This is Part 1 of the Free Press’ “Five most important players” series, in which we’ll take a look at the x-factors for the six major beats. Freep Lions beat writer Dave Birkett consulted on this list.
Starting this series with a look at the Detroit Lions is an interesting challenge. That’s because there are countless important players on the roster who could be included. It didn’t happen overnight, but Lions general manager Brad Holmes has built a roster that is now good enough to compete, with key pieces all over the field.
The Lions won eight of their final 10 games during the 2022 season, including a victory over the Green Bay Packers, ending their longtime, er, relationship with Aaron Rodgers.
But that’s in the past. Now it’s about living up to those expectations.
Let’s start by clarifying something: The most important players aren’t necessarily the best players, so a player left off the list isn’t “snubbed” — there were just five more important players.
Although the Lions had a strong offseason, adding a lot of players in the NFL draft and free agency who should make an immediate impact, a lot of the key figures for 2023 will be players on last year’s team.
And that’s not counting the non-players who will be key. Both offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn will need to have good years. Johnson has an opportunity to prove that last season was not a fluke and that he’s worthy of an NFL head-coaching gig. Meanwhile, Glenn, who was on the hot seat early in the season as the Lions struggled to get stops, needs to show he’s the right man for the job. If both coaches prove themselves this season, it’ll put the Lions that are on the field in position to succeed.
So without further ado, here are the five most important Lions this year.
No. 5: Whoever the kicker is
Okay, so we’re breaking our own rules, by not sticking to just one player here. And that’s the exact reason it needs to be on the list.
The Lions signed Michael Badgley (aka “The Money Badger”) in Week 5 of the 2022 season and Badgley was relatively effective, hitting 24 of 28 field goal attempts and all 33 extra points.
But heading into this offseason, it seems very much like an open competition.
On Thursday, the Lions acquired kicker Riley Patterson from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a conditional 2026 seventh-round draft pick.
That means it’s now a three-way kicking competition in Detroit, as Patterson will join Badgley and Parker Romo — a Virginia Tech product who made the All-XFL squad this spring — in the race.
The Lions figure to be in a lot of close games next season, and the NFL is made for parity. As a good team that wants to be great, those field goals and extra points along the way could be the difference.
But … to paraphrase the old saying: If you have three kickers, do you really have one?
The Lions will definitely hope the race figures itself out. Because good kickers are like good referees. The less you have to talk about them, the better job they’re probably doing.
No. 4: EDGE Aidan Hutchinson
Already a fan favorite and productive player as a rookie, the Lions will need Aidan Hutchinson to find more consistency in year two.
The former Michigan standout dominated at times and turned in some big plays. But he struggled to produce on a regular basis. He had an impressive 9½ sacks as a rookie, but more than half (five) came in just two games, against the Washington Commanders in Week 2 and the Green Bay Packers in Week 18. Conversely, he had 10 games last year without a sack and six without even a quarterback hurry.
At times, it felt like Hutchinson was one-dimensional, and offensive tackles would intentionally allow him to speed rush on the outside, knowing that he likely would not cut back inside and wouldn’t reach the quarterback.
Still, Hutchinson brings a play-making juice that few players have. It’s what made him one of the rare defensive players named a Heisman Trophy finalist. He proved he can do it on the NFL level as well, notching three interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 2022.
As noted, the Lions will likely be in a lot of close games this season. Hutchinson’s ball-hawk skills could swing some games.
But the best teams in the NFL have elite pass rushes. The Lions need consistent pressure from the defensive line. And Hutchinson is their best chance to have that.
No. 3: CB Cam Sutton
The first solo newcomer on this list, Sutton will be vital in the secondary.
The Lions’ defense struggled last season, ranking last in yards allowed per game, but the secondary was particularly weak. In 2022, the Lions allowed 245.8 passing yards per game, third-worst in the NFL. Only the Minnesota Vikings (265.6) and Tennessee Titans (274.8) were worse.
Some of the Lions’ issues were related to an inconsistent pass rush, but the secondary was equally unreliable — and it’s clear the front office felt the same way.
After trading 2020 first-round pick Jeff Okudah to the Atlanta Falcons, the Lions handed Sutton a three-year, $33 million contract (with $22.5 million guaranteed) to leave the Pittsburgh Steelers and come to Detroit. They also gave former Philadelphia Eagles safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and former San Francisco 49ers cornerback Emmanuel Moseley one-year deals and added Alabama safety Brian Branch in April’s draft.
Moseley is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in October, placing even more pressure on Sutton to deliver early and often.
His former position coach in Pittsburgh said Sutton “might be the smartest player I ever coached in all my years,” and the Lions will need that to help fix their 32nd-ranked defense.
All those additions, plus getting Tracy Walker III back from injury, should give the Lions depth at safety.
After making a strong investment, the Lions will need Sutton to deliver at cornerback, as well.
No. 2: WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
St. Brown proved his rookie year was no fluke, going from 90 catches and 912 yards as a rookie despite starting just nine games to 106 catches for 1,161 yards in Year 2.
Last season, he was clearly the best player in a wide receiver group that developed throughout the year. St. Brown had a profound effect on the offense, creating opportunities for both the passing and running games with his ability to get open when it mattered most. And the statistics back that up.
St. Brown’s 68 catches for first downs were fifth in the NFL last season, with only Stefon Diggs (72), Tyreek Hill (77), Travis Kelce (78) and Justin Jefferson (80) hauling in more.
The Lions will need a repeat of that in 2023, especially with Jameson Williams suspended for the first six games and DJ Chark departed for the Panthers via free agency.
St. Brown is an easy choice for the No. 2 selection here. If he can keep moving the chains as he did last year, expect the Lions’ offense to continue its explosive production.
No. 1: QB Jared Goff
But it’s accurate.
There’s no player, and perhaps no person in the organization, who’s as key to the Lions’ success in 2023 and beyond as Goff.
The Lions acquired Goff as part of 2021’s Matthew Stafford trade, with Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in 2016, effectively thrown in to make the salaries work. In his first season, he struggled and the Lions fell to 3-13-1, though that was a bit misleading. After losing their first eight games, the Lions turned to Johnson as their offensive mastermind; Goff, after healing from injuries, led the Lions to three wins in his final five starts.
Goff’s career has featured some tremendous highs — remember, he made two Pro Bowls and led the Rams to the Super Bowl in his first three NFL seasons — and some precipitous lows (getting sacked 26 times in just seven games as a rookie, and getting benched for John Wolford in L.A. in 2020).
Goff has what it takes to succeed. But he can be inconsistent.
It’s simple: The Lions need Goff to reach his highest ceiling yet in 2023. His past shows he’s capable. And the Lions really need it.