Ranking the Detroit Lions Position Groups Before Training Camp
When the curtains rise on the 2023 NFL season, the spotlight will be firmly fixed on the Detroit Lions. Despite a grim 1-6 start, the 2022 season saw the Lions stage a remarkable turnaround. They roared back to win eight of their last ten games, a stretch that has drawn national attention and ratcheted up expectations for the upcoming season.
Now, the question that lingers is: Can the Detroit Lions maintain this momentum and evolve into serious playoff contenders?
In response to the heightened expectations, General Manager Brad Holmes and the front office have had a dynamic offseason. Their efforts have been concentrated on strengthening the team through free agency and the draft. As a result, the anticipation for the Lions’ 2023 season is at a fever pitch in the city, with fans eagerly awaiting the start of training camp to see their revamped team in action.
So, here we are in the midst of summer, and what could be a better time to present a ranking of the Detroit Lions’ position groups? This ranking aims to evaluate the team’s current strengths and weaknesses based on the roster prior to the start of training camp. The top spot should be a surprise to no one…
1. Offensive Line
When it comes to the Lions’ position units, their offensive line stands out as a cut above the rest. Widely recognized as one of the top five offensive lines across the NFL, this unit shines with elite talent and depth. This would be the case even if Graham Glasgow was slated at right guard over Halapoulivaati Vaitai. However, with a healthy Vaitai ready to boost the group to even greater heights, this Super Bowl-caliber player brings significant comfort and compatibility playing alongside Penei Sewell.
Center Frank Ragnow’s skills are second to almost no one, ranking him in the top 3 across the league. Sewell’s skills continue to evolve and flourish with the Lions, making him one of the brightest emerging talents in the league. Taylor Decker and Jonah Jackson, both Pro Bowl-worthy players, offer robust support on the left side of the line, safeguarding Jared Goff’s blindside.
The depth of this group only serves to enhance its distinctiveness. Addressing a few lingering injury concerns, Brad Holmes fortified their offensive line depth during the offseason. They welcomed back the seasoned Glasgow to Detroit following a multi-year tenure in Denver. Glasgow’s versatility allows him to stand in at both guard and center. Germain Ifedi, another experienced player, has contributed to the success of several teams, mainly as a starter in the NFC North. Additionally, the Lions drafted Colby Sorsdal from William and Mary, expecting him to transition to the guard position and strengthen the Lions’ lineup this season.
Just a season ago, the Lions’ secondary unit would have occupied the bottom rung on this ranking ladder. However, an assertive offseason strategy by Brad Holmes catapults this group to my number two position. I predict this unit will be a steady pillar of strength throughout the upcoming year, energized by new recruits CJ Gardner-Johnson (from the Eagles) and Cam Sutton (from the Steelers). When combined with the emerging talent of Kerby Joseph and the tenacity of Jerry Jacobs, the frontline of the secondary is a notable improvement.
Gardner-Johnson is an all-around safety who is anticipated to spend significant time in the nickel position, while also possessing the adaptability to cover as a free safety or cornerback if required. He is under a one-year “prove it deal” and has his sights set on a lucrative offseason. Cam Sutton, the experienced hand in the group, carries the potential to evolve into an elite cornerback, having left an indelible mark on the Steelers defense. After signing a three-year deal with the Lions this offseason, Sutton is definitely a player to watch.
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Two anticipated starters will make a return from injuries, primed to contribute.
Tracy Walker, a Lions safety, was enjoying a career-best year before an Achilles tear sidelined him in week three against the Vikings. He is set to return for training camp, ready to settle scores. Emmanuel Moseley, arguably the most skilled player in the secondary, signed a one-year deal with the Lions after coming from the 49ers while recuperating from an ACL tear. He is expected to be fully operational early in the 2023 season.
The Lions may have pulled off the draft’s greatest steal when they moved up to select Alabama’s Brian Branch when the safety slipped to the second round. Initially expected to be part of the second unit, Branch’s versatility may fast-track him to playing time early in his career. He stands to benefit greatly from Aaron Glenn’s defense strategy, which values adaptability and players who can slot-in at various positions and schemes.
The new defensive line coach, John Scott Jr. has a talented unit with considerable versatility. Aidan Hutchinson appears to be on the cusp of stardom, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see his name being considered for the ‘Defensive Player of the Year’ award as the season unfolds. In the same breath, Alim McNeill has made no secret of the physical transformation he has undergone to enhance his performance as a defensive tackle. Should he deliver a standout year, this unit’s position on my rankings could ascend. Assuming Buggs and Harris remain injury-free, they will be reliable contributors to a formidable starting unit.
