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Detroit Lions: 2022 Preseason Predictions and Preview

D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions

D'Andre Swift and the Lions are hoping to take another step forward after a encouraging finish to last season.

They laid the foundation in Year 1. But the hard labor is just beginning for the regime of general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell as they enter their second season in Detroit.

The Lions are coming off a 3-13-1 debut, which marked the franchise's fourth consecutive double-digit loss campaign. But an encouraging second half of 2021 has raised expectations among a restless fan base. Players embraced Campbell's aggressive coaching style and his upbeat approach after the dreary Bob Quinn-Matt Patricia era, and a staff littered with former NFL players made notable strides in player development with one of the league's youngest rosters. But with that group returning largely intact, now it'll be time to see more winning results.

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OFFENSE

The Lions boast one of the league's best offensive lines, provided that group can stay healthy. Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow missed most of last season with a toe injury, and left tackle Taylor Decker's preseason hand injury meant that rookie tackle Penei Sewell had to flip back and forth as an immediate starter. But even with those handicaps, the Lions' run game put up the kind of numbers the franchise hadn't seen since the Barry Sanders era.

That didn't matter much early on because quarterback Jared Goff struggled out of the gate after coming to Detroit in the blockbuster offseason trade that sent Matthew Stafford to Los Angeles, where he'd ultimately lead the Rams to a Super Bowl title. But Goff rebounded in the second half of the season, a resurgence that coincided with Campbell taking over the offensive play-calling duties (from since-departed Anthony Lynn) and elevating Ben Johnson as the pass-game coordinator. Goff posted a 101.8 passer rating over his final six starts, notching wins over playoff contenders in three of the last four.

That sets up a pivotal 2022 for the 27-year-old Goff, a former No. 1 pick who has three years remaining on his contract but could be cut loose after this season with minimal salary-cap ramifications. Is he merely a bridge quarterback in Detroit or one the Lions will decide to build around? They bypassed a lackluster quarterback class in this draft, but they still have an extra 2023 first-round pick from the Stafford trade to make a move next offseason.

Goff should have enough weapons to make his case this season, with a dynamic running back in D'Andre Swift, a Pro Bowl tight end in T.J. Hockenson in a contract year and a much-improved receiving corps. Last year's rookie wideout, Amon-Ra St. Brown, proved to be a sure-handed security blanket, and Goff benefited from a reunion with ex-Rams teammate Josh Reynolds. But the Lions brought in a legitimate downfield threat in DJ Chark Jr. in free agency, and then they took an even bigger swing in April, trading up 20 spots in the first round to grab Alabama's Jameson Williams, the most explosive big-play threat in the draft. He's coming off an ACL injury in January but expects to be on the field by October. And as Johnson, who was promoted to offensive coordinator this offseason, says, "Once he gets healthy, we're going to have something to cook with. It'll be fun."

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DEFENSE

The Lions' defense improved only marginally from the historic depths it reached in Patricia's final season in Detroit. And while the statistics still showed a bottom-five unit under new coordinator Aaron Glenn, the active roster each week offered some excuses, at least, as a rash of injuries and a serious youth movement both were key factors.

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Rookie defensive tackles Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike combined for more than 800 snaps up front, fellow newcomer Derrick Barnes emerged as a starter at linebacker and undrafted rookies Jerry Jacobs and AJ Parker played nearly 50 percent of the snaps in the secondary.

"We're not scared to let young guys play, we're just not," Holmes says. "You can't be on the driving range all day. You've gotta go play."

That won't change this fall, either, as the Lions spent six of their eight 2022 draft picks on defense. The most notable of those was Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, the No. 2 overall selection who should make an immediate impact playing for his hometown team. The 6'7", 260-pounder is an easy cultural fit and fills a huge need up front, as the Lions ranked 30th in the league in sacks last season.

Romeo Okwara, a double-digit sack producer in 2020 who suffered a torn Achilles last October, is expected back this fall, and the Lions re-signed Charles Harris, who revived his career on a one-year prove-it deal in 2021. Okwara's younger brother, Julian, also created some havoc off the edge late last season, and the team hopes rookie third-round pick Josh Paschal can help Onwuzurike generate some more consistent inside pressure on passing downs.

Veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone is back for another year calling the shots in the middle, while Barnes needs to take a major step after an up-and-down rookie showing because the Lions didn't make any major investments there in free agency.

There's depth in the secondary but also lingering injury questions. Cornerback Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 overall pick in 2020, ruptured his Achilles in Week 1, and Jacobs, who allowed just one touchdown in nine starts, tore his ACL in December. Amani Oruwariye is coming off a career year (six INTs), but there could be some intriguing training camp battles to get everything sorted out. Ifeatu Melifonwu, one of Holmes' 2021 draft crushes, also is in the mix, along with Will Harris, a safety who also played the nickel corner and outside due to all the injuries.

But the Lions' biggest offseason move was locking up safety Tracy Walker III with a new three-year, $25 million deal. Walker had his best season as a pro, leading the Lions with 108 tackles and allowing just two TDs in coverage. And as an unrestricted free agent, his endorsement of the new coaching staff spoke volumes this offseason.

"I'm tired of losing in Detroit, and coaches feel the same," Walker says. "They're tired of seeing Detroit be a laughingstock in the NFL."

SPECIALISTS

Punter Jack Fox followed up his Pro Bowl rookie season with another strong effort in 2021, but the kicking game was in flux until the Lions signed rookie Riley Patterson off New England's practice squad in November. Patterson went on to make 13-of-14 field-goal attempts and all 16 of his PATs to earn another contract this winter. The Lions' return game also was excellent under new coordinator Dave Fipp, as Kalif Raymond (punts) and Godwin Igwebuike (kickoffs) both ranked in the top five in the NFL. The Lions also were lights-out running fake punts — Fox was a high school quarterback — and recovered an NFL-best three onside kicks.

FINAL ANALYSIS

What started as a caricature for the Lions began to feel more like character building by the end of Campbell's first season in Detroit. His fiery introductory speech about biting kneecaps was lampooned nationally, but the way the team rallied after an 0-10-1 start and fought to the finish almost every week validated the coach's message. Whether Goff and the offense can do enough to turn some of those close losses (six by a TD or less) into victories is the big question heading into 2022. But there's enough playmaking talent on that side of the ball — and an offensive line that can take control of games — to expect twice as many wins, at least.

Prediction: 2nd in AFC North