The Detroit Lions open the regular season Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Here is a position by position look at the Lions’ offense for 2022:
Jared Goff did not fare well in most of the positional tier rankings that popped up this offseason, but the Lions are confident they have a quarterback they can win with on their roster. After some pronounced struggles early last season, Goff played well down the stretch, when he led the Lions to wins in three of his last four starts and threw nine touchdowns and two interceptions in that span.
Goff has looked even better this summer. Surrounded by a more capable supporting cast and working with an offensive coordinator who has given him more ownership of the playbook, Goff was throwing the ball downfield with confidence this summer. He will have to limit his turnovers — he had 10 in the first seven games last season — and be more accepting of risk to be successful. But Goff is smart and accurate and seems poised to take a step forward this year.
The Lions went 0-3 with Goff out of the lineup last season and enter this fall in a similarly tenuous situation with their backup quarterback. After both Tim Boyle and David Blough had an inconsistent training camp, the Lions signed Nate Sudfeld to be their No. 2 QB. Sudfeld has zero starts and 37 career pass attempts in his first six NFL seasons, so the organization will be holding its breath (and perhaps exploring its other options) if Goff gets hurt.
D’Andre Swift set lofty goals of running for 1,000 yards and having 1,000 yards receiving this season. That’s music to fantasy owners’ ears, no doubt, but it may just be fantasy overall. Just three players in NFL history have hit those milestones in the same season, and Swift has missed seven games with injuries his first two years.
If Swift can stay healthy, he should approach a true No. 1 running back’s volume of touches this fall. The Lions view Swift as a difference maker on offense, both as a rusher and receiver, and Swift’s explosive ability makes him a mismatch in the pass game. The Lions will lean heavily on run-action this season, and for that to work, they need good production out of all three of their running backs.
Jamaal Williams is back for his second season as Swift’s backup. Williams is a physical runner who should make his biggest contributions between the tackles and in short-yardage situations. He’ll see time on third downs because of his pass-protecting acumen, and he’s sure-handed with one fumble in 653 career carries. Craig Reynolds had a strong preseason to win the No. 3 job, but his snaps will be limited early in the season. And Jason Cabinda is in line for fullback duties when he returns from the physically unable to perform list.
Wide receivers/tight ends
The Lions have made dramatic improvements to their wide receiver room in a year’s time. They’re deeper, more explosive and more balanced, and they should get help late in the season when rookie first-round pick Jameson Williams is ready to return from knee surgery.
Amon-Ra St. Brown had an impressive rookie season with 90 catches for 912 yards, but the bulk of that production (51 catches, 560 yards) came in the final six games. St. Brown is not your typical No. 1 receiver — he plays primarily out of the slot. But he is a versatile chain mover who could be Goff’s go-to target in the red zone and on third downs. The Lions signed DJ Chark to add a vertical element to their offense. Chark has advanced ball-tracking skills, and along with Josh Reynolds gives the Lions two big weapons on the outside.
If Chark stays healthy — he missed most of last season with a broken ankle — the Lions should have an above-average receiving corps once the electric Williams is back in action. Kalif Raymond will handle punt return duties and serve as the Lions’ No. 4 receiver. He’s a crafty route-runner who adds a vertical element to the offense despite his size. And Quintez Cephus adds a physical outside presence as the No. 5.
The Lions do not have nearly as much depth at the tight end position, where T.J. Hockenson has been a valuable weapon as a pass catcher in his first three NFL seasons but not quite the game-changer the Lions hoped for when they took him with the No. 8 pick of the 2019 NFL draft. Hockenson has two straight 60-plus-catch seasons and should be somewhere in that range this fall. Brock Wright will see plenty of playing time as the blocking tight end, while Shane Zylstra should hold down the No. 3 job until fifth-round pick James Mitchell is ready.
The Lions are dealing with a preseason injury to their offensive line for the second straight summer, but that should not diminish expectations for a unit most observers expect to be one of the best in the NFL this fall.
The Lions have three first-round picks starting up front in left tackle Taylor Decker, right tackle Penei Sewell and center Frank Ragnow, all of whom are above-average at their positions. Decker has been a pillar in pass protection when healthy. He missed half of last season with a fractured finger, but is the emotional leader of the line. Sewell, the No. 7 pick of last year’s draft, is an athletic marvel at right tackle He still can get loose with his technique at times, but has the makings of a dominant run blocker. Ragnow, simply, is in conversation for best center in the NFL.
Left guard Jonah Jackson is coming off a Pro Bowl season, while the Lions will be without his counterpart, right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai, for at least the first four games with a back injury. The extent of Vaitai’s injury is unclear as he played a half in the Lions’ final preseason game, but the Lions have three young interior linemen on their bench in Evan Brown, Tommy Kraemer and Logan Stenberg.
The Lions’ projected starting offensive line did not play a single snap together last season because of injuries, but the afforded Brown, Kraemer and others valuable experience on the field. Brown has played primarily center in his NFL career, while Kraemer made three fill-in starts at guard last fall and could replace Vaitai early in the season. Matt Nelson is back as the Lions’ swing tackle.