It seems like a foregone conclusion that at some point in the near future—whether it be this year, next year or a couple down the round—the Detroit Lions must develop a young quarterback. You could even make the argument that Jared Goff, still just 27 years old, has room to grow in his game.
Developing a quarterback is an essential part of the game in today’s NFL, and it’s natural to wonder if the Lions—with a first-time offensive coordinator in Ben Johnson and a quarterbacks coach in Mark Brunell, who is just in his second year of coaching at the NFL level—are capable of effectively grooming a young passer.
Head coach Dan Campbell expressed full confidence this week in his coaching staff.
“I’ve got all the faith in the world as far as we got what we need to develop a quarterback,” Campbell said. “That doesn’t concern me one bit.”
Brunell obviously comes with a ton of experience as an NFL quarterback—18 years in the league, to be exact. In his final five seasons in the league, Brunell served as a knowledgeable backup—first behind Drew Brees in New Orleans then behind young Mark Sanchez with the Jets.
“I liked the fact that ‘Bru’ played for a couple of years and had to prepare that way,” Campbell said. “So he’s got his own kind of outlook on it. He understands fundamentals, he understands the side of the game to prepare on top of all the other schematic, game plan, all those things.”
But it’s been a while since Brunell played the game, and as Campbell admitted, the game has changed a lot in the past 10 years. With offseason programs shortening and the preseason being cut to just three games, it’s becoming more and more difficult to develop young quarterbacks.
Brunell, however, does have some unique experience with young quarterbacks before he came to Detroit. For five years—spanning from 2016 to 2020—the former NFL quarterback served at the NFL Combine as a sort of mentor to quarterbacks entering the league.
“Our purpose, our goal is really to service these young men, be a mentor to them, be a resource for them, answer questions, offer advice, really just come along for the process,” Brunell to the Detroit Free Press in 2020.
While Brunell’s back history and working with him last year gives Campbell confidence, it’s clear the Lions head coach has been blown away by Johnson for the entirety of his career. The two first crossed paths in Miami, where Campbell served as the tight ends coach (and eventually interim head coach), while Johnson worked his way up from offensive assistant to assistant quarterbacks coach to tight ends coach.
“Just in our time, when he was basically a (quality control coach) in Miami, that he understood quarterback play very well,” Campbell said. “Even from that, he had a good feel, but he was always a guy who was very intent on the ins and outs of that position and the offense as a whole. And he was a sponge, man. He was constantly solving problems and asking questions.”
Though much of Johnson’s resume is filled with tight end-related jobs, he’s always been tied to the quarterback position in one way or another. In college, he was a walk-on quarterback for North Carolina. As he worked his way up the coaching ranks, he’s rubbed elbows with some of the best quarterback gurus the league has to offer.
“I think Ben’s a rockstar, man … he’s been around some really good coaches, now, some guys who have coached some pretty good quarterbacks,” Campbell explained. “Just being around Mike Sherman when I was with him down there. Joe Philbin, who was with (Aaron) Rodgers. Then he’s with (Adam) Gase, who had (Payton) Manning and those guys. So he understands quarterback play well. He was with Zac Taylor, who was with me in Miami. We were all together there in Miami. So he understands it well.”
Whether the Lions commit to a new quarterback this year is still very much up for debate. The Lions have been playing both sides well, but Campbell sure made it sound like it’ll happen in the near future.
“Is it next year? Is it this year? Is it two years from now?” Campbell said. “(When) the right guy’s sitting there, then you figure out a way to get that guy. You figure out a way when it’s the right guy.”
If Detroit decides to select a quarterback from this year’s class—especially if it’s Liberty’s Malik Willis—that player will require a significant amount of development. All of the quarterbacks entering this draft come with questions and concerns, and it may take the right landing spots for them to reach their potential. But it sounds like the Lions have full confidence their coaching staff will get the most out of their future franchise quarterback, whoever that is and whenever they should arrive.