How Detroit Lions rookie Penei Sewell continues to prove to be a future NFL star

Detroit Free Press

Dan Campbell was a first-year assistant coach with the Miami Dolphins when Jake Long earned his first first-team all-pro selection in 2010.

Campbell saw Long’s growth as a young player, and years later, as assistant head coach with the New Orleans Saints, he watched Ryan Ramczyk develop from a good rookie starter into one of the best right tackles in football.

Campbell did not mention Long or Ramczyk by name Monday, but they had to be on his mind when he heaped deserving praise on Detroit Lions rookie right tackle Penei Sewell.

“He’s one of the better ones I’ve ever been around, that’s for sure,” Campbell said. “And he’s just a young buck.”

Sewell, who turned 21 in October, has the tools to be an all-time great.

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That may sound like hyperbole, and given he’s played all of 13 games in his NFL career, no one is suggesting he’s in that class yet. But the No. 7 pick in April’s draft has rare traits and is in the midst of a dominant stretch of football.

Sewell earned the best grade of any tackle in Week 14 by Pro Football Focus for his performance in Sunday’s loss to the Denver Broncos. The Lions struggled offensively, scoring fewer than 20 points for the 11th time in 13 games. But Sewell pitched a near shutout of talented Broncos edge rusher Bradley Chubb (three tackles, one QB hit).

That dominant performance came a month after Sewell stymied Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt and was the latest in a string of impressive games since he made the midseason move back to right tackle.

In five games since returning to the position he last played in high school, Sewell, who opened the season at left tackle as an injury fill-in for Taylor Decker, has allowed one sack, to Blake Lynch of the Minnesota Vikings, when he was late identifying a stunt.

A phenomenal athlete for his size (6 feet 5, 331 pounds), Sewell has been at his best in the run game, occasionally taking out two defenders on a play like he did on one D’Andre Swift 19-yard run against the Cleveland Browns.

[ Lions CB Jerry Jacobs tears ACL: ‘This is a minor setback for a major comeback’ ]

He had some early struggles in pass protection — five of the seven sacks he’s allowed this season came in the Lions’ first five games. But his ability to mirror pass rushers and his desire to finish plays is elite.

Not a lot has gone right for the Lions in this hot mess of a season, but heading into the homestretch, it’s clear they have an anchor on their offensive line at whatever position he plays.

“I would say that the decision to select him where we did has been a good one,” Campbell said. “A real good one. Because he really has, he’s gone in there and had to move from right back to left, back to right, and he’s had some ups and downs and he’s on the upward curve. He’s grown, he’s taken it. It’s what you want. Anytime you don’t have success, you got to learn from it and he’s really done that and just improved.”

Just win (again), baby

Quite a few people scoffed at Jared Goff’s answer Sunday when he was asked to define what a successful final four games would look like for the Lions.

“Four straight wins,” Goff said without hesitation. “We’re trying to win every game.”

The Lions have won once in 13 tries this season, so pulling off four straight seems like a stretch. Still, Goff’s answer was the right one for a Lions team in need of something to grasp onto for 2022 and beyond.

Players and coaches are guaranteed nothing beyond the week they’re in, so building for the future is not their burden to bear. And as painful as losing control of the No. 1 pick would be, there are benefits to be had by winning.

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I’m not foolish enough to think that momentum in pro sports carries over from season to season, not with so much turnover and when so many variables come into play. But I do know that winning is better than losing for everyone involved, and if the Lions want to get in the habit of the former, there’s no better time to start than now.

“I think at the end of the day, we’re playing for pride and who we are,” Goff said. “I think your character shows up in these last four games. You find out about a lot about people … in times like this, in times of adversity. And I believe I know who’s in that locker room, so I don’t believe I’m going to find anything we don’t like. But it does test you.”

Feeling a draft

The Lions are two-touchdown underdogs for this week’s game against the Arizona Cardinals, but they still can play their way out of a top-two pick in the final three weeks.

Road games against the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks are winnable, though Seattle has won two straight and appears to be righting its ship. And there is an outside chance the Green Bay Packers could rest Aaron Rodgers and other starters in Week 18.

The Lions will have the first pick in next April’s draft if they lose out, and should pick no lower than second — possibly behind the loser of this week’s Houston Texans-Jacksonville Jaguars — if they win only one more game. Multiple wins would send them sliding further down the draft.

Organizationally, the Lions would benefit from picking in the top two, and I’m not sure there’s much difference between having the first and second choice. It will be a coin flip between pass rushers Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeux up top.

For what it’s worth, Campbell insisted Sunday he’s spent “zero” time watching Michigan and Oregon play this year.

Practice makes perfect

One final thought on Sunday’s loss, when the Lions had seven practice squad players on their 48-man game day roster. Most of the practice squad call-ups had a relatively minor impact on the game, but they did account for about 11% of the Lions’ total play time (72 defensive snaps, 69 on offense and 49 on special teams), meaning the Lions had more than one P-squad player, on average, on the field every play.

Nickell Robey-Coleman, a nine-year NFL veteran, accounted for most of the practice squad defensive snaps (62) after he was pressed into action at the No. 2 cornerback spot when Jerry Jacobs suffered a season-ending knee injury. Campbell was highly complimentary of Robey-Coleman’s play on Monday.

“I thought he did some real good things yesterday and we put him in a hard spot, but that guy’s been there every day on practice squad, just giving us a look,” Campbell said. “His attitude’s great. He gets no reps defensively, per se, and goes in there and did what he did yesterday, that’s a true pro now. That’s a dude who loves ball and gives everything he’s got.”

[ Lions stock watch: Craig Reynolds deserves more playing time, regular spot on roster ]

Offensively, the Lions used two younger practice squad call-ups, running back Craig Reynolds (29 snaps) and tight end Shane Zylstra (40), in key roles. Reynolds had a team-high 83 yards rushing and could factor into the running back rotation going forward, while Zylstra caught two passes for 18 yards.

On special teams, Robey-Coleman and veteran cornerback/coverage specialist Corey Ballentine combined for 23 of the 49 snaps,

Dipping into the practice squad is rarely a good thing, but at least the Lions had some veteran help on hand. The bigger issue Sunday seemed to be the caliber of player they were missing — D’Andre Swift, T.J. Hockenson and Tracy Walker — and the general lack of depth on their roster as a whole.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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