It’s tough to consider a season a success when it falls short of the playoffs, but the Detroit Lions sure took a considerable step forward in 2022.
The Lions opened the season 1-6 and seemed ticketed for a top-three pick in the draft in late October, then closed the season with eight wins in their final nine games to finish with a winning record for the first time since 2017.
There’s no telling what happens in the future, of course, but two years into their latest rebuild, the Lions feel like they have staying power. They have one of the best offenses in the NFL, an emerging pass rush on a young defense and a coaching staff that deserves kudos for keeping them on the right track in tough times.
At his end-of-season news conference Monday, Lions coach Dan Campbell called this the type of season that “can catapult you if you allow to,” to great things in the future.
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“If we just say it, and say the words, and don’t put in the work that we did last year with the growth that has taken place, then we’ll be average,” Campbell said. “But I believe in the team. I believe in the chemistry, the identity of this team, and the work they put in, and so I really do believe we’re only going to grow and get better, and as that happens, we’re going to add more pieces, too.”
That’s the next step for the Lions: Adding more pieces this offseason, both in the draft and free agency, to make a run at an NFC North title and home playoff game next season.
That seems possible for the first time in years, but first we have to put this season to bed with one final report card and end-of-season grades.
Jared Goff said on multiple occasions this season that he was playing the best football of his career, and over the final seven games that probably was the case. Goff finished the season with 324 consecutive pass attempts without an interception and will have a chance to break Aaron Rodgers’ NFL record (404) early next year. He took pristine care of the ball down the stretch, captained an offense that finished fifth in the league in scoring and played with a confidence he seemed to lack at times last year.
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This is a full-season grade, though, and Goff wasn’t great early in the year. He had 10 turnovers in the first eight games — only Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford had more — and his meltdowns against the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys helped cost the Lions games.
Goff was critical of himself for not demanding Campbell keep the offense on the field on a key fourth-and-4 play against the Minnesota Vikings in September and he missed crunch-time throws in losses to the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills. I thought Goff was at his best in late-season wins over the Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars. He excelled in the play-action game, showed leadership throughout the year, and finished the season with a better passer rating (99.3) than Josh Allen and Justin Herbert. If Goff can maintain his play for 17 games next season, the Lions should get their first home playoff game since 1993. Grade: B-plus
Jamaal Williams will never win an NFL rushing title, and he admitted after the season he needs to generate more explosive runs. But finally given the chance to be a lead back, Williams was everything the Lions envisioned this season. He led the NFL with 17 rushing touchdowns, topped 1,000 yards for the first time in his career and delivered the type of consistent body blows that wore down opposing defenses.
Williams’ emergence came as D’Andre Swift battled lingering ankle and shoulder injuries all season. The injuries were legitimate, and I can’t dock him for missed time in this grade, but it was disappointing nonetheless to only get glimpses of his game-changing ability. Swift had a huge first two weeks against the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Commanders and closed the year with impact performances against the Bears and Packers. In between, though, he was only mildly effective as a runner, and occasionally maddening to watch with some of his sideways runs.
While Swift averaged a career-best 5.5 yards per carry on a career-low 99 rushing attempts, Justin Jackson turned out to be a more important addition than anyone imagined when he signed last summer. Jackson didn’t play a lot; he had 42 carries on the season. But he gave the Lions a spark in small doses, like when he split two defenders to convert an important third down last week against the Packers. As a team, the Lions finished 11th in the NFL in rushing (128.2 ypg) and 15th in yards per carry (4.54 ypc). Grade: B-plus
Wide receivers/tight ends
Two years into his NFL career, Amon-Ra St. Brown already looks like one of the best slot receivers in the league. St. Brown followed a piping-hot finish to his rookie season with an even better Year 2 (106 catches, 1,161 yards, six TDs). He had a monthlong stretch where he was ineffective and sometimes out of action because of knee and brain injuries, but otherwise was the Lions’ best receiver and Goff’s go-to in got-to-have-it situations. Sixty-eight of St. Brown’s catches went for first downs.
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The Lions were significantly better at receiver this year than they were last season, but still a mixed bag overall. Kalif Raymond was the Lions’ second-best receiver after St. Brown. He had 47 catches without a drop and is one of the best route runners in the NFL. DJ Chark, the Lions’ top free agent addition of last offseason, seemed out of synch with Goff early in the year then missed time with ankle pain. He finished with a disappointing 30 catches in 11 games. Josh Reynolds had big games against the Patriots and Vikings and was an important security blanket for Goff when the receiving corps was banged up early in the season. He played through his own injuries, and had just 12 catches after Halloween.
