Lions’ offseason moves show they want to go from dark horse to contender
The Detroit Lions averaged the most points of any team through the first half of the 2022 season.
The Lions also gave up the biggest average of any team in the NFL through the first half of the 2022 season — .1 points more than they were scoring.
Some defensive staff restructuring and the elevation of multiple rookies ended up bringing improvement to the unit, and Detroit just missed the playoffs by the skin of a Week 18 Baker Mayfield overthrow. The Seahawks ended up kicking a chip shot over the Rams in overtime to give themselves a chance at the NFC’s seventh seed. The Lions, funny enough, punched their ticket by beating the Green Bay Packers mere hours later.
By that point, the Lions’ defense was humming. But that was a far cry from where they had been just a few weeks earlier.
Multiple factors went into Detroit’s defensive shortcomings, in fact. Most of their issues stemmed from the secondary and the Lions giving up an average of 7.46 yards per pass play, which was the second-highest average in the league last year. Detroit also allowed 82 plays of 20 yards or more, which was the most in the league. Adjacently, they gave up 45.1% of third downs.
So what did they do?
In the first wave of free agency, they signed cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley, along with safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson over the weekend. Sutton and Gardner-Johnson are instant starters. Moseley provides a deeper rotation to a unit that also includes Jeff Okudah and Chase Lucas.
Gardner-Johnson is coming off a Super Bowl appearance after a season in which he led the league with six interceptions — a career high. He’ll now anchor a unit that includes Tracy Walker, Kerby Joseph and C.J. Moore, who just re-signed with the team last week. Gardner-Johnson will also have the opportunity to move around, thereby diversifying the defense and what they’ll do schematically.
“No matter where you put me, it’s going to go down all game,” Gardner-Johnson said with a smile.
Not content with only addressing their back-level needs on defense, Detroit also shuffled their backfield, signing former Chicago Bears running back David Montgomery. Among skill players, Montgomery led the Bears in rushing yards last season and has been their No. 1 back for the last four years, topping 1,000 yards in 2020. It came at the cost of Jamaal Williams, who scored 17 rushing touchdowns for the Lions last year, but what they gained in Montgomery is a younger, more versatile player.
Montgomery has exceeded 1,000 total yards from scrimmage in each of his four seasons in the league. He went over 1,500 in 2020. Williams has only eclipsed the 1,000-total-yard mark once in his six seasons. And that’s the main difference.
Players want to play in Detroit, too. The community and culture they’ve now established in head coach Dan Campbell’s first two years is probably to thank for that. Defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs re-signed with the team before even testing free agency.
“We’re going to build something great here, and I want to be a part of it when it happens,” Buggs said. “I didn’t want to go into free agency wondering about where I was going to be, where I was going to end up. When Detroit called me and said, ‘We want you back,’ I wanted to be back. I always wanted to be back.”
Even though the Lions still have eight picks to make in the upcoming NFL Draft, four of which are in the top 60, it may not be a question of if Detroit is building something. It may be that they’ve already built it.
Their only significant loss was Williams, for which they immediately atoned. On offense, wide receiver Jameson Williams should be able to hit the ground running this year now that he’s fully cleared and healthy from an ACL injury suffered in the 2022 title game while at Alabama. Slot receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown broke out for the team last season. Running back D’Andre Swift is part of the offensive equation. And quarterback Jared Goff is coming off the third-best season of his career.
“To be honest with you, it’s a little better,” said Gardner-Johnson, comparing the talent with the Lions to that of the NFC Champion Eagles, in his introductory press conference. “But that’s just on me, I mean everybody can look from the outside looking in. But this team is talented. This team, we can win the division. Everybody should feel that way. But when I look at a team coming from where I came from, the teams I played on, won multiple divisions, been in playoff games, been to the Super Bowl, this team has what it takes to be a divisional [champion]. You know what I’m saying? Get there, win the division, get to the playoffs.”
Couple that talent with the aforementioned attitude and culture Campbell has instilled — one that saw the Lions come out in hostile territory at Lambeau Field and punch the division-rival Packers in the mouth and out of the playoffs when they themselves had nothing to play for — and it isn’t fair to call the Lions dark horses anymore. Even if that was a short-lived sentiment to begin with.
Detroit is a contender — and they’re acting like it. Free agency is proof.
The dynamic in the division has also changed with the impending departure of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It feels more wide open than ever, even though it was Minnesota that won the North last season. The Vikings still have things to figure out but they hired a new defensive coordinator to reset their entire scheme. The Chicago Bears have pressed the nitro-boost button to send their rebuild into Fast & Furious speeds. They may not be a contender in 2023, but they’re not going to be a cakewalk of an opponent, either. It’s anyone’s guess as to what the Jordan Love era in Green Bay will immediately yield but the rest of their roster is ready to ease the transition.
But out of the group, the Lions look as likely as any of them to emerge as 2023 division champs… and maybe more.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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