Detroit Lions mailbag: Dan Campbell, offensive line are biggest reasons to believe in 2022

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions wrapped up minicamp Thursday, and though they have a few final Organized Team Activity practices this week, most of their veterans have already left town for the summer.

I’ll be disappearing for a few weeks as well after the Lions put a bow on their offseason program, but let’s answer your most pressing Lions questions before I go.

Questions edited for clarity and brevity

You’ve covered Lions a long time, stepping back objectively, what are 2-3 things you point to when thinking about “what’s different this time?” Hype is on overdrive but this time I kind of buy it! — @freed_mike

I kind of buy it, too. I’ve said before, this is the most optimism I can remember about the Lions heading into a season since 2012, when they were coming off a surprise playoff appearance and had a young Matthew Stafford at quarterback. I don’t think the Lions are playoff-bound this fall, but I do think they take an appreciable step forward.

If I had to pinpoint why, a couple things stand out. First, is Dan Campbell.

Kevin Clark of The Ringer had a great quip about Campbell last year, calling him “a sort of bizarro-world, jacked Ted Lasso.” That’s an apt description of Campbell, who has a unique ability to foster belief in those around him. Managing personalities and getting them to give their all no matter the circumstances is a big part of professional sports, and Campbell does both well.

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I think the influx of young talent general manager Brad Holmes has brought in is No. 2 on the list. The Lions’ hype train really took off after the draft, when Holmes acquired arguably the best pass rusher (Aidan Hutchinson) and best receiver (Jameson Williams) in the draft. Even if Williams misses a good chunk of the season, the Lions appear to have young cornerstones on both sides of the ball, and have an extra first-round pick waiting next spring.

The last part of the formula is the offensive line. The Lions have their most talented offensive line in my time covering the team, and since that still is the engine that makes the offense go, that’s a big reason to believe better days are coming soon.

Do we win a division and host a playoff game? — @gsmitty_1

When? This year? Did Aaron Rodgers retire and I don’t know about it?

The Lions have a bright future, but they also return most of the same roster that went 3-13-1 last season. Let’s tap the brakes on the division title talk and revisit that in a year.

DAVE BIRKETT: Game-by-game prediction for Detroit Lions’ 2022 season

How do u see the WR room shaking out? Can Trinity & Cephus get in? Who’s in, who’s out? — @DirtyJerzFinest

The trend in the NFL has been for teams to keep six receivers lately, and I think the Lions go that route to start the season — remember, they had seven on their initial 53-man roster last year — given their injury concerns at the position.

The locks at receiver are Williams, Amon-Ra St. Brown and DJ Chark, though Williams could start the season on the physically unable to perform list. Kalif Raymond certainly looks comfortable in his roster spot, too; Campbell indicated last week Raymond would handle return duties and play a smaller-but-important role on offense. Josh Reynolds has consistently run with the first-team offense this spring.

That’s a solid receiving group, and Cephus would be my pick for No. 6. He flashed playmaking ability before breaking his collar bone last season, and has contested-catch skills that are important to the offense.

Benson drew unprompted praise from Campbell and has made a spring push for a roster spot. He was such a non-factor last year, though, that I need to see more before I put him on any 53-man roster prediction. Benson, Tom Kennedy and maybe even Kalil Pimpleton (CMU) have a chance to be the sixth receiver if Williams opens the season on PUP, but the Lions are deep enough in other spots on their roster that keeping seven seems unlikely.

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Is there any hope with the current unit at linebacker? Seems to be the weakest position to me — @pzantello40

Every mailbag, I get asked about the linebacking corps. Campbell touted depth at the position earlier this spring, but the reality is the unit lacks proven playmakers and the Lions need young players such as Derrick Barnes and Malcolm Rodriguez to develop quickly.

Alex Anzalone and Chris Board project as the starting inside linebackers, with Julian Okwara on the edge. Okwara should get plenty of pass rush opportunities, so his contributions can’t be overlooked when we talk about “hope” for the position.