Jameson Williams gets an incomplete for his six-game cameo. It’s tough for a rookie receiver to make much impact after missing all of training camp and the first half of the year. Williams is electric, but he had more drops (three) than catches (one). For the Lions’ sake, hopefully Williams is following Ja’Marr Chase’s lead and simply adjusting to the speed of the game.
I thought the Lions underutilized T.J. Hockenson before trading him to the Minnesota Vikings at the deadline, but they didn’t miss Hockenson much when he was gone. Hockenson had a huge 179-yard day against the Seattle Seahawks but topped 50 yards in just one other game as a Lion. His replacements, Brock Wright, Shane Zylstra and James Mitchell, combined for nine touchdowns. The group needs to be more consistent blocking. Grade: B
The Lions have an elite offensive line. Center Frank Ragnow made the Pro Bowl in what he considered a down year, and three other blockers – left guard Jonah Jackson and tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell – were alternates. I thought Decker had the best, most consistent season of his career, and if Sewell isn’t the best right tackle in the NFL, he’s at least the most feared.
The Lions finished third in the NFL in sack percentage, allowing sacks on just 4.1% of their dropbacks, and that only tells half the story. Goff blamed his pocket awareness for a handful of the 23 sacks he took, and Decker was the only one of the Lions’ big four who allowed a sack in the final five games of the season, and that came with the Carolina Panthers pinning their ears back in an obvious passing situation late in the Lions’ Christmas Eve debacle.
For as good as the Lions’ line is, they weren’t great in short-yardage this season, converting only 21 of 33 third- or fourth-and-1 or 2 rushes (63.6%), and backups Evan Brown, Dan Skipper, Logan Stenberg and Kayode Awosika were inconsistent filling in at right (and sometimes left) guard. But Ragnow played through a painful turf toe injury most of the season, Decker managed foot problems that nearly required surgery last spring, Jackson opted against September finger surgery to return more quickly to the field and Sewell might have delivered the play of the year with his third-down catch against the Vikings. Collectively, the line was the biggest reason the Lions offense was so good. Grade: A-minus
The Lions finished in the bottom five in most key defensive categories: Points and yards allowed, rush and pass defense, third downs and goal-to-go percentage. After a horrendous start, though, they showed significant improvement in the second half of the season when some bye-week changes to scheme took hold. Aidan Hutchinson played primarily on the left side, and out of a two-point stance, and that helped him as a pass rusher, and Alim McNeill moved from nose tackle to three technique, which made the Lions more disruptive inside.
The Lions allowed too many big perimeter rushing plays early in the season, and they struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks all year. That was due more to missed assignments than getting pushed around, though the entire line got manhandled by the Panthers. Hutchinson was probably the team’s defensive MVP. He had 9.5 sacks, three interceptions and lived up to expectations as the No. 2 overall pick.
Hutchinson and John Cominsky worked well in tandem on pass rush downs, with Cominsky spear-heading many of the games the Lions play on third downs. He had a career-high four sacks and will be a priority to re-sign before free agency. Charles Harris was a non-factor this season, even before his injury, Michael Brockers was benched because of ineffectiveness, Romeo Okwara played minimal snaps in five games in his return from a torn Achilles and Josh Paschal had a quiet rookie season after missing training camp with a sports hernia.
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The Lions did get consistent play in the middle of their defensive line from McNeill, Isaiah Buggs and Benito Jones. Buggs was an anchor of a run defender, and he had 10 quarterback hits (after generating one his first three seasons). He didn’t have a tackle for loss, though, and the Lions need more interior pass rush overall. Grade: B-minus
Brad Holmes gave a nod to the Lions’ linebacking unit in his end-of-season news conference Tuesday. Considered a weakness entering the season, Holmes said the group “ended as more of a positive and more a strength.” Analytics sites like Pro Football Focus don’t necessarily agree. They ranked starters Malcolm Rodriguez and Alex Anzalone 46th and 62nd, respectively, among qualified linebackers this year. But the Lions got better-than-expected play from both in the middle of their defense.
Anzalone had a career-high 125 tackles and rarely came off the field. He had a rough game against the Panthers last month, when he reverted to his old habit of trying to do too much to cover for the mistakes of teammates. But he cut his missed tackle percentage by more than half this year (from 16.1% to 7.4%). Rodriguez was drafted to be a special teams player but showed impressive instincts from the jump. He had a big game against the Seahawks, but ceded playing time to Derrick Barnes late in the season.
