Why ESPN says Detroit Lions have a top-10 young core in the NFL

Detroit Free Press

Expectations keep rising for the Detroit Lions‘ second year under head coach Dan Campbell.

But that’s just how the 46-year-old coach likes it. So far this offseason, Campbell compared his Lions to the surprise 2022 Kentucky Derby winner, Rich Strike, and has been vocal about the team’s desire to give Detroit “something to be proud of.”

Like Campbell, football experts believe the Lions are finally in position to turn their franchise around. On Sunday, ESPN and Football Outsiders ranked every NFL team by their under-25 talents, and the Lions were No. 7. They ranked No. 23 in 2021 and No. 26 in 2020.

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The Lions’ jump from the list’s bottom 10 to its top 10 is due to the draft selections of Aidan Hutchinson and Jameson Williams, plus the stellar rookie play of Penei Sewell and Amon-Ra St. Brown.

“Offensive tackle Sewell and pass-rusher Hutchinson are the obvious blue-chippers as top-seven draft picks,” Scott Spratt wrote. “And Sewell is well on track to live up to his draft status after blowing just 2.6% of his blocks in his rookie season despite moving from left to right tackle around teammate Taylor Decker’s injury. But the Lions can also credit their compelling depth of young talent for their placement in the top 10.”

Detroit’s ranking is the highest among the NFC North. The Cowboys came in at No. 1, with the Chargers, Jets, Falcons, Dolphins and Jaguars all finishing No. 2 to No. 6.

The rankings are based off the number of starts, snaps and quality of play made by a team’s players under age 25. Quarterbacks and running backs are weighed more heavily than off-ball linebackers and specialists, and players selected in the draft’s first two rounds are graded higher.

A team’s track record of talent evaluation and development is also taken into the ranking’s consideration, which could be why St. Brown finds himself atop the Lions’ young core after being absent from the list a year ago.

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“St. Brown had an uneven rookie season,” Spratt wrote. “But after Campbell took over offensive playcalling duties following the team’s Week 9 bye, St. Brown more than doubled his first-half productivity from 3.4 catches and 31 yards per game to 7.0 catches and 74 yards per game. St. Brown and his new outside counterpart, Williams, both are poised to outplay their draft positions, the latter even as a top-12 pick because tearing the ACL in his left knee in Alabama’s most recent national title game cost him his presumed placement as the top receiver in the 2022 class.

“Probably still a year away from being competitive, the Lions do not need Williams to be ready to play in Week 1. They can lean on St. Brown, their veterans and 23-year-old receiving back D’Andre Swift.”

Additionally, ESPN believes Campbell’s roster will benefit from a rejuvenated front seven.

“Situational edge rusher Julian Okwara and defensive tackle Alim McNeill flashed their pass-rushing potential in 2021 with 12 and eight hurries in just 362 and 422 respective snaps,” Spratt wrote. “They should build on those totals with more playing time and more blocking attention on Hutchinson this season. And linebacker Derrick Barnes looked like another fourth-round steal in his rookie season. He impressed with a 12.7% broken tackle rate and could be exactly what the Lions’ defense needs after it finished last in broken tackle rate as a unit in 2021.”

Read ESPN’s story for more info.

Chandler Engelbrecht is a reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press and can be reached at CEngelbrecht@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @ctengelbrecht.

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