Detroit Lions Dan Campbell embracing big expectations: ‘We got to go get this division’

Detroit Free Press

PHOENIX — Dan Campbell called Taylor Decker a few days ago to check in on his big left tackle, and as the two talked they started reminiscing about last season and looking forward to the one ahead.

The Detroit Lions won eight of their final 10 games last year to finish as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. They narrowly missed making the playoffs for the first time since 2016, but Campbell and Decker agreed the Lions found something replicable down the stretch.

“Once we got in our rhythm, got in a groove, and it was the belief in what we were doing, the belief in the guys around them, the coaches, the teammates, was at an all-time high,” Campbell said. “And I think there’s a feeling that’ll be hard to lose. It would be hard to lose that, because I think, there again, when you get the right type of guys and have been put through the pressure our guys have, and have come from where they’ve come from, man, you appreciate it a lot more.”

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The Lions came to the NFL’s annual spring meeting this week as one of the buzziest teams in the league, something they have not been in a long time.

They have a high-flying offense anchored by a veteran line, a revamped defense made whole by the addition of three new starters in free agency, a wealth of draft capital, including two first-round picks (No. 6 and 18 overall), and a loveable coach who has embraced his team’s new role as a playoff contender.

“It’s about raising expectations,” Campbell said. “Like, we need to be thinking that way, and everything about what we do needs to have that type of purpose. Our standards have always been about winning, man. You’re trying to win every game, but ultimately, I think to take the next step, man, you’re shooting for the division. Because you do that, you win the division, you get a home game and then the rest takes care of itself.”

The Lions have not won a division championship in 30 years, since before the formation of the NFC North, but Campbell said that is “the next part of the process” for his easy-to-root-for team.

The Lions had the youngest snap-adjusted roster in the NFL last season and will lean on first-contract players in key roles on both sides of the ball this fall.

But by adding three prominent playmakers to their secondary — one in safety/nickel cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson who was not on their initial free agent shopping list — the Lions signaled to the NFL their perennial rebuild has finally gotten to the spot they’re ready to compete now.

“I would have said C.J. early, of course he would have been an early target, however, we didn’t think that was going to be in our capacity, with the money that we had, the cap, everything, knowing where we wanted to spend our resources,” Campbell said. “So that one, man, we were fortunate there. It just, the longer it went, the more it ended up favoring us, and we were able to work something out with each other.

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“He’s an outstanding addition. (Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn) and I have a lot of history with that guy, and we know what he is, we know what he’s about, and he’s hungry. I mean he’s out here for, this a year, ‘I’m here, I want to help, and then we’ll see what happens after that.’ And that’s — let me tell you something, he’s going to be ready to go. So that was good.”

Along with Gardner-Johnson, the Lions added two cornerbacks in Cam Sutton and Emanuel Moseley who Campbell admitted have “a pretty good chance” to start this fall ahead of returning starters Jeff Okudah and Jerry Jacobs.

Sutton immediately becomes the Lions’ most productive corner coming off a career-high three-interception season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, while Moseley is a scheme and play-style fit who excelled early last season with the San Francisco 49ers before tearing his ACL.

On offense, the Lions return eight starters from a unit that tied for the NFL lead with eight games of 30-plus points.

The Lions still have a hole to fill at receiver after D.J. Chark left for the Carolina Panthers in free agency, but they upgraded at running back, signing David Montgomery to replace Jamaal Williams; held serve at right guard, where veteran Graham Glasgow will compete for the starting job with Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who missed all of last season with a back injury; and expect big things out of speedy receiver Jameson Williams in Year 2.

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The Lions aren’t done tweaking their roster. Along with receiver, they need an interior pass rusher and are set to host Calais Campbell on a free agent visit, and they could use a more dynamic playmaking tight end.

But as reporters pelted Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur a table away with questions about the Aaron Rodgers drama, Campbell gushed about how much he likes his team in late March and how he can’t wait to see them on the field in the months ahead.

“Every team should want to go to the Super Bowl,” Campbell said. “I mean, every year. I said that two years ago, of course. But I think we are positioned much better to swing with the big boys this year. Now, does that mean — I can’t tell you what that means in win totals, but it means that, that is the goal, man. We got to go get this division.”

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

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