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What, Exactly, Is the Detroit Lions’ Plan?

The Lions entered the draft fielding nine picks and unquestionable potential. Days later, they came out with more questions than answers. What is Detroit trying to build? And will it equate to a Super Bowl contender?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The rebuilding phase of the Dan Campbell era is officially over in Detroit. The Lions are the betting favorites to win the NFC North for the first time in franchise history. Detroit became a mini destination for free agents this offseason, as three of the bigger names—Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, David Montgomery, and Cameron Sutton—signed with the Lions. And after this weekend’s draft, all of the picks acquired in the Matthew Stafford trade—which kicked off the rebuild in 2021—are gone.

To get to this point, the Lions have gone through a lot. They have become the tough group Campbell promised when he took over as head coach two years ago. They have created and exploited mismatches. And while they haven’t literally bitten any kneecaps, as Campbell said they would in his introductory press conference, they have rapidly ascended from league laughingstock to a legitimately good football team.

Detroit’s offense was a pain to defend in 2022, finishing fifth in both points scored and DVOA. The scheme, designed by coordinator Ben Johnson, was as diverse as any you could find in the NFL last season. Johnson used a variety of formations, personnel groupings, and run concepts to help create the league’s most prolific play-action pass game. That was nearly enough to bring the Lions to the postseason for the first time since 2016. And they came into the offseason with high expectations for 2023. The Packers and Vikings are both expected to take steps back this year. And in a weak conference, it’s not outlandish to think this Lions team is good enough to not only win the division, but also potentially make an NFC title game. Only the Eagles and 49ers have higher projected win totals in the conference, so the sportsbooks are awfully bullish on this team’s outlook.

I’m not sure if even Campbell and GM Brad Holmes, who was also hired in 2021, envisioned their plan coming together this quickly. But as this next phase of Lions football kicks off, there’s no time for patting each other on the back for a job well done. It’s time to ask, what’s next?

This weekend’s draft gave us our first glimpse of what we can expect from the second phase of this project, and … the initial impression wasn’t all that great. Detroit came into the draft with third most capital to work with of any team, per Pro Football Focus, including two first-round picks. The Lions used the first of those on undersized running back Jahmyr Gibbs, after passing on Bijan Robinson and trading down a few spots. Then with their second first-rounder, the Lions drafted Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell. Both were seen as massive reaches and the picks landed Detroit on the wrong side of draft “winners and losers” lists across the internet.

Day two was a bit better, with Detroit landing Alabama defensive back Brian Branch, who can play deep as a safety or in the slot as a nickel corner, tight end Sam LaPorta, and quarterback Hendon Hooker. LaPorta was also seen as a reach, but Branch and Hooker were good values for where they were taken. It was not enough to offset the damage done on day one, however.

It’s impossible to accurately grade a team’s performance in the immediate aftermath of a draft, but this already feels like a missed opportunity for the Lions. They had a prime opportunity to find a legitimate QB of the future, bolster their receiving corps, or shore up the pass rush, and instead reached on prospects at positions of lesser value. Plus, given the team’s current trajectory, it likely won’t be drafting in the top 10 again next year, which will make finding cost-controlled blue-chip talent more difficult. And for as solid as this roster looks, it is unquestionably short on superstar talent. Especially at the quarterback position, where Jared Goff remains the team’s starter for the foreseeable future. Holmes has already said Hooker will be taking a redshirt year in 2023, and that his only goal for the rookie is to get healthy (Hooker tore his ACL in November). So Goff shouldn’t be too threatened by Detroit’s newest QB, who will face a steep learning curve after playing in Tennessee’s super spread offense last year.

That Detroit didn’t take a big swing on a quarterback is a bit concerning. Goff isn’t a championship-caliber passer, so there’s a clear ceiling on this team with him at the top of the depth chart. And even if Hooker does develop well, there isn’t a ton of upside there. He’s already 25 years old and while he can move well for his size, he’s not a dynamic talent. Hooker’s arm is mediocre, he’s not very accurate, and he’s a bit of a statue in the pocket. If everything breaks right, he could become a midtier quarterback—the kind who will provide value while playing on a cheap rookie contract, but one you don’t necessarily want to pay big money. In other words, a real Jared Goff type.

The theme of Detroit’s draft was “more of the same.” Outside of Branch, the saving grace of the class in my opinion, Detroit failed to draft a player who will bring something new to the table. Gibbs will play the D’Andre Swift role after the oft-injured back was traded to Philly over the weekend. LaPorta is a direct replacement for T.J. Hockenson, who was traded to Minnesota last season. And both play at positions that rarely see big second contracts, meaning Detroit will likely be looking for their replacements in a few years’ time. The same goes for Jack Campbell, an off-the-ball linebacker. And while I loved the Branch pick, safeties aren’t getting big money these days either—which is one reason Gardner-Johnson came so cheap this offseason.

With the capital Detroit had entering the draft, the haul of players it came away with has to be considered a disappointment. The team had a real opportunity to add cheap talent at premium positions, and instead took players who would have to develop into elite players at their respective positions to earn a big extension. If Gibbs isn’t Alvin Kamara, he’s probably in a different uniform five years from now. If Campbell doesn’t turn into Luke Kuechly, he’ll have a hard time getting paid, too. The same goes for La Porta and Branch—as well as a number of the best players already on the roster.

Penei Sewell will get paid, thanks to his nasty run blocking, but will need to improve his pass protection before we can consider him an elite left tackle. Amon-Ra St. Brown is one of the toughest covers in the NFL, but he’s a slot receiver (a very good one, mind you) and not the type of game-breaker who can command top-of-the-market money. Frank Ragnow is one of the better centers in the league, but there’s a reason you can only name a few centers off the top of your head—it’s not a position that moves the needle significantly. This is a roster full of A-plus players at positions of B-minus importance. This draft class will just provide more of the same. And while that roster composition can produce a playoff berth—and even a postseason victory—it’s not one that will win you a Super Bowl.

This next phase for Campbell and Holmes should focus on finding ways to take another step forward—not trying to maintain, or just subtly improve, what they already have. There has to be more to the plan if this team is going to compete for a championship. That is abundantly clear. The worry is that team decision-makers don’t see it that way: That they think a team built mostly on toughness is enough to succeed. If building a tough team is their only goal, then they’re achieving it quite nicely. It’s just not a very good plan.