7 thoughts on Detroit Lions’ disturbing 0-7 start: Rookies look like keepers

Detroit Free Press

Seven thoughts on the Detroit Lions‘ 0-7 start:

You are who you are

There are no moral victories in the NFL and there is no good spin anyone can put on being winless at what is nearly the midpoint of the season.

Yes, the Lions are talent-deprived. And yes, anyone with realistic expectations knew this was going to be a tough year. But this is professional football, in a league designed to give even bad teams chances to win games, and the fact the Lions are 0-7 right now — the only winless team in the NFL — is unsettling.

“I’m frustrated like anybody would be,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said Monday. “I’m frustrated like our players are. But I think there’s more — it gives me more motivation and driven anger, if you will, to want to make things right and help those guys as much as I can and help this staff.”

Campbell is doing an admirable job right now of walking the fine line that comes with coaching a bad team.

He knows what he has on his roster, knows the challenge the Lions are up against every week. But also he knows he can’t excuse losing, lest that become acceptable when he’s in charge of a more competitive team a year or two down the road.

So while players may try and convince themselves they are better than their record and fans may take solace in almost beating the Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings, the truth is, Campbell has good reason not to go there. As he said Sunday, this is a bottom-line league and your record is the indisputable arbiter of what you are as a team.

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The good signs

The reality is, this season is all about 2022 and beyond, and there are reasons for hope in the Lions’ 0-7 start.

It was a good sign Sunday both that Campbell and his staff designed a game plan that gave the Lions a chance to beat one of the best teams in the NFL, the Los Angeles Rams, and that players cared enough to nearly pull it off.

Campbell’s aggressive approach — calling for three trick kick plays — was a tacit acknowledgement of who the Lions are. That is admirable in a league where it’s easy to ignore reality. Coaching, and the lack of buy-in on some coaches, has been an issue around here for far too long, and neither seems to be the case with the current regime.

For that reason, it is incredibly important the Lions do not go 0-17 this season. That is a tough stain for anyone to erase, let alone a first-time head coach. And going winless likely would impact the buy-in down the road.

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Fountain of youth

The other major reason for optimism in the Lions’ 0-7 start is the amount of young players (many of them rookies) holding their own in key roles.

Penei Sewell played one of his better games at left tackle Sunday, when he was a big part of keeping Aaron Donald (mostly) in check. Sewell seems to have rebounded from a rough two-game stretch in which he allowed four sacks, and if Taylor Decker does not return this season, there is no reason Sewell should play a snap at a position other than left tackle again.

Young defensive linemen Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike continue to improve, though McNeill was only a bit player Sunday due to the Rams’ pass-happy offensive approach. Linebacker Derrick Barnes could be a full-time starter next year, and it was interesting to hear him describe last week how Alex Anzalone is preparing him for eventual play calling duties (by having Barnes repeat Anzalone’s play calls in film sessions now).

And undrafted rookie cornerbacks Jerry Jacobs and A.J. Parker, at a minimum, seem like good future depth pieces in the Lions’ young secondary.

“A ton of these young guys that are just getting better and better, that’s encouraging, man,” Campbell said. “We’re making some strides now, and they’re going to pay massive dividends sooner rather than later.”

Free agency check

Even with all their rookies and upcoming draft picks, the Lions will have major work to do in free agency this offseason.

They currently have about $163 million in cap commitments for 2022, according to Spotrac, on what could be a cap of $208 million, and will have to replace or re-sign starters in Anzalone, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Nick Williams, Charles Harris and Kalif Raymond.

Anzalone, Reeves-Maybin, Harris and Raymond were among a slew of free agents who signed one-year prove-it deals with the Lions in March, and all four are in line for bigger paydays next spring.

“Anzalone’s playing the best that I’ve ever seen him, more confident and energy,” Campbell said. “He’s our bell cow on defense. And Reeves-Maybin has been, when we signed him, we knew the special teams player we were getting but we were hopeful that he could help us on defense as well. We were intrigued with him and I’ll tell you what, he’s been all that. And certainly ‘Lif (has played well). Those three guys really embody everything we’re about and on top of that, you’re getting the production out of them.”

No. 1 surprise

While all four of those players could be back in 2022, I’m not sure any will be around when the Lions finally start winning. That’s why all the focus this offseason will be on the draft, and why it was interesting to see Lions general manager Brad Holmes among those in attendance at Saturday’s Oregon-UCLA game,

The prize on display in that game: Oregon pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux.

I tweeted “Tank for Thib” when I saw ESPN’s initial report of the news, which prompted one NFL source I know to text me some feedback he had received on Thibodeaux, that the talented pass rusher was being overvalued by the media and was more likely a Day 2 pick.

Stunned, I ran that by a scout I trust imminently, and he said, without doing a full dive into Thibodeaux, he considered the pass rusher a better athlete than player right now and not a first pick of the first round type.

When I asked who in this draft was, he said no one, which probably guarantees the Lions will have the No. 1 pick of the draft.

(For the record, I’ve watched Thibodeaux a couple times and think he’s a very good pass rusher who would be an immediate upgrade for the Lions defense.)

No regrets

A couple ex-Lions kickers have made headlines this season. Matthew Wright, who the Lions waived in August, made the winning 53-yard field goal a week ago to send the Jacksonville Jaguars to their first win. Randy Bullock, another training camp cut, made a game-winner for the Tennessee Titans in Week 2. And both Wright and Matt Prater have been selected Special Teams Players of the Week this month.

But as good as the Lions’ kicking cast-offs have been, the team has no regrets about its own kicking situation. Austin Seibert, who the Lions claimed off waivers from the Cincinnati Bengals in September, made all four of his field goals Sunday and is 10 for 11 this season.

Seibert missed one game after contracting COVID-19 earlier this fall, and he detailed the lengths he went to, to stay in kicking form during his hiatus on a video conference Monday.

Seibert said he found an empty field where he practiced kicking at a tree, then later went to a local high school to kick, and brought his wife, Valerie, along to shag balls.

“When I first got COVID, I didn’t really have symptoms for the first couple days and then I got hit with a little wall of the symptoms, like flu-like symptoms,” Seibert said. “So after that, I went out and made it like almost like a chore, I had to do it, like I needed to go kick. So went and kicked at the field one day, and then I found a turf baseball diamond I went and kicked at. I kind of tried to stay on routine. It was a little different at first just with your fatigue levels and things like that, but made it work and really kept the same rep scheme that I have here at practice just to keep the endurance up.”

If not now, when?

Last thing, this week’s game against the 2-5 Philadelphia Eagles strikes me as one of the three best chances the Lions have left to win this year, along with their Thanksgiving game against the Chicago Bears and a December trip to Atlanta to face the Falcons.

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The Eagles’ biggest struggles have come on the defensive side of the ball, so I’m not sure this is a great matchup for the Lions, who have not scored more than 19 points in a game since Week 1.

Both teams play hard, and both are banged up. It’s too early to lock in a prediction, but I’m leaning towards the Lions winning this game by a touchdown and heading into the bye on a positive note.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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