Three Detroit Lions who didn’t see much playing time in 2021 could be poised for breakout seasons in 2022.
ESPN recently released its annual rankings of the top 25 young, under-the-radar players who could make names for themselves this fall.
Lions defensive tackle Alim McNeill debuted at No. 8 on the list and cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu appeared for the first time at No. 12. Linebacker Julian Okwara, who made last year’s list at No. 16, has returned at No. 11 for 2022.
This list isn’t for guys like Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence or Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts, who already showed some mettle as rookies last season and are poised for greater success this fall.
The Football Outsiders analysts who generate the sleeper breakout rankings have followed the same criteria for 16 years.
Players considered were drafted in the third round or later or signed as an undrafted free agent between 2018-20. They have played fewer than 500 career snaps (running backs limited to 300), haven’t signed a contract extension and are 26 or younger as of Sept. 1, 2021.
The rankings aim to predict long-term success, having featured star pass catchers George Kittle, Cooper Kupp and Mark Andrews, among others. They’ve also held up strong in the short term: Last year’s No. 1 player, New England Patriots running back Damien Harris, scored 15 touchdowns in 2021.
Listed Lions have experienced less luck of late. Last year, wide receiver Quintez Cephus was ranked No. 11 and had plenty of opportunity to prove himself. But he made just 15 catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns while rookie Amon Ra St. Brown stole the show.
Here are the cases for McNeill, Okwara and Melifonwu:
Alim McNeill, DT
At 6 feet 1, 317 pounds, McNeill is big and bad, his short arms being his only perceived deficiency. Pro Football Focus is also high on McNeill this preseason.
The Lions tried the 22-year-old third-rounder at nose tackle last season for 422 snaps. The then-rookie led the Lions’ interior players with two sacks and finished second with eight hurries. He also had the team’s highest run- stop rate at 68%.
Now, Detroit is moving him to the other interior spot in its new four-man front, hoping to further unlock his pass-rush abilities. He made 17.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks at North Carolina State. As a Wolfpack freshman, he played a spot similar to where he’ll line up for the Lions in 2022.
With John Penisini retired, McNeill figures to plug up the middle while rotating with Michael Brockers and Levi Onwuzurike. The question is if he will actually become a feared pass rusher who can play on third down, or if he’s still best used as a run stopper.
Julian Okwara, LB
The younger brother of Lions 2020 sacks leader Romeo Okwara, Julian has decent speed off the edge, having reportedly run a 4.53 40-yard dash while at Notre Dame before breaking his leg in 2019. According to the Football Outsiders’ SackSEER system, he led all edge rush prospects in the 2020 NFL draft with an explosion index of 1.4.
The 2020 third-rounder has played just 431 snaps as a Lion. In just 362 snaps in 2021, Okwara’s 12 hurries and five sacks were both second-most on Detroit’s roster. The average number of rushers during his snaps was 4.3, meaning he was often winning one-on-one battles with offensive linemen.
Since the Lions drafted former U-M star and 2021 Heisman Trophy runner-up Aidan Hutchinson and Kentucky product Josh Paschal to come off the edge, Okwara is expected to fill a hybrid role in 2022. He’ll play strong-side linebacker on run downs, then rush the passer on third down.
The Football Outsiders question whether he can keep up with the responsibilities of a modern linebacker, but they believe he can “get to the quarterback at a high level,” apparently even if he’s rushing less.
Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB
The 6-2, 205-pound 2021 third-rounder from Syracuse was thrown into the fire as a rookie, starting Week 2 against the Green Bay Packers. After that, most of his playing time came from Weeks 16-18 when he played nearly 100% of the Lions’ defensive snaps for 243 total.
Melifonwu, 23, allowed 7.2 yards per pass on 14 targets during those weeks. He gave up a pair of touchdowns to Seattle Seahawks wideout D.K. Metcalf and was also torched for a 35-yard bomb by Pitts in that span. The Football Outsiders note such mishaps are customary when “you’re a raw rookie on a bad defense, but you are the one with the body type to match up to the NFL’s best.”
As camp progresses, a move to safety for Melifonwu has emerged as a possibility, although Lions coach Dan Campbell said, “If we don’t do it now, you may not end up doing it. The more that we can figure out about our players, the better off we are. I think that only helps us. … The more you guys that you have that have versatility, flexibility inside your scheme, man it really helps you.”
Detroit has several outside cornerback options, among them Jeff Okudah, Kerby Joseph, Jerry Jacobs and A.J. Parker.
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