It was a reflective moment, a couple days after the Lions finished a draft that was widely praised. Dan Campbell leaned back in his chair and smiled so widely his eyes practically disappeared.
“Brad and I were kind of laughing the other night,” he said, talking about Lions GM Brad Holmes. “When we looked up (at the Lions roster), the first thing you do is, you grin and you laugh because it’s like, ‘My gosh, we’ve come a long way just in a year.’”
The Lions had a long way to come, and still a long way to go. What Campbell is seeing and selling, his players certainly are buying. So are many fans and observers. Not everyone, of course. There’s a lag between when the Lions might be rising, and when the rest of the football world might believe it. They still have the second-longest Vegas odds to win the Super Bowl, ahead of only the Texans, which isn’t a surprise, nor is it a sentence.
Just play along for a second. If you stare at the 2022 schedule released Thursday and squint until your brain hurts, you can see a path to a quick start. Maybe, uh, 4-0? (Haha, Wojo hit the dispensary again). The Lions open with two home games, against the Eagles and the Team Formerly Known as the Washington Football Team. Then they go to so-so Minnesota. Then they’re back home against the rebuilding Seahawks.
Naturally, the Lions close in January at Green Bay because that’s their enduring penance for futility. First reaction for many to that matchup? The Packers will be playing for a division title, the Lions will be playing for a top-five pick and the temperature will be 11 degrees.
A glance at a half-dozen way-way-way-too-early 2023 mock drafts finds the Lions again near the top of the board and the bottom of the standings, picking no lower than fourth. In almost all of them, they’re projected to grab a quarterback, either Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud or Alabama’s Bryce Young. That’s an improvement over selecting second, but it’s marginal, and understandable.
The gap in perceptions about the Lions is wide enough to drive a Ford Bronco through. Yes, they’ll generate national publicity when they appear in HBO’s “Hard Knocks” during training camp. No, it doesn’t yet translate to prime time. They have no prime-time TV slots on their schedule, and the only national game at the moment is Thanksgiving Day against Buffalo, which could serve either as an unveiling or an undressing.
By force of passion and personality, Campbell has people believing the Lions can break that pattern. Players unashamedly mentioned the Super Bowl the other day, and unabashedly pledged their faith in Campbell and his staff. Much of the optimism is centered on the offense and the way last season ended, and the way Holmes drafted.
The Lions’ 3-13-1 record included a 3-3 finish, with Jared Goff playing confidently and efficiently. The Lions grabbed two of the draft’s elite playmakers on defense and offense — Michigan end Aidan Hutchinson and Alabama receiver Jameson Williams. The offense returns intact with key additions, and when healthy, a potential top-five offensive line.
Amon-Ra St. Brown is the symbol of unearthed hope. A fourth-round pick last season, he caught 90 passes for 912 yards. A barren receiver room suddenly looks sufficiently stocked, with Williams (when he returns from ACL surgery) and free-agent DJ Chark. Two of the team’s best players, tight end T.J. Hockenson and center Frank Ragnow, will be back from injury. Goff, still only 27, had 11 touchdowns and two interceptions in his final five games.
“We really have a pretty good offense,” St. Brown said. “Solid O-line, great tight ends, running backs all very solid. I think we’re a complete offense now, if you ask me. Ben (Johnson) stepping in halfway through the season helped the pass game. I love him. One of the better coaches I’ve ever been around. Super excited.”
Johnson was promoted to offensive coordinator after Campbell took over play-calling, following his firing of Anthony Lynn. Players talk about a revamped offense, which I assume means Goff will be asked to throw the ball farther than four yards downfield.
Goff earned the respect of his teammates with his determined effort in a miserable situation. Holmes doubled down on the respect by declining to draft a quarterback. Obviously, that sentiment is far from universal, which is why those 2023 mocks are throwing quarterbacks at the Lions, from Stroud to Young to even Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke. It was a weak quarterback class this year — only Kenny Pickett went in the first round — but is expected to be stronger. I’m tempted to use the eye-roll emoji when I see as many as seven pegged for the first round — Stroud, Young, Van Dyke, Kentucky’s Will Levis, South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler, Stanford’s Tanner McKee and Boston College’s Phil Jurkovec.
The Lions’ enthusiastic tone partly could be recency bias. Football pundits lean toward indecency bias, setting the Lions’ over/under victory total at 6.5. Campbell is going on what he sees, which should include an improved defense under coordinator Aaron Glenn. Holmes added Hutchinson and second-round edge rusher Josh Paschal from Kentucky. He drafted two defensive linemen in the second and third rounds a year ago, Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill. Their best pass-rusher, Romeo Okwara, should be back from an Achilles injury. A pass rush that generated only 30 sacks last season (second-worst in the league) should be beefier.
“I mean, the honeymoon phase is over for us defensively,” Glenn said. “I know that, and I’m going to challenge these guys every day to make sure they understand that.”
Charles Harris was the only guy with more than five sacks last season (7.5). The Lions could have several capable of that now. In the year-and-a-half since Holmes and Campbell arrived, they’ve added eight defensive linemen, almost all with fresh legs. On the entire roster, Michael Brockers is the only player over 30.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much rush,” Campbell said. “But, then you get a little bit of angst because you realize, I think we’re doing it the right way, and that means we’re gonna have some hard cuts in training camp. Some guys we really like we’re gonna have to let go. Unfortunately and fortunately, that’s a good thing for your team.”
Fortunately and unfortunately, there are reasons to like the roster, and reasons to be dutifully suspicious. Based on opponents’ winning percentages last season — a dubious predictive measure — the Lions have the fifth-easiest schedule.
So many teams have changed dramatically and so many quarterbacks have moved, it’s foolish to pick games and predict a record right now. Which is precisely why I’ll do it. I see the Lions going 7-10, fully understanding there’s plenty to prove, offensively and defensively, fortunately and unfortunately.