There are a lot of embarrassing franchises in the NFL right now. New York Giants head coach Joe Judge went on an 11-minute diatribe admonishing everyone who is losing faith in his team (the Giants are 4-12 this season and have scored fewer touchdowns than any other team this year). According to a report, Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper is “unhappy and embarrassed” about the contract he gave head coach Matt Rhule almost two years ago, as Rhule has already fired his offensive coordinator and is currently cycling through a three-headed quarterback carousel. The Jacksonville Jaguars finally fired Urban Meyer in December, but their fans are currently plotting to attend the season finale wearing clown costumes in an ongoing grassroots protest following the announcement that GM Trent Baalke would be retained into next season.
You know who isn’t on that list? The Detroit Lions.
Yes, like those other franchises, the Detroit Lions are a bad football team in the first stage of a rebuild, making promises of a rosier future. New head coach Dan Campbell made headlines at his introductory press conference when he described in detail just how tough his Lions teams would be; he offered to rip his arm off in exchange for a Detroit Super Bowl and said he requested a pet lion on a “big-ass chain” from owner Sheila Ford Hamp to trot around during practice. The Lions were definitely bad, and Campbell—like Joe Judge and Matt Rhule and Urban Meyer—had plenty of hype to dole out detailing the culture he’d instill to bring the Lions wins.
As is almost always the case in year one of a dramatic rebuild, the team still lost—a lot. Campbell’s Lions have only two wins, which is just as many as the Jaguars and puts them second in the projected 2022 NFL draft order. Campbell inherited a devastated roster in Detroit, but first-year head coaches in similarly weak positions—David Culley in Houston; Robert Saleh in New York—have better records.
So where’s the panic? The fear, the frustration, the embarrassment? Yeah, some of that embarrassment is still there—you won’t meet a Lions fan who’s just thrilled to tell you that they’re a Lions fan—but things feel much better for Detroit. And that feeling isn’t just the eternal optimism of the obstinate fan. It really has legs.
One of those legs is rookie wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. A fourth-round pick out of USC, St. Brown was expected to be the sort of solid, if unspectacular college prospect who could hang on an average NFL roster with good special teams play and maybe fight for a starting job in a year or two. In Detroit, where the wide receiver depth chart was thinner than any other, St. Brown established himself as a starter by Week 4. With starts came snaps; with snaps came targets. Since Week 4, St. Brown has 99 targets, tied for the 17th-highest figure. That’s more than WR1s like Brandin Cooks, Michael Pittman Jr., D.K. Metcalf, and CeeDee Lamb.
Stumbling into volume on a depleted roster isn’t a rare occurrence. And for a while there, St. Brown’s production wasn’t that remarkable. From weeks 4 through 12, St. Brown averaged 1.33 yards per route run, right in the neighborhood of Byron Pringle, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Tyler Boyd, and Emmanuel Sanders—perfectly respectable for a third wide receiver. But St. Brown was able to retain that volume, produce with it, and warrant more volume because of his production. There’s a neat and tidy word for that process in the business: development.
Since Week 13, St. Brown is eighth in the league in yards per route run. Right in the neighborhood of Chris Godwin, Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, and Pittman—you know, top receivers on their teams. He’s averaging 4.4 yards after the catch. Only Jefferson and Cooper Kupp have more targets since Week 13.
Again, we should remember that volume is not a perfect proxy for talent, especially on poor rosters. Alternatively, the Lions could be throwing to players like Josh Reynolds or Kalif Raymond; they can no longer throw to their top pass catcher T.J. Hockenson, who was injured in Week 13, and whose absence has been a big reason for St. Brown’s increased volume. But it isn’t hard to watch St. Brown and see why he’s sustaining the volume: He’s straight good.
St. Brown is an easy example to highlight the Lions’ team development. He’s a fourth-round pick setting rookie records, the feature point of their offense, and a clear cornerstone piece for the Lions’ continued rebuild. He won’t always see this volume or play this well, but he’s been able to prove to Detroit’s brass that, of all the positions left on the team to fill, slot wide receiver can be confidently crossed off the list.
The Lions deserve credit for that self-awareness. Rebuilding teams prioritize veterans over youth far too often, unwilling to endure the inevitable growing pains that come with young players in new roles. Look to Jacksonville, where second-year running back James Robinson was forced into a timeshare behind veteran Carlos Hyde; in New York, where right tackle Matt Peart keeps getting benched for Nate Solder because “Nate’s the better player,” which conveniently ignores the fact that Solder hasn’t played well in years. St. Brown might be the most evident example of the hopeful Lions having actual legs, but he isn’t the only one. It would have been all too easy to focus on Raymond and Reynolds in the passing game; but the Lions knew that investment in young players matters more.
