Dan Campbell: If second-year players don’t improve, Detroit Lions are ‘in trouble’

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions got good contributions from last year’s rookie class.

Amon-Ra St. Brown led the team in receiving, Penei Sewell shined while playing both offensive tackle positions and Alim McNeill flashed as a run-stopping force on the defensive line.

But Lions coach Dan Campbell said Wednesday he expects more from that group now that they are in their second NFL season, and if they don’t produce the Lions could be in for a long year.

“I mean, we’re counting on it,” Campbell said. “We got to have it. I mean if they don’t make a jump, we’re in trouble. That’s the bottom line, cause those guys are kind of our core and our foundation.”

St. Brown, Sewell and McNeill are penciled in for starting jobs and key roles this fall.

St. Brown, a fourth-round pick out of USC in 2021, caught 90 passes for 912 yards and five touchdowns last season, with most of that production coming in the final six games. With a deeper receiving corps around him, the Lions believe St. Brown can be a more dangerous player in the offense this fall.

[ Lions training camp observations: Dan Campbell’s optimism starts with his staff ]

“He’s looked great,” quarterback Jared Goff said after the first practice of training camp. “He’s kind of taking the jump that we expected. He’s a hell of a player and a hell of professional. I love throwing him the ball and he does a good job getting himself open.”

Sewell should benefit from playing exclusively right tackle this season, after splitting time on the left and right sides due to Taylor Decker’s injury last season.

McNeill’s role will expand in the Lions’ new defensive alignment. Once considered a run-defending nose tackle, the Lions believe he has more to offer as a pass rusher.

Beyond those three, Campbell mentioned second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike and fourth-rounder Derrick Barnes as players who have “to be better” for the Lions to take a step forward this fall.

Onwuzurike dealt with back problems early in his rookie season but should be a key rotational player on this year’s defensive line, while Barnes is vying for time at linebacker.

“If they’re not, we’re not going to go anywhere,” Campbell said. “So we’re looking forward to it and we’re going to push them to be there and get there.”

Goff’s approach

Goff said he took a broad approach to fine-tuning his game this offseason.

“I want to continue to be accurate and be able to move in the pocket and get faster, stronger, bigger, and I feel like I did that,” Goff said. “I feel like I’m in great shape. Just it’s always everything. I know that cliché answer, but it really is. I wish I could give you something, but it really is just always working on little every piece of your game.”

Goff struggled in the first half of his Lions debut last season, committing 10 turnovers in the team’s first eight games.

He suffered an oblique injury before a Week 10 tie with the PIttsburgh Steelers, then after missing a game played improved football down the stretch.

The Lions won three of Goff’s final four starts, with Campbell calling plays and new offensive coordinator Ben Johnson helping coordinate the pass game.

Johnson has reconfigured the offense this season to include more play-action passing, something Goff excelled at early in his career with the Los Angeles Rams and something he’s eager to return to now.

“It starts with the run game, it starts with those guys up front,” Goff said. “If we can run the ball, we can really do anything we want. So, play action will come once we’re able to prove we can run the ball.”

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

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