I like Board because of his pass coverage ability, but I think the Lions are light on impact run defenders in the middle of the field. The defensive line will be doing more attacking and less read-and-reacting this fall, which should help linebackers. I agree the unit is a weak spot on the defense.

Who do you project the 2 outside CBs to start Week 1 and who starts at nickel as well? — @crowlick

If Jeff Okudah is healthy — all signs point to him being ready for the start of the season — he should join Amani Oruwariye as a starting outside cornerback. Okudah is the Lions’ most talented defensive back and will get every chance to earn a role coming back from his ruptured Achilles tendon.

Jeff Okudah promises ‘a comeback you can be proud of’ from Achilles injury ]

The picture is a little less clear at slot cornerback, where Mike Hughes and AJ Parker have both taken first-team reps this spring, and Will Harris — who has played outside in Okudah’s absence — also is a possibility. This is a competition that figures to get sorted in training camp, but I’ll guess Harris.

He seems to have found a home at cornerback after playing most of his first three seasons at safety. He knows the defense well and has a fan in defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. It’s possible the Lions see Harris best as an outside corner; they did sign Hughes in free agency, with Harris and Parker already under contract. But if Okudah is back in Week 1, I can see Harris sliding inside to start the year.

Minicamp observations: Lions head into summer with big man punt catching contest ]

Can analysts/media actually gain meaningful information re: in season performance via observing training camp? Seems like camp analysis articles aren’t predictive of record year to year. — @JMwriteswords

Training camp, yes, to a certain extent. Pads are on, players are competing for jobs. What happens in camp (and in preseason games) often is a big factor in how the final few spots on the 53-man roster shake out.

Minicamp and offseason workouts, not so much. Padded practices are not allowed in the spring and the focus is largely on teaching. In team drills last week, I recall barely a handful of designed rushing plays.

I thought Campbell explained the reality of minicamp well the other day.

“We have no idea what we’re going to be until we put the pads on,” he said. “That’s just the bottom line. There’s going to be guys that they look really good right now, and all of you guys know that. We’re going to go out there in pads when we’re able to do it in training camp, and they’re going to disappear. And then vice versa, some guys who don’t look very good right now, they just look like old pickup trucks, and then all of sudden you put pads on them and they come to life. And that’s the nature of it. But I think that from that regard, we’ve got a ways to go.”

Hey Dave, can you regale us with a funny or crazy travel story from your time on the Lions beat? Thanks! — @FriedrichsJk

I’m fortunate that I’ve had pretty good travel experiences overall, but I’ll share two quick stories.

First, you should know I’m a last-flight-in, first-flight-out kind of guy. My kids usually have something going on the weekend, and I prefer to get back and work from home rather than work from the road, then travel the day after games. But I did learn a valuable lesson in my pre-Free Press days on the beat about late-season travel to Green Bay.

When the Lions went winless in 2008, I was on a noon-ish flight out that did not take off till after 6 p.m. because of snow. Most of the other beat writers at the time were on a later flight that was eventually canceled because of weather. At least one writer hopped in his truck and made the drive to Wisconsin for the game. If I remember right, another got sick during the drive and had to turn around. And a third was rebooked on a Sunday morning flight and didn’t arrive at Lambeau Field until sometime in the first half. Now, when the Lions play cold-weather games late in the season, I make sure to give myself a weather buffer on my inbound flight.

I did have one travel snafu that was my fault early in my Free Press days. I was traveling to Minneapolis, I believe, for a game against the Vikings and wasn’t familiar enough with our old corporate travel system when I inadvertently booked a direct flight instead of a nonstop.

If you’re not familiar with the difference, be thankful. My direct flight made stops in Escanaba and Iron Mountain, if I remember right, before landing in Minneapolis, and the person sitting in front of me had a cat in an animal carrier that meowed the entire first two legs and smelled the plane up of cat pee. Needless to say, I’ve been much more careful with my booking ever since.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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