The excitement intensifies when considering the projected second and third lines. James Houston, after his promotion from the practice squad last year, racked up an impressive eight sacks in eight games when called upon. During his appearance on the “Ermanni and Edwards Show with Maz,” he boldly stated his objective to double his sack total in 2023. The relatively unknown Brodric Martin may be a surprise element; despite his anonymity before the NFL draft, the Lions traded multiple assets to secure him in the third round. Though this raw DT could use some polishing, his freakish athleticism is all the more extraordinary considering his physical size. Josh Paschal saw limited playtime in 2022 due to recovery from a college injury, but in the wake of his complete recovery, he’s anticipated to make his mark in 2023.
Detroit’s backfield, despite delivering a strong performance in 2022, has undergone a complete overhaul. Jamaal Williams signed with the New Orleans Saints in free agency, and D’Andre Swift was traded to the Eagles during the NFL draft. Stepping in to fill the void are David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs, arguably forming one of the most versatile running back duos in the NFL.
Montgomery brings his talent to the Detroit after running behind a mid offensive line as a member of the Chicago Bears. He’s a back who can run powerfully between the tackles and serve as a reliable receiver out of the backfield, consistently shedding tackles in both scenarios. On the other hand, Jahmyr Gibbs, a former star under Nick Saban at the University of Alabama, adds an electrifying element to Detroit’s offensive strategy. While he’s capable of delivering physical runs, Gibbs truly shines on the outside, where a mere sliver of an opening could equate to a Lions touchdown. His explosive speed ensures there is always a threat for a momentum-shifting play.
Although Craig Reynolds and/or Jermar Jefferson might begin the year higher up the depth chart, undrafted free agent (UDFA) rookie Mohamed Ibrahim should not be overlooked as a potential contender for the third RB spot as the season progresses. As a four-year starter, Ibrahim set records for the most rushing yards in a single game (263), a single season (1,665), and a career total (4,668), while also setting rushing touchdown records (53). With a physical, straightforward style, Ibrahim’s vision, power, and decisiveness are certain to be an asset to this team. If fit, Ibrahim could play a crucial role in short-yardage situations for the Lions.
The Detroit Lions’ wide receiver group has faced its share of challenges this off-season. Most notably, Jameson Williams, an expected starter, received a six-game suspension related to gambling activities. His absence significantly alters the dynamics of the group. However, once he returns in Week 7, he’s projected to be an immediate contributor given his blazing speed, a quality that makes him one of the fastest players in the NFL. According to Jared Goff, “He’s done a great job up until this point getting himself ready. We can’t wait to get him back.”
The Lions’ wide receiver corps will continue to depend on Amon-Ra St. Brown, who, after earning a Pro Bowl nod and setting career-highs in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns, is looking to take on a more substantial leadership role.
His unwavering drive to push the Lions towards playoff success is a clear indication of his commitment to the team.
Marvin Jones Jr., following a productive tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars, returns to the Lions eager to duplicate his previous success. His career stats, including 36 touchdowns and 4,296 yards in 69 games, speak to his consistent performance and reliability, making him a valuable asset to the team.
The depth of the Lions’ wide receiver unit is highlighted by veterans like Josh Reynolds and Kalif Raymond, both of whom have built a strong rapport with Goff. Reynolds’ familiarity with Goff from their time together with the LA Rams ensures a secure connection on the field, while Raymond’s career-highs in receptions, yards, and punt return yards emphasize his versatility and value.
Rookie Antoine Green, the Lions’ seventh-round pick from UNC, is seen as a deep threat who has the potential to earn significant playing time. His combination of size and downfield threat could provide the Lions with a useful weapon in the end zone.
The Detroit Lions’ special teams unit lacks clarity on who will be the team’s starting kicker in 2023. Moreover, the loss of special teams standout CJ Moore, who was released by the Lions following a suspension due to gambling-related infractions, is a significant blow to the unit. They were a top 10 unit in the league in 2022, but this uncertainty pushes this position to the middle of my rankings. Nevertheless, punter Jack Fox stands as an unshakeable pillar in the special teams room.
Fox, widely regarded as the best punter in the NFL, has led the league in gross punting average and ranks second in net punting average since his debut. His honors, including 1st Team All-Conference Pro Football Writers, 1st Team Pro Football Focus, 2nd Team AP All-Pro, and Pro Bowl nods, attest to his capabilities.
He remains a dominant piece for the Detroit Lions’ special teams group.
Kalif Raymond, with his consistency as a punt returner, is another key piece to this group. His impressive 13.2-yard punt return average ranked best in the NFL, highlighted by a 47-yard touchdown against the Jets in Week 15, which earned him Second Team All-Pro as a punt returner.
