks in his first NFL season. The only other defensive lineman the team has drafted in the top five who had double-digit sacks in his final college season was Ndamukong Suh (10.0 in 2010).
"I'm learning a lot right now. I feel like every practice I'm taking so many strides and am feeling really good every time I touch the field," Hutchinson said after the Lions' 27-23 preseason loss on Aug. 12 when asked about his NFL development. "I feel like I'm not even close to my ceiling, I have so much more to go and I can see it every day with myself in practice, just learning so much and figuring things out as we go."
He showcased his explosion off the line of scrimmage, stuffing a Falcons' second-and-short run for a loss of four yards.
"It was awesome," Hutchinson said. "I'm glad I got the opportunities, glad the plays came my way. It's just my job to make them."
The Lions' most recent player to hit more than 10 sacks in a season is Romeo Okwara, who is coming off a torn Achilles in 2021 that caused him to miss the final 13 games of the season. Between Okwara's eventual return to health and the addition of Hutchinson, their pass rush could take a big step forward in 2022.
Detroit's secondary is in a similar situation to the defensive line, except it does have one budding star who has proven production in the NFL. While the Lions missed 2020 third overall draft pick Jeff Okudah for all but one game last season due to a torn Achiiles, cornerback Amani Oruwariye broke out in his third season at age 25 for six interceptions in 2021. Oruwariye's total was the third-most in the league behind only Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (11) and new Los Angeles Chargers cornerback J.C. Jackson (8), who played for the New England Patriots last season.
Oruwariye wasn't just a turnover magnet in 2021, he was also consistent in coverage, allowing a passer rating of 36.0 against when serving as the primary defender in coverage. That figure ranked the former fifth-round pick as the sixth-best of any player with at least 300 snaps in coverage last year per PFF. If the 23-year-old Okudah can bounce back, the Lions could be set at cornerback for the foreseeable future between the former top-three pick and Oruwariye.
Jared Goff, the first overall pick by the Rams in 2016, returns as the Lions' starter in 2022 coming off a career-best in completion percentage in 2021 (67.2%) and the third-best passer rating (91.5) of his career. However, he didn't stretch the field much last season with the lowest air yards per pass attempt in the NFL (6.4) while completing only 17 passes of over 25 yards (26th in the NFL).
The full-season incorporation of second-year wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, a fourth-round pick (112th overall) in 2021 who started only nine of 17 games, as a featured player in the Lions' passing attack will likely boost Goff's propensity and efficiency at going deep. St. Brown's 90 catches and 912 receiving yards were both the most ever by a Lions rookie, and his 90 receptions were tied for the seventh most by any rookie in a single season in NFL history. He recorded more catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns as a rookie than Lions first-ballot Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson did in his 2007 rookie season.
"He's [St. Brown] looked great, and he's kind of taking the jump that we expected," Goff said at the end of July. "He's a hell of a player and a hell of a professional. I love throwing him the ball. He does a good job getting himself open."
St. Brown finished last season with as much momentum as any receiver in the NFL with six straight games of at least eight catches and over 70 receiving yards, while also hauling in a touchdown in five of those six games. His production coincided with the Lions' best run of success in 2021, finishing the season 3-3.
Amon-Ra St. Brown in Weeks 13-18 of 2021 season
*Trailed only NFL Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp
St. Brown has already shown some of the most dependable hands in the league, with only two drops on 119 targets (a 1.7% drop percentage, second-lowest in the NFL among players with 75+ receptions behind only Washington's Terry McLaurin). In the second episode of "Hard Knocks," St. Brown revealed his secret: catching 202 passes from the JUGS machine after every practice, a tradition that started when he was growing up in order to out-perform a classmate.
Goff said St. Brown's biggest improvement has nothing to do with his physical skill set.
