Ah, the month of May.
Though the NFL does an excellent job of staying relevant for all 12 months of the calendar, May is a little less so, leaving room for projections and just like the Mo-town counterparts crooning those lyrics: optimism.
If you’re the Detroit Lions, that is.
The NFC is anybody’s game and the NFC North is arguably the conference’s most wide-open division. In a total departure from recent history, the Lions are currently the odds-on favorites to win this year at +140.
But does that have more to do with how good Detroit is, or how close the rest of the division seems to be? After all, each team has a path to a first-place finish — and a good one, at that.
Indulge me as I go over each of them, starting with the favorites: the Lions.
What head coach Dan Campbell has been able to accomplish in just two short seasons is nothing short of incredible. Detroit went from the running joke of the division to finishing second last season — missing a playoff berth by a half a game. They ended their season on a high note in spite of that, beating the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 18 and keeping them out of the playoffs (emphasis on the spite).
Campbell has put together a staff featuring mostly former players that have been able to coach and elevate talent while general manager Brad Holmes has steadily built up the roster into the most complete team in the division.
“It goes back to that gut that you have as a football player when you’re selecting him, but it also goes back to our coaching staff,” said Holmes prior to the 2023 NFL Draft. “Like I say all the time, they can accelerate some development there. So, we’re really fortunate there. Those guys put the time in, they’re dedicated, those guys are very coachable, they put the work in […] you feel good about if you can get a (Lions LB) Malcolm Rodriguez or (Lions LB) James Houston in the sixth round that can contribute like the way they did.”
Detroit outperformed expectations in 2022, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback Jared Goff and Co. averaged 35 points per game to begin the season. The offense as a whole finished fifth in DVOA for 2022, according to Football Outsiders. Goff himself was fourth among league quarterbacks in the stat and finished second in Football Outsiders’ DYAR stat, which measures the value of a quarterback’s performance compared to replacement level and adjusted for situation and opponent. It basically means Goff did a whole heck of a lot better than anyone expected.
The issue for the Lions, and why they finished with a sub-.500 record, was on the defensive side of the ball — more specifically, the secondary. Detroit’s pass defense was dismal, allowing opponents 245.8 passing yards per game, ranking 30th in the league by the end of the season. It was even worse in the first half, when the Lions were allowing 276.7 through Week 8. It translated directly to scoring, as Detroit found themselves letting up over 32 points per game before their bye week. They made a change in the coaching staff to try and turn things around, firing Aubrey Pleasant on Halloween.
This time around? The Lions are doing their best to ensure their pass defense isn’t the issue. Holmes got to work immediately this offseason, signing veterans Cameron Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley and C.J. Gardner-Johnson in free agency. Gardner-Johnson is coming off a Super Bowl appearance with the Philadelphia Eagles and has even suggested the Lions have more talent on their roster than his former team.
“To be honest with you, it’s a little better, but that’s just on me,” Gardner-Johnson said in March. “Everybody can look from the outside looking in, but that’s just on me, from the outside looking in, but this team has talent. This team, we can win the division.”