Detroit Lions final 2021 grades: Below-average marks don’t overshadow promising future

Detroit Free Press

That’s why so many people came away from this year’s 3-13-1 season feeling good about where the Detroit Lions are headed, all while knowing they did not play good football most of the year.

The Lions finished 31st in scoring defense, 29th in total defense, 28th against run and for the third straight season had one of the lowest sack rates in the league.

They fared slightly better in most of those categories on offense, ranking 25th in scoring and 22nd in yards, but were among the league’s most anemic outfits the first three-quarters of the season.

All that made doing this year’s end-of-season grades a bit of a challenge. Many players outperformed expectations, especially considering their youth. But compared to their peers around the league, the Lions were below average in most categories and that’s what matters most.

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I think the future is bright in Detroit, and believe with a more favorable schedule, another influx of young talent and the return to better health, the Lions should contend for a playoff spot next season.

But general manager Brad Holmes was spot on Tuesday when he said, “The reality is we won three games, and that’s not good enough and it never will be.”

Here are this year’s end-of-season grades:

Quarterback

Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy reminded me the other day that quarterback is a dependent position. They need playmakers around them, a good offensive line to protect them and a scheme suitable to their skills to succeed. I have may put too much of the Lions’ early-season struggles on quarterback Jared Goff and not appreciated how hamstrung he was by his supporting cast, though I still have my doubts about his long-term future in Detroit.

Goff was a walking turnover the first half of the season, when he lost four fumbles and threw six interceptions in the first seven games. He ranked among the league’s least aggressive passers then, but he had positive moments against the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams.

Goff looked like a different quarterback most of the final seven weeks, though he missed two of those games with a knee injury. He found a rhythm with his receiving corps and with Dan Campbell calling plays, and he managed games well enough for the Lions to win. Goff led a game-winning drive against the Minnesota Vikings and shined against the Arizona Cardinals. He still had made some careless mistakes, like on his interception against the Denver Broncos, but he played well enough down the stretch to earn another season as starter. Tim Boyle threw six interceptions in his three starts, but he showed enough growth in the first real action of his career to think he can be a backup in this league.

Grade: C-minus

Running backs

Collectively, the Lions got good play out of their running back group, but a lack of big plays — and some egregious mistakes —brings the unit’s overall grade down. D’Andre Swift led the Lions in rushing yards (617) and touchdowns (five), but was more effective as a receiver most of the season. He had 62 catches, including two long touchdowns, and was a security blanket for Goff when things weren’t going well on offense. Swift did have two 100-yard rushing games, but suffered a shoulder injury in one that heightened concerns about his durability and ultimately kept him off the field four games.

Jamaal Williams proved to be a nice complement to Swift with his angry between-the-tackles running style. He had strong games against the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers early in the year, and coaches credited him with helping keep the locker room upbeat during the rough start.

Swift and Williams dominated the playing time in the backfield, but Craig Reynolds, Godwin Igwebuike and Jermar Jefferson all had their moments in limited use. Reynolds had 112 yards on 26 carries to lead a late-season upset of the Cardinals, and Jefferson and Igwebuike had long touchdown runs in sloppy conditions against the Steelers. Igwebuike, though, encountered fumble problems as his role expanded, and Swift lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles and had a handful of miscommunications on incomplete passes that would have gone for big gains.

Grade: C-plus

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Receivers/tight ends

He will get passed over for some all-rookie teams because of standout seasons by Ja’Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle, but that does not make what Amon-Ra St. Brown accomplished this year any less special. St. Brown set Lions rookie records for receptions and receiving yards, and finished the season with a hot streak that no rookie in NFL history can match — eight or more receptions in six straight games.

St. Brown got off to a bit of a slow start, which is more than can be said about some of the team’s other receivers, but he took giant steps forward as the season went on and proved essential to almost everything the Lions did on offense. The Lions lacked a true vertical threat on offense  and receivers coach Antwaan Randle El acknowledged his group was not as detailed in its route-running as it needed to be early in the year.

Kalif Raymond (48 catches, 576 yards) is one player who exceeded all expectations while playing what amounted to the No. 2 receiver role much of the season. He caught two touchdowns in an early-season loss to the Bears and had a career-high 115 yards against the Rams, but was a nonfactor against the Eagles, Vikings and Packers.

Quintez Cephus showed flashes of being a capable downfield threat before a collar bone injury knocked him out for the year, while trade acquisition Trinity Benson was a disappointment with 10 catches and three drops in eight games.