Barnes played well in limited action early and looked more comfortable in his sophomore campaign. The Lions don’t have a true play-making off-ball linebacker, though, and that’s part of what held the run defense back. James Houston finished the season as the Lions’ starting strong-side linebacker, though he was more designated pass rusher than anything. Houston was a revelation with eight sacks in seven games and easily surpassed Julian Okwara on the depth chart after Okwara’s nondescript and injury-interrupted year. Grade: C-plus
The worst unit on the Lions defense was the secondary, and it wasn’t particularly close. Campbell fired defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant at midseason after his group spent two months struggling with missed assignments and poor play. Both starting outside cornerbacks from Week 1, Amani Oruwariye and Jeff Okudah, got benched; slot cornerback Mike Hughes proved better outside; and starting safeties Tracy Walker and DeShon Elliott missed a combined 17 games with injuries.
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Oruwariye, coming off a six-interception season, was the Lions’ most disappointing player. He had a team-high 11 penalties (including six in one game) and ranked as Pro Football’s second-lowest graded cornerback despite playing meaningful defensive snaps in just 10 games. Okudah played well early in the season in his return from a torn Achilles and was solid in run support — he had 15 tackles against the Cowboys — but he struggled against D.K. Metcalf early in the year and got beat deep too often before losing snaps to Hughes down the stretch. Jerry Jacobs was probably the Lions’ best cornerback. He did nice job on Stefon Diggs after begging to cover the Bills’ top receiver. And Will Harris was solid in a nickel role, forcing one big fumble against the Giants and recovering another against the Packers.
Walker’s absence — he tore his Achilles in Week 3 — contributed to some of the communication breakdowns the Lions had in the secondary. Rookie Kerby Joseph had some growing pains after replacing Walker in the lineup. He allowed six touchdowns this season, according to Pro Football Reference, but was the Lions’ biggest ball magnet with four interceptions (three off Aaron Rodgers) and two forced fumbles. Elliott lost his starting job briefly in October for freelancing too much, but he had his best game off the bench against the Patriots and finished with a career-high 96 tackles. Grade: D-plus
Raymond earned second-team All-Pro honors as a punt returner. He finished second in the NFL with a 13.2-yard punt return average, scored the first return touchdown of his career against the Jets and was the face of a dangerous special teams unit. Jackson helped the Lions finish third in kick-return average, and Josh Woods flew under the radar as one of the best coverage specialists in the league.
Things weren’t all hunky-dory for the Lions on special teams. Austin Seibert missed field goals of 48 yards off the right upright and 54 yards late in a four-point loss to the Vikings, and his first replacement, Dominik Eberle, missed two extra points and sent a kickoff out of bounds the next week against the Seahawks. Michael Badgley brought some stability to the unit starting in late October. He made 20 of 24 field goals, but he had a costly 29-yard miss in a three-point loss to the Bills.
Jack Fox saw a slight dip in his net punting average, to 41.4 yards, but had just three touchbacks and was stellar in his placement on kickoffs. The Lions converted all three of their fake punts this season, with one Fox pass and two C.J. Moore runs, and Charles Harris deflected a Commanders extra point in Week 2. The Lions finished ninth in Football Outsiders’ composite special teams rankings, with placekicking and some late-season slip-ups in punt coverage weighing down their overall grade. Grade: B-plus
Campbell and his entire staff deserve credit for keeping the Lions positioned for a turnaround. Things seemed bleak at 1-6; just one team has ever rebounded from that record to make the playoffs in NFL history. And there was no wavering in the Lions locker room.
It’s also true, though, that the staff shared in the blame for the Lions’ rough start, and for missing out on the playoffs. Campbell cost the Lions a win against the Vikings with his decision to kick a 54-yard field goal rather than punt or try and convert on fourth-and-4, and he made other critical game management mistakes that backfired in the first half of the season, going for a fourth-and-9 in the first half of a close game with the Patriots, and mismanaging the clock at the end of the first half of their loss to the Eagles.
Campbell deserves Coach of the Year consideration, though I doubt he wins the award. He’s a master at motivating players and empowering those around him, his keep-the-onus-on-us approach is invigorating and he’s built a good staff around him. Pleasant’s firing and the continued struggles of the secondary are a concern, but defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn made the important decision to tweak and scale back his scheme in order to improve on defense, and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson deserves significant credit for the Lions’ high-scoring ways.
Both Glenn and Johnson have head coaching interviews pending, and no one will be surprised if Johnson, in particular, lands a new job next week. He’s a creative play designer who worked wonders with Goff and is seen as a rising star around the league. Nine wins isn’t enough for anyone in the building, but considering where things were two months ago, everyone should be proud of their work. Grade: B-plus
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.