Detroit Lions 2021 Season Recapby Mike Fanelli January 19, 2022 1 comment
When the Detroit Lions traded Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams, it was clear the franchise was rebuilding. They were the heavy favorites to earn the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft entering the season. However, first-year head coach Dan Campbell didn’t want to hear a word about the NFL draft. The Lions finished the year with a 3-13-1 record, with the tie coming against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 10. Two of their wins came over playoff teams: the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers. While the win over the Packers in Week 18 comes with an asterisk, the 30-12 win over the Cardinals is meaningful. As the Lions head into the offseason, they have three of the top 34 selections in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Make sure to check out all of our other NFL Season Recaps.
What Went Right
Going into the year, everyone knew the 2021 season was all about the future for the Lions. While the offense averaged only 19.1 points per game, ranking 25th in the NFL, there have several pieces in place moving forward. The Lions have their bookend offensive tackles with Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell. Second-year running back D’Andre Swift led the team with 617 rushing yards despite missing four games. He also finished second in receptions with 62, a career-high. Despite dealing with injuries and less than ideal quarterback play, T.J. Hockenson was one of the better tight ends this season. He finished second on the team with four receiving touchdowns despite missing five games. More importantly, the Lions got a steal with Amon-Ra St. Brown.
The fourth-round rookie started slowly but finished the season on fire. Over the final six games, St. Brown averaged 8.6 receptions on 11.4 targets for 90.2 receiving yards and 0.8 receiving touchdowns per game. He also added 49 rushing yards on six attempts and one touchdown during that span. Over a 17 game pace, St. Brown would have totaled 146 receptions on 194 targets for 1,533 receiving yards and 14 receiving touchdowns, all ranking top four in the NFL this season. While the Lions still need to add a wide receiver in the offseason, St. Brown is a cornerstone piece to their offense moving forward.
What Went Wrong
While the offense had some bright spots, the defense was mostly a disaster. The Lions gave up 27.5 points per game this season, the second-most in the NFL. After missing seven games as a rookie because of injuries, Jeff Okudah tore his Achilles in Week 1 and missed the rest of the season. Fortunately, third-year cornerback Amani Oruwariye stepped up and had six interceptions this season, the third-most in the NFL. However, the rest of the team combined for five interceptions after the Lions had a total of seven interceptions last year. The Lions also struggled to tackle consistently. They had 11 players finish with a missed tackle rate of 15 percent or higher.
After posting a career-high 10 sacks in 2020, the Lions signed Romeo Okwara to a three-year deal worth $37 million. Unfortunately, Okwara struggled with injuries this season and had only one sack in four games. The only Detroit defender to finish with more than five sacks this season was Charles Harris with 7.5 sacks. After totaling only 6.5 career sacks before this season, Harris had a career year. However, he is a free agent, and Detroit should be hesitant about re-signing him to a long-term contract.
Team Award Winners
MVP – D’Andre Swift
While he missed four games because of injuries, Swift had a productive 2021 season. The second-year running back finished first on the roster in rushing yards with 617 and fourth with 452 receiving yards. Furthermore, he put up most of those numbers over the first 10 games of the season. After suffering a shoulder injury in Week 12, Swift played a total of 68 snaps the rest of the season, totaling only 17 touches on those snaps. Furthermore, Swift had the two best games of his career before suffering the injury, rushing for at least 130 yards in back-to-back games. Now that the Lions have fired offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, Swift should have a featured role in 2022.
Offensive Rookie of the Year – Amon-Ra St. Brown
When the Lions didn’t use a top-100 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on a wide receiver, fans were confused by the decision. However, they found a star in the fourth round with St. Brown. Despite starting the season slowly, St. Brown led the team in receptions (90), targets (119), receiving yards (912), and receiving touchdowns (five). Over the final four weeks of the season, St. Brown had at least 90 receiving yards and a touchdown in every game. While they need to add to their wide receiver room in the offseason, St. Brown is a foundation piece to the offense for the Lions.
Defensive Rookie of the Year – AJ Parker
The Lions used several picks on defense last year and got some production from most of them. However, they might have found a gem after the draft in Parker. As an undrafted free agent, Parker stepped up with Okudah suffered a torn Achilles in Week 1. Parker started seven games for the Lions and played in 13 total. He finished with 50 tackles, second-most among cornerbacks on the team. He also had seven passes defended, the second-most on the roster, and an interception in Week 11 against the Cleveland Browns. Hopefully, Okudah can stay healthy next year and form a productive starting duo with Oruwariye. However, if he can’t, Parker might be able to fill Okudah’s shoes.
Biggest Surprise – Amani Oruwariye
Speaking of Oruwariye, the third-year cornerback was arguably the best defensive player for the Lions this season. He led the team with 11 passes defended and six interceptions. By comparison, no other player on the team had more than one interception or seven passes defended. He also allowed only 61 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed this season. Furthermore, Oruwariye gave up a quarterback rate of only 74.1 when targeted this season, easily a career-low. As he enters the final year of his rookie deal in 2022, the Lions should consider signing Oruwariye to a contract extension this offseason.
Biggest Disappointment – Romeo Okwara
After posting a career-high 10 sacks in 2020, the Lions signed Okwara to a three-year deal worth $37 million. Unfortunately, Okwara struggled with injuries this season and had only one sack in four games. While he only played in four games because of injuries, Okwara wasn’t productive in those contests. Despite playing an average of 97.7 percent of the snaps over the first three games this season, Okwara had one sack and only two quarterback hits. Furthermore, he had only one tackle for a loss in those games and zero solo tackles over the first two games. Hopefully, Okwara returns to his breakout 2020 form next season, especially with the likely addition of either Kayvon Thibodeaux or Aidan Hutchinson.
One Burning Question
Should the Lions Spend a First-Round Pick on a Quarterback?
When the Lions traded Stafford to the Rams, they reportedly wanted Jared Goff in the deal. However, many believed he was thrown in for salary cap reasons. Regardless of whichever you believe, Goff wasn’t terrible this season, throwing 19 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions. He also completed 67.2 percent of his passes, a career-high. However, Goff isn’t the long-term answer at quarterback. Unfortunately, the 2022 NFL Draft class lacks a blue chip quarterback prospect. With that being the case, the Lions will likely use the second overall pick on either Thibodeaux or Hutchinson. While quarterback is out of the equitation with their second overall pick, could the Lions use the later first-round pick they got from the Rams on a quarterback?
Later this month, Campbell and the Lions will be coaching the American team during the Senior Bowl. That means they will get a week of hands-on experience with quarterbacks Sam Howell, Malik Willis, and Bailey Zappe. Per Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, the Lions will also get meeting room time with the quarterbacks they will be facing. So the Lions will get a chance to meet with Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder, and Carson Strong. While Pickett is a projected top-20 pick, the other five quarterbacks all could be available when the Lions make their second first-round pick. Do they select one of them? It’s a real possibility.
Follow Mike Fanelli on Twitter @Mike_NFL2
Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images