Tight end T.J. Hockenson got off to a fast start with eight catches in each of the Lions’ first two games, but defenses quickly realized he was Goff’s only appreciable target the first half of the season and limited his effectiveness the rest of the way. Darren Fells struggled as the No. 2 tight end before his November release, while Brock Wright caught two big touchdowns the second half of the season. As a group, the Lions tight ends left much to be desired from a blocking standpoint, especially on pulling plays.

Grade: C

Offensive line

The Lions went into this season expecting their offensive line to be a strength, and it was — though the unit looked nothing like what anyone thought it would at the beginning of the year. The Lions started seven different combinations up front and played without their two best players Frank Ragnow (missed 13 games) and Taylor Decker (eight) for extended time because of injury.

Despite the turnover, the Lions were able to produce a quality running game (that would have been statistically better had they not fallen behind early in so many games) and the line allowed just 23 of 36 sacks, according to my charting of the plays. Rookie Penei Sewell earned the highest grade of any Lions offensive lineman from Pro Football Focus.

Sewell split his season between left and right tackle. He was overpowered at times in the run game. I assigned him blame on seven sacks, but just one of those came in his final eight games at right tackle.

Decker had plenty of rust to shake off when he returned in early November. He had some hiccups in pass protection, but was a big part of the Lions’ offensive turnaround. Jonah Jackson earned Pro Bowl alternate honors at left guard. Jackson is a powerful run blocker who filled in admirably at center in Week 18. Halapoulivaati Vaitai had a bounce-back season at right guard after a broken foot limited his effectiveness last year, and Evan Brown established himself as a capable starting center in Ragnow’s absence.

Not everything was rosy. Sewell must become more consistent as a pass protector, the Lions allowed four sack-fumbles due to poor pass protection or miscommunications, and Matt Nelson had his ups and downs as a starter (he was much better in a sixth lineman role). But the unit finished 13th in PFF’s overall offensive line rankings and seems poised for an even better 2022.

Grade: B-minus

Defensive line

The aforementioned lack of big plays was a problem on defense, too, and really is telling about the roster: The Lions have capable NFL talent, but not enough of the game-changers and difference-makers teams need to be successful.

Up front, the Lions got steady play on the interior of their defensive line but had trouble on the perimeter, both against the run and rushing the passer. Charles Harris was the one exception. Harris had a breakout season in his first year in Detroit. He had a career 7.5 sacks, forced two fumbles and became a focal point for opposing offensive lines.

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Harris did not have much help in the pass rush department. Romeo Okwara lasted just four games before he ruptured his Achilles tendon, while Julian Okwara (five sacks) and Austin Bryant (4.5 sacks) produced inconsistently. The Lions got virtually no interior rush to speak of, though coaches were pleased with Michael Brockers’ play in what was a new role for him after nine seasons with the Rams and Alim McNeill and John Penisini had solid seasons as run pluggers.

Brockers’ play at the line helped the Lions limit the production of most opposing tight ends, but he and Nick Williams totaled 1.5 sacks in their 33 combined starts. Rookie Levi Onwuzurike was supposed to help in the pass rush department, but he got off to a slow start because of a back injury and must learn to play lower. Trey Flowers, the Lions’ best edge run defender, made a hustle play to force a fumble on Deebo Samuel in Week 1, but did not produce much pass rush before getting shut down because of a knee injury.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The Lions had some pronounced tackling issues at times this season, which helps explain some of their defensive struggles. Alex Anzalone was leading the NFL in missed tackles (15) when he suffered a shoulder injury late in the season, and Derrick Barnes and Jalen Reeves-Maybin also had missed tackle percentages pushing 10%, according to Pro Football Reference. For context, most of the NFL’s tackle leaders are closer to 5%.

Anzalone was a favorite of Campbell and the coaching staff and he was playing his best football at the time of his injury. Both he and Reeves-Maybin are pending free agents, and give the Lions an interesting decision to make at a position they clearly need to upgrade.

Reeves-Maybin did prove capable in the most extensive defensive action of his career, and he delivered two of the unit’s biggest plays, ripping a fumble out of Alexander Mattison’s hands in Week 5 against the Vikings and causing another fumble late in the year against the Falcons.

