Assessing Detroit Lions’ 2021 draft class: Hits, misses and room for improvement

Detroit Free Press

Penei Sewell said his rookie season was “not good enough — at all.” But to most everyone who watched him play this year, the Detroit Lions appear to have a star on their hands.

Sewell started 16 of a possible 17 games this season, sitting out only last week’s win over the Green Bay Packers after missing practice all week with COVID-19.

He finished as one of Pro Football Focus’ top-graded rookies, regardless of position. He made eight starts each at left and right tackle. And he was a key cog in a Lions rushing attack that topped 110 yards per game for just the third time since Barry Sanders roamed the backfield.

Lions general manager Brad Holmes said Sewell was who “we thought he was going to be,” and in a broader sense, the Lions rookie class was as well.

The Lions relied heavily on rookies this season, both by design and because of circumstance, and they see their 2021 draft class (and a couple undrafted free agents) as key parts of their rebuild going forward.

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“I think all seven draftees played critical roles, played valuable roles,” Holmes said. “Six of the seven were starters at some point in this season, even down to a seventh-round pick in Jermar Jefferson, he was able to contribute. Undrafted free agents … I mean, those guys started games for us, so that’s valuable experience for those guys. It makes the future bright.”

Here is a look at the Lions’ rookie class, what they accomplished in 2021 and what the future may hold:

OT Penei Sewell

Key stats: Eight starts at LT, eight starts at RT.

Draft pick: No. 7 overall, first round.

The breakdown: The Lions were genuinely thrilled when Sewell fell to them, and it didn’t take long to see why. Sewell spent all of training camp at right tackle, then moved to left tackle before the season opener when Taylor Decker fractured his finger.

He played well at left tackle the first eight games of the season, then moved back to right tackle when Decker returned after the bye. A dominant run blocker who is gifted, but inconsistent, in pass protection, Sewell likely will start 2022 at right tackle but still may have left tackle in his future down the road.

Sewell will forever be compared to some of the players taken after him in the draft, guys like Micah Parsons, Justin Fields and Mac Jones. But he was exactly what the Lions wanted and needed, and he delivered in a big way.

“For what he was able to do being a left tackle in college and opting out and is coming in as a right tackle, then Decker goes out and he goes to left and Decker comes back and he goes back to right,” Holmes said. “Him and Kyle Pitts were the youngest guys in the draft, so he’s only going to get better.”

DL Levi Onwuzurike

Key stats: 16 GP; 35 tackles, one sack.

Draft pick: No. 41 overall, second round.

The breakdown: Onwuzurike was the biggest disappointment of the Lions’ rookie class. He played in 16 games, but had minimal impact as a pass rusher with one sack and no other quarterback hits.

Onwuzurike missed a large chunk of training camp with a back injury that slowed his development, and he was too loose with his technique. Still, Holmes said he expects big things next season from the defensive lineman he tried to trade up to get in the draft.

“Dan and I thought he was going to be almost a redshirt (after the back injury),” Holmes said. “So how well he performed down the stretch was well, and it wasn’t always good. He’s got a lot of stuff that he’s got to work on and he’s aware of it, and we were having a discussion about that the other day. But he’s a very smart guy who’s very physically gifted, and he’s self-aware about what he needs to work on headed into this offseason. So it’s a big year.”

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NT Alim McNeill

Key stats: 17 GP, six starts; 39 tackles, two sacks.

Draft pick: No. 72 overall, third round.

The breakdown: McNeill’s numbers weren’t much different than Onwuzurike’s, but he was consistently better at his job. He anchored the middle of an improved Lions run defense and flashed a better-than-expected pass rush late in the season.

McNeill likely won’t ever be a big sack producer, but he could move into a full-time starting role next season with Nick Williams on the verge of free agency.

“With Alim, we’ve seen constant improvement as the season started with his techniques and his fundamentals,” defensive line coach Todd Wash said. “I thought he really played solid if not probably one of his best games (against the Seattle Seahawks). He had really good production when the opportunity was there. Controlled the line of scrimmage nice, so I really like obviously the direction he’s going. He’s gotten better and better as the season’s gone on.”

CB Ifeatu Melifonwu

Key stats: 15 tackles, three PBUs.

Draft pick: No. 101 overall, third round.

The breakdown: If this were a report card, Melifonwu would get an incomplete for his rookie season. He went 11 weeks without game action because of a serious quad strain and played 12 or fewer snaps in three of his seven games.

When he was in the lineup, Melifonwu showed flashes of talent and a keen nose for the ball with two fumble recoveries. He struggled at times in coverage, but added value as a matchup piece in Aaron Glenn’s defense because of his size and length.

The Lions have lots to sort out in the secondary before next season, including who will start opposite Amani Oruwariye at the No. 2 cornerback spot. Jeff Okudah and Jerry Jacobs will spend the spring rehabbing from serious injuries and the Lions could have a new starter or two at safety.