That awareness led to the release of Jamie Collins, a veteran player who never bought into Campbell’s approach. His departure opened room for more snaps for Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a 2017 draft pick, and Derrick Barnes, a fourth-round rookie. Barnes is another tremendous example of opportunity for a young player needing development—not because he’s been dominant, like St. Brown; but because he hasn’t.
“He’s got to play better,” Campbell said of Barnes during a radio interview on Tuesday. “I think with Derrick, there’s things that he learns from that he doesn’t have to make a mistake to learn from. But then there’s enough of these where, honestly, he’s got to stick his hand in the fire before he realizes that it is hot. You can’t just tell him. He’s got to figure it out himself.”
Barnes has flashed during his rookie season, but it hasn’t been perfect. Development rarely is. But because Barnes has played the third-most snaps of all linebackers on the team, he’s had the chance to stick his hand in the fire and find out that it’s hot. Some of those mistakes against the Seahawks led to points allowed, but you’d rather him make those errors now, when you’re 2-13-1, than when you’re 3-3 next season trying to scrape together a playoff push.
Detroit has been prioritizing development over wins pretty much all season—in part because it has to, but in part because that’s what’s necessary in a rebuild. That’s what put eight rookies on the field against the Seahawks for more than 50 percent of the snaps. So what if they gave up 51 points? They beat the Cardinals two weeks prior on the back of a stellar performance by undrafted third-year running back Craig Reynolds. With young players come peaks and valleys; with development comes surges and stumbles.
That win over the Cardinals also showed the Lions the eventual fruits of their patience. Reynolds was incredible; St. Brown had 95 total yards and a score. But third-year cornerback Amani Oruwariye hauled in his sixth pick of the season in what has been a breakout year for the former fifth-round pick. Sure, Oruwariye is a holdover from the old Bob Quinn–Matt Patricia regime, but he wasn’t without developmental talent—and after a promising sophomore performance in 2020, Oruwariye has blossomed under new DC Aaron Glenn, with the second-best QB rating allowed when targeted in coverage.
Oruwariye was the standout in coverage; Charles Harris was the standout in the trenches. Harris was a first-round pick all the way back in 2017 for the Miami Dolphins, and he was a bust. Harris tallied just 3.5 sacks through 41 games in Miami and started only eight games. He was traded to the Falcons, had little impact, and landed in Detroit on a one-year deal. In Detroit he has 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss in the game he played against Kyler Murray and the Cardinals. Harris was a toolsy player who never found a good fit in the league—he’ll probably not be an eight-sack guy for the Lions on a yearly basis. But at 26 years old and with a high draft pedigree, the Lions were in a position to take a swing, and they connected.
We can go on and on with this. Remember the concern over first-round tackle Penei Sewell’s start to the season? You won’t hear much about that anymore, and that’s because he’s given up only seven pressures in the past nine weeks. Undrafted free agent Jerry Jacobs won the corner job opposite Amani Oruwariye by midseason and is tied for second on the team in passes defensed (six) despite the fact that he started only nine games. Second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike is really struggling, so third-round pick Alim McNeill is splitting time with him at defensive tackle and playing well enough to hold down the starting job into next season.
A lot of rebuilding teams talk a good talk. Detroit is walking the walk, and that’s much tougher to do. It takes patience and great coaching—not just in teaching skills and fixing errors, but in living with optimistic patience for the continued mistakes of young players. It takes the humility to change course midseason (as Campbell did when he replaced Anthony Lynn as the play-caller in November) and to admit mistakes during the growing process (as Campbell, a first-time play-caller, did again when discussing his early growing pains on the headset). And it takes a good, supportive culture—a culture that fosters that kneecap-biting, rock-em-and-sock-em, never-say-die resilience that Campbell characterizes—to endure loss after loss while still believing the team is on the right track. As Campbell told his team after the win against the Cardinals: “You’re a tough, gritty group, you always have been, and now you’re seeing it pay dividends.”
He’s absolutely right. Rebuilding sounds easy, but it’s difficult in practice, as coaches like Meyer discovered in his one short year and Rhule and Judge are seeing now in their second years. And perhaps Campbell’s Lions will fall off the tightrope if the second year doesn’t bring improvement—hope burns for only so long in the impatient NFL. But in a league rife with embarrassment, the preseason favorite to be the most mortifying team is anything but. As our eyes turn to the playoffs, the winners, and the competitive teams, let’s take just one moment to tip our cap to the Detroit Lions, who never had a chance to be in the postseason, but sure put themselves on the right track to end up there soon.