Barnes added a physical presence to the middle of the Lions defense, but he had some costly defensive gaffes. He missed a tackle on a 48-yard run by Mattison at the line of scrimmage and had a whopping 149.1 passer rating against in coverage. Some of those mistakes would be tolerable if the unit was making more plays, but Anzalone, Barnes and Reeves-Maybin combined for three sacks and one interception. Jamie Collins, who opened the season as starter, was even less effective,  was benched and eventually cut after two games.

Grade: D-plus

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Defensive backs

The Lions finished last in the NFL at 7.65 yards allowed per pass play, but they trimmed that number by nearly 2 yards in the second half of the season when they stopped giving up back-breaking plays. Early in the year, communication was an issue as injuries ravaged the secondary. But Amani Oruwariye and Tracy Walker had nice seasons, and the Lions’ young cornerbacks provide hope for the future.

Oruwariye had a career-high six interceptions before breaking his thumb in December. He had two tough games against Justin Jefferson, but he made a diving pick to seal a win over the Cardinals that was one of the defensive highlights of the season. Jeff Okudah gave up a 79-yard bomb to Samuel before he tore his Achilles tendon in Week 1, and Bobby Price looked woefully overmatched in two starts as his replacement, but undrafted rookie Jerry Jacobs proved a capable No. 2 cornerback before tearing his ACL in December. A.J. Parker wasn’t nearly as consistent in the slot, but he didn’t appear overmatched as an undrafted rookie.

Tracy Walker will enter free agency coming off the best season of his career. Walker led the Lions with 108 tackles and was a dependable presence in the secondary. He doesn’t create many turnovers (just one INT this year), but he was the Lions’ best defensive back this season. Will Harris was a valuable Swiss army knife, making starts at safety, corner and nickel, but he went 10 games without getting his hand on a pass and allowed a 73.4% completion rate, according to Pro Football Reference. Dean Marlowe started the final eight games at safety but he, too, was light on impact plays.

Grade: C-minus

Special teams

The Lions’ best, most consistent unit this season was special teams, and that’s a credit to coordinator Dave Fipp given all the moving parts he had to deal with in the kicking game. The Lions used four different kickers this season — none of whom was with them in training camp. Reeves-Maybin, one of the NFL’s best coverage players, had a limited role on special teams after moving into the starting lineup on defense. And the unit made several impact plays on fake punts and onside kicks.

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Jack Fox completed two well-timed and well-executed passes on punts and would have been 3-for-3 if not for a drop by Igwebuike. C.J. Moore also ran for a first down on a punt, and the Lions recovered two onside kicks. They were more aggressive and creative than most teams in the kicking game.

Fox had one punt partially blocked late in the year and saw his net average dip to a still-respectable 42.3 yards, while Riley Patterson was 13 of 14 on field goals in the second half of the season. The Lions did have kicking problems in their tie with the Steelers, when Ryan Santoso missed an extra point and a game-winning field goal try in overtime. But they finished in the top 10 in kick- and punt-return average and mostly avoided negative plays in the unit.

Grade: A-minus

Coaching

Campbell is one of the positives the Lions have going for them in this rebuild. He is aggressive and fearless and not afraid to admit his mistakes, and his team embodied those qualities as the season went on. The Lions had their share of poor performances — against the Bengals, Eagles and Seahawks, specifically. But they rallied around their coach during a difficult season and amid tough times throughout the year.

I have a highly favorable view of Campbell’s aggressive approach on fourth downs. The Lions attempted an NFL-record 41 fourth down conversions this season and made 21. Some of those attempts backfired, but most were analytically the right call. Campbell did make some first-year coaching mistakes with rushed play calls against the Bears and Eagles that put his team in bad spots, but he also resuscitated the offense after a lifeless first half with staff changes many first-year coaches would have been reluctant to make.

The Anthony Lynn experience as offensive coordinator was a failure, plain and simple. And I was leery of Campbell adding play-calling duties to his plate having done that before in his career. Campbell proved not to be overwhelmed by the addition, and Ben Johnson emerged as a creative mind and future play-caller when he took on a bigger role as pass game coordinator.

Defensively, Aaron Glenn and his staff did a good job developing young talent like Jacobs and Parker, and putting veterans like Harris and Walker in spots to succeed. The Seahawks and Eagles put together game plans that exposed the Lions’ shortcomings and that the Lions had no answers for as a staff. But given the state of the roster, Campbell and his staff did a better job than many previous versions we’ve seen in Detroit.

Grade: B-minus

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

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