As for the kicker position, the Lions have a three-man competition brewing between Riley Patterson, Michael Badgley, and John Parker Romo. Patterson, acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars, demonstrated his accuracy by making 13 out of 14 field goals with the Lions in 2021. Badgley, who was re-signed to a one-year deal this offseason, made 20 out of 24 field goals in 12 games with the Lions last season. John Parker Romo, who spent the spring kicking for the XFL’s San Antonio Brahmas, has the strongest leg of the group but lacks experience. This trio will battle it out to secure the starting kicker spot for the upcoming season.
Jared Goff, with his impressive performance in the 2022 season, has firmly cemented his place as the Detroit Lions’ leading man. His 29 touchdowns against just seven interceptions earned high praise, with NFL.com’s Marc Sessler remarking, “Nobody expected him to torch defenses.”
With career-best stats of 4,438 passing yards, a 65.1% completion rate, and a nine-game streak without an interception, Goff enters the 2023 season with momentum on his side. For the first time in his career, he will enjoy the continuity of having the same offensive coordinator and QB coach in consecutive seasons. His strengths, particularly his accuracy and ability to exploit play-action, often go unnoticed. Goff’s connection with new running back David Montgomery promises to add another layer of complexity to the Lions’ attack, creating a potent offensive duo with Jahmyr Gibbs.
Nate Sudfeld provides reliable backup support for Goff, but all eyes are on Detroit Lions’ rookie 3rd round pick Hendon Hooker. The promising quarterback, once he fully recovers from his torn ACL, is expected to be the next man up if Goff steps off the field. Hooker will have the invaluable opportunity to learn from Goff, who has received praise for his willingness to mentor the young quarterback.
Coach Campbell speaks highly of Hooker’s potential: “He’s very mature. He looks the part, he’s got a big arm, and he’s just got to learn how to play in the NFL.” Hooker, despite a premature end to his college season due to a torn ACL, still earned SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Jared Goff (QB)
Hendon Hooker (Rookie)
8. Tight End
The Lions’ tight end room has been reshuffled significantly, with Brock Wright stepping up as the No. 1 option after T.J. Hockenson’s trade to Minnesota last season. Wright’s in-line blocking prowess should secure him steady playing time, despite his limitations as a receiver.
LaPorta’s skillset extends beyond that of a traditional tight end.
At 6’3″ and 245 lbs, LaPorta often dominated on the field, not just with his size and strength, but also with his pass-catching abilities. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. hailed him as “a receiver in a tight end’s body,” a characterization that certainly matches his impressive statistics of over 50 catches and more than 600 receiving yards in each of his last two seasons at Iowa.
James Mitchell, a fifth-round pick in 2022, offers more depth to this group. Despite suffering a torn ACL in his final season at Virginia Tech, Mitchell still managed to play 14 games as a rookie, hauling in all 11 passes thrown his way. Alongside LaPorta, Mitchell could form a seam-busting duo that takes the Detroit Lions’ tight end room into the future.
Shane Zylstra adds depth to the tight end position. In Week 16 against Carolina, Zylstra became only the second tight end in franchise history to record a three-touchdown game, indicating his potential for big plays. His four touchdowns on 15 targets in 2022 show that when called upon, he can be a reliable contributor.
I expect the linebacker group to make the most significant leap this season. However, they currently sit at the bottom of my rankings for two reasons. They don’t strike fear into me, and their upside relies on the performance of a rookie.
Alex Anzalone, who signed a 3-year contract this offseason, has demonstrated the Lions’ trust in his abilities as a veteran linebacker. The addition of Jack Campbell, a run-stuffing linebacker drafted from Iowa, has sparked competition for a starting role, with Derrick Barnes determined to make his mark as well. Not to be overlooked is Malcolm Rodriguez, who stepped into a starting role as a rookie in 2022.
Anzalone’s impact on the Detroit Lions extends beyond impressive statistics, such as his career-high 125 tackles in 2022. His understanding of the team’s defensive strategy and his mentorship of young linebackers like Barnes, Campbell, and Rodriguez are crucial to their development and the team’s success.
The Detroit Lions’ defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn highlights Jack Campbell’s versatility and football intelligence. Its a bonus that he’s a beast of a kid entering his rookie season at 6-5, 243 lbs. Head coach Dan Campbell has expressed excitement about Campbell’s physicality, work ethic, and leadership qualities. These traits are a focus of the organization as they continue to cultivate a winning culture in Detroit.
Barnes, who finished 2022 with 43 tackles and four starts, has shown remarkable growth and maturity throughout the offseason. He continues to earn praise from linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard. Head coach Dan Campbell also acknowledges Barnes’ progress and assures him of upcoming opportunities. Malcolm Rodriquez showcased his exceptional drive and was a standout linebacker that outperformed expectations in 2022. His ability to read and react swiftly while sifting through the chaos at the line-of-scrimmage are an important layer to his game.