Jared Goff, D’Andre Swift among Detroit Lions with most to gain from a strong December

Detroit Free Press

Their odds are not great, but the Detroit Lions are entering December with legitimate playoff hopes for the first time since 2017.

The Lions (4-7) host the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday in their second of three straight games at Ford Field. They’re 2½ games back of the Washington Commanders for the final wild card spot in the NFC, but hold the head-to-head tie-breaker with both the Commanders and the second NFC wild card team, the New York Giants, who play twice in the next three weeks.

If the Lions can get hot down the stretch and build on their strong November, they could win their way into the playoffs. Even if that doesn’t happen, the final six weeks are shaping up to be an important stretch for several prominent players as the team enters the next phase of its rebuild.

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Here are six Lions with the most to gain — and lose — in the final six weeks:

QB Jared Goff

Goff has played some of his best football as a Lion over the past month, but his long-term future in Detroit remains very much up for debate. On one hand, it does not make sense for the Lions to start over at quarterback next year when they will be expected to make the postseason. On the other, that’s probably what’s best for the franchise.

The Lions have two first-round picks in the 2023 NFL draft, including one that is trending toward being a top-five pick. Whether they draft a quarterback should be independent of Goff’s play and based solely on their evaluations of the prospects available, but the reality is Goff’s performance down the stretch could influence what the Lions do.

Goff has two years left on his contract and is due a $5 million roster bonus in mid-March. If he plays well and leads the Lions to the playoffs, he’ll be hailed as a quarterback this downtrodden franchise can win with. If his shortcomings cost the Lions a chance at the postseason, the drumbeat for them to find his replacement will grow even louder.

WR DJ Chark

Chark signed a one-year, $10 million free agent deal last spring with an eye on cashing in even bigger this offseason. He was supposed to be the Lions’ No. 1 receiver and primary deep threat, but instead has spent most of the fall dealing with pain in his surgically repaired ankle.

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Chark has nine catches for 114 yards this season, hardly the type of production the Lions envisioned from their top free agent addition. But he scored his first touchdown since Week 1 in his return from injured reserve last week and has a chance during the next six weeks to remind everyone the type of playmaker he is.

The Lions have rookie receiver Jameson Williams waiting in the wings, so Chark’s future might be elsewhere even with a strong finish. But if he plays well down the stretch he should be able to get a multi-year deal from some receiver-needy team in free agency.

RB D’Andre Swift

Swift has another year left on his rookie contract, so he should return in 2023 regardless of what happens these final six weeks. But his performance, and his ability to play through injury, will be under a microscope as the Lions move forward in their rebuild.

Swift has game-changing talent, as he showed in the Lions’ Week 1 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Lions are a more dangerous team when he’s on the field. But the offense has remained effective and efficient while Swift has missed time with shoulder and ankle injuries this season, and has been better in some ways with Jamaal Williams at running back.

Williams is a free agent, so the Lions have a decision to make on him this offseason. There’s a good chance they’ll be in the market to draft a running back, too. Swift needs to play well and stay healthy down the stretch to regain his coaches’ trust and stay a part of the Lions’ long-term plans.

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DE Romeo Okwara

Okwara has not played a football game in 14 months because of a torn Achilles tendon, and while he’s back at practice, there’s no firm timetable for his return to game action. Lions coach Dan Campbell said Okwara probably won’t play Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, which means he’ll have at most five games to show his value as a pass rusher.

Okwara has one sack in four games since signing a three-year, $39 million contract to stay with the Lions last spring. He has a $14.5 million cap hit for next season, and the Lions can create $7.5 million in cap room by releasing him, which puts his job in jeopardy in Detroit.

Okwara probably won’t get a ton of defensive snaps when he returns with Aidan Hutchinson, John Cominsky, Josh Paschal and Julian Okwara also in the edge rush mix. But if he proves he still can get to the passer, he might be worth keeping around on a re-worked deal.

LB James Houston

A sixth-round pick out of Jackson State, Houston had two sacks in five defensive snaps in his NFL debut last week. That was enough for the Lions to promote him from the practice squad to the 53-man roster, and he should get more pass rush opportunities in the weeks ahead.

The Lions probably won’t go into the offseason counting on Houston to be a major part of their 2023 defense, but if he plays well enough — and is able to handle an expanded role — it could lessen their need to add a pass rusher next spring.

“There’s things he’s got to be able to do more for us than just (rush the passer) and it’s got to be more than just five reps, ’cause certainly we’re going to get him more involved,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said.

DE Aidan Hutchinson

Hutchinson’s inclusion on this list is different from most others in that his future with the Lions is secure. The No. 2 pick in April’s draft, Hutchinson leads the Lions with 5.5 sacks, has two interceptions and figures to be a cornerstone player for years to come. Still, Hutchinson has plenty to gain with a strong December; namely, he has a legitimate chance to win Defensive Rookie of the Year.

New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner is the favorite for the award now and will be tough to beat, but six games is an eternity in the NFL and Hutchinson will be in the spotlight if the Lions get hot down the stretch. Hutchinson’s sacks have come in bunches this season, and he has games against two of the NFL’s most-sacked quarterbacks — Justin Fields and Kirk Cousins — in the coming weeks. If he shows out, he might join Ndamukong Suh, Bubba Baker and Lem Barney as the only Lions to win the award.

“I think he’s more worried about us winning games and doing what he can to help us win games,” Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash said. “I think if he ends up winning the rookie of the year, it’s just some icing on the cake for him. But that’s the last thing on his mind. He just wants to win football games and be a positive role for our team.”

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

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