"I think between the ears, he's got a little bit of experience now under his belt," Goff said. "That's kind of always that biggest jump is that first to second year. Once you see it a few times, you hope you don't make the same mistake twice, and he really hasn't. He's really picked it up fast. We're giving him some leeway on decisions with his routes, and he's done a great job handling that, understanding coverage and asking the right questions. He's a guy that we expect to be a big part of our offense."
St. Brown will eventually be flanked by the 12th overall pick in this year's draft, Jameson Williams, who is recovering from a late-season ACL tear. The Alabama product led the Southeastern Conference with 15 receiving touchdowns, tied for the third-most in all of college football.
Detroit also signed 25-year-old touchdown machine wideout D.J. Chark, to a one-year, $10 million deal after his first four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He only played four games in 2021 because of a fractured ankle, but the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Chark had 13 receiving touchdowns combined from the 2019 and 2020 seasons. That's as many receiving touchdowns in that same timeframe as the Arizona Cardinals' DeAndre Hopkins, new Cleveland Browns receiver Amari Cooper, new Los Angeles Rams receiver Allen Robinson and 2021 Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl LVI MVP Cooper Kupp.
Goff also has a fast-twitch running back with soft hands at his disposal through the air, 23-year-old D'Andre Swift. In 2021 for the Lions, the former Georgia Bulldog had 62 catches, fourth most among running backs, and 452 receiving yards, fifth most among running backs, while missing four games with a shoulder injury. Fully healthy, that only three players in NFL history have accomplished: over 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. Doing so would put him in a club with San Francisco 49ers running back Roger Craig (1985), Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk (1999), and Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (2019).
"I know that [it's a rare feat]," Swift said, via the Detroit Free Press. "I know with [assistant head coach and running backs coach] Duce [Staley], the way he coaches me and how I know what I can bring to this team, it can be done."
Specifically, Swift said he now has a more holistic understanding of football thanks to Staley, a "Hard Knocks" star who has said repeatedly in Lions' coaches meetings and to Swift's face that he can be "so special and the best in the league."
"He's pushing me to my limits," Swift said about Staley. "He's pushing me to my limits in every which way. Learning coverages, learning defenses, just detailing my work on and off the field so when I see it in a game, I've seen it before in practice. One of the best coaches I've been around to play for."
Campbell's trademark: Aggression on fourth down
"We're gonna kick you in the teeth, and when you punch us back we're gonna smile at you, and when you knock us down we're going to get up, and on the way, we're going to bite a kneecap off," Campbell said at his introductory press conference on Jan. 21, 2021. "We're going to stand up, and it's going to take two more shots to knock us down. And on the way up, we're going to take your other kneecap, and we're going to get up, and it's gonna take three shots to get us down. And when we do, we're gonna take another hunk out of you."
The Lions reflected Campbell's all-out mentality, going for it on fourth down 41 times in 2021, which led the NFL. It wasn't entirely a desperation maneuver late in games, as they attempted to convert on fourth down 25 times in the first three quarters, which was also the most in the NFL. Both numbers were the most in the NFL by a team in a single season dating back to the start of the 21st century. They only converted 52 percent of those attempts on 4th downs, 22nd best in the league, but with a more cohesive offense in Year 2 under Campbell, it's quite possible they could become more efficient in that area. Becoming a better fourth down team would increase their likelihood of scoring more points as well as limiting opponents' scoring ability with their defense not having to start drives in unfavorable field position.
The bottom line
It has been barren for the Lions in terms of postseason success for a LONG time and even more recently in terms of playoff appearances. They haven't made the playoffs since 2016 (tied for the third-longest active drought in NFL), and Detroit has not won a playoff game since 1991 (the longest-active streak in NFL). The last time the Lions won a playoff game, "Hook" was the top movie in America and "Black or White" by Michael Jackson was atop the music charts. Reaching the playoffs would likely be ahead of schedule in the second season of Campbell's rebuild. However, the Lions have added enough talent in addition to reasonably expecting multiple returns from injury in order for them to go at least 7-10, OVERperforming the expectation many have for this bare-knuckle, "Hard Knocks" team.