Melifonwu is healthy heading into the offseason and could push for a bigger role in 2022 with a strong spring.

WR Amon-Ra St. Brown

Key stats: 17 GP, 9 GS; 90 catches, 912 yards, six TDs (one rushing).

Draft pick: No. 112 overall, fourth round.

The breakdown: St. Brown might have provided the most value of any draft pick in the NFL this season. He got off to a slow start, but emerged as a do-it-all receiver who set franchise records for receptions and receiving yards.

The Lions put lots on St. Brown’s plate as a receiver, a blocker, a decoy and, at times, even lining him up in the backfield. He closed the season on a tear, with at least eight receptions in the final six gamesl he should be a key part of the offense going forward.

St. Brown’s challenge in 2022 will be to maintain his production alongside a healthy T.J. Hockenson and with (presumably) another major weapon added to the receiving corps. As long as the Lions continue to find creative ways to use him, that should not be an issue.

“You can say, ‘Well, he’s a fourth-round pick. You’re not expecting (him to produce like he did,’” Holmes said. “But Amon-Ra, and I said it to you guys earlier after we drafted him, he reminded me of some of the guys that we had when I was back in L.A. (with the Rams), and I believe that he showed that in his own way. He’s a culture fit for what we’re all about, but again, I think everything just kind of clicked for him kind of late.

“But we always knew he had the intangibles and work ethic and he’s just a pro’s pro in the way that he’s wired. That equated to a lot of his success on top of his physical ability.”

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LB Derrick Barnes

Key stats: 17 GP, 6 GS; 67 tackles, two sacks.

Draft pick: No. 113 overall, fourth round.

The breakdown: Barnes became a key part of the linebacker rotation after the Lions released Jamie Collins in late September, but he never quite took off in his role like St. Brown did his.

Barnes struggled in coverage, where he had a passer rating against of 149.1, according to Pro Football Reference, and allowed completions on 19 of the 22 passes thrown his direction. And he seemed unsure of himself at times as a run defender, enough so that the Lions kept giving other linebackers — Josh Woods and Anthony Pittman — snaps that would have been good for his development.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Alex Anzalone are pending free agents and the Lions surely will be in the market for a linebacker upgrade in the draft. But Holmes said he still believes the “future’s bright” for Barnes in Detroit.

“Look, he was playing linebacker his first year last year at Purdue,” Holmes said. “He was learning how to play linebacker last year, so then he makes the jump to the NFL and he’s still learning how to play linebacker. Now I will say, the growth that he’s made from the start of the season till just this past game has been tremendous. … I’m encouraged by the growth that he’s showing.

“I’ll just say, the play that he got the touchdown caught on him on the boot that slid out (against the Packers), probably about four or five weeks ago he would have not even probably recognized that coming, but he did. So just it was little nuances like that where you saw the growth and development in his game.”

RB Jermar Jefferson

Key stats: 15 carries, 74 yards, two TDs.

Draft pick: No. 257 overall, seventh round.

The breakdown: Jefferson saw the fewest snaps (36 on offense) of any Lions draft pick, so it’s hard to evaluate his season and what he can become. He showed promise in limited action against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but was passed on the depth chart by practice squad running back Craig Reynolds when the Lions needed a fill-in for co-starters D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.

Swift, Williams, Reynolds and Godwin Igwebuike all should return next season, so there is no clear path to playing time for Jefferson in 2022. Running backs coach Duce Staley has stressed the need for Jefferson to get in the film room, and Jefferson might need to prove capable of contributing on special teams in order to be on the roster next fall.

“That was one of the things I made sure that he kind of wrote down in this little notebook, he has to continue to learn,” Staley said. “Now, out on the practice field, he’s finishing, he has energy. He enjoys going to work, he enjoys learning and running the cards for the defense. So when you see that and you’re able to go also turn the film on and go back and watch Pittsburgh, turn the film on and go back and watch some of the stuff he did in preseason, I’ll tell you the ceiling’s high. So I’m excited for the kid’s future.”

Undrafted rookies

Key players: CB Jerry Jacobs, CB A.J. Parker, TE Brock Wright, K Riley Patterson, OG Tommy Kraemer.

The breakdown: The Lions had one of the strongest rookie classes in the NFL this season. Jacobs emerged as a bona fide starting cornerback before tearing his ACL in December, and Parker handled nickel cornerback duties most of the fall. At a minimum, both should be key depth pieces in 2022.

Wright and Kraemer were more developmental prospects who were forced into action by injury. Wright played significant minutes as the Lions’ No. 2 (and, eventually, No. 1) tight end), and he caught twice as many passes this season (12) as he did his entire college career at Notre Dame. The Lions will be looking for upgrades at tight end and on the interior line this spring, but both players will be in the roster mix next fall.

Patterson led the Lions in scoring after signing off the New England Patriots practice squad. He made 13 of 14 field goal attempts in seven games and should compete with Austin Seibert for the kicking job.

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

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