State Of The Franchise

State of the 2021 Detroit Lions: Dan Campbell era begins with promise after transformative offseason

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Lions organization, Lions fans around the world and those who remember Billy Sims as the OG No. 20 in Detroit:

Detroit has long been a city of innovation, from the Mustang to Motown Records to the three-colored stop light. But the previous Lions regime clearly lost its way -- or should I say the Patriot Way? Instead of being innovators, Bob Quinn, Matt Patricia and Co. tried to copy the formula of another franchise and it failed miserably. But now the Lions are looking to blaze their own trail once again. They brought in a man who is anything but conventional -- and he's always shown he's going to do things his way. Is this going to work? Let's take a look.

How the Lions got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Sitting at 3-3 after Week 7. The Lions leveled up after defeating the Atlanta Falcons, 23-22, scoring the winning touchdown on the last play of the game. Trailing 22-16 with just over a minute left in regulation and no timeouts, Matthew Stafford guided Detroit 75 yards in eight plays, ultimately throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Hockenson with 0:00 on the clock. Fun stuff.
  • Stafford leading the Lions back from a 10-point deficit in the final three minutes to upset the rival Chicago Bears. Thanks, Trubisky.

The lows:

  • Firing Matt Patricia. Well, Detroit actually canned Patricia and GM Bob Quinn before that Week 13 win at Chicago, following a nationally televised blowout loss to Houston on Thanksgiving. I know some sardonic Lions fans might be curious why this is considered a "low point" of the season. But anytime you hire a new coach, you should at least have the slightest hope that this is going to be the person who will turn around the franchise. That never worked for the Lions. So consider this the lowest ebb in a three-year lull. But hey, they won the week after firing Patricia, so maybe that's a sign of what could be in store going forward.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Dan Campbell. This dude talked about biting kneecaps during his opening press conference. Which is sort of on brand because Campbell kind of comes off like a South Park character anyway. And you thought that maybe it was just a matter of exuberance getting the best of him. Maybe somebody would tell him to tone it down just a smidge. But then he went out and said that he would love to have a pet lion at practice. Which is not only crazy, but also is kind of disrespectful to the noble beast. A lion is the king of the jungle. A lion shouldn't have to sit there and watch a Detroit Lions practice. Seriously, though, lions are not here for our amusement and gimmicks. Let that lion be. We don't need those kind of gimmicks. Dan Campbell showing up at Ford Motor Company? Great. Using wildlife for your amusement? Not so much.

But I do kind of hope that Campbell can make it work in Detroit. Or at least be competitive enough to stick around for a while. Because he's interesting, and having a coach like this is kind of good for the game. I'm sure many of you are too young to remember when Jerry Glanville was an NFL coach. He was hilarious. I'm thinking that worst-case scenario for Campbell is he's the best "mic'd up" coach in the NFL, And that's not bad. I mean, for NFL fans. For Lions fans, it would be terrible. Unless you are content with your squad being some mid-card comedy team. Like the way the WWE use Fandango and Tyler Breeze (or more specifically NXT). I'm assuming Detroit fans would love for their team to be a winner. I mean, that's what gave Glanville some credibility during his coaching tenure. His teams did have some success. If you can be that kind of coach to make headlines for the stuff he says and win games? That's the holy grail. And Campbell is halfway there.

Quarterback: Jared Goff. I made a ranking of NFC quarterbacks recently and I had Goff at the solid No. 7 spot. Oh wait, that was NFC NORTH quarterbacks, and that was assuming (hoping) Aaron Rodgers was gone. I had Goff behind Justin Fields, Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton, Nick Foles , Jordan Love and Kellen Mond. And Lions fans were outraged, which led me to believe that many people in Detroit did not watch Rams games over the last two seasons. Which is understandable. The Lions play in the early window. Typically get beat. And you lose all interest. I understand that. But Goff, while he was a starting quarterback in a Super Bowl, has not played well since that Super Bowl. Also, I'm a Bears fan. We tried to convince ourselves of this very same thing with Foles last year. That dude was actually a Super Bowl MVP against the Patriots, who exposed Goff the very next season. Not trying to bring you down. Because I don't want to be completely negative.

If you're looking for a glimmer, there is some hope. Goff was a high draft pick. He has some talent. And maybe the problem will ultimately prove to be that Sean McVay has been the overrated one. Maybe McVay was the guy who was solved by the Patriots. And when you look at new Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, well, who was his quarterback last season on the Chargers? Oh, yeah: The Offensive Rookie of the Year. Maybe Lynn unlocks something with Goff and we see the former No. 1 overall pick reach his full potential. I mean, everything is on the table here.

Projected 2021 MVP: Frank Ragnow, center. I mean, this guy deserves to be on a playoff team. But if the Lions are going to have any sort of success this season, it's going to start up front at the pivot. I do want to speak about the O-line a little bit later. But for me, Ragnow is the most valuable player on this franchise.

2021 breakout star: Romeo Okwara, outside linebacker. I know many of you might be saying, "Hey Rank, he broke out last year when he had 10 sacks." And that's a very good point. I just don't feel like he got the recognition that he deserved for it. I mean, the organization noticed, as they gave him a three-year, $37 million deal this offseason. I'm talking about the football-watching world. Well, other than Bears fans who saw him strip Mitchell Trubisky in that game I mentioned above.

Still, this could be a huge year for Okwara. Because new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn is moving him to outside linebacker and letting him run free. The Lions were miserable last year against the aerial attack, allowing the highest passer rating in the league (112.4). A big reason why: The Lions ranked dead last in quarterback hits (34). The change to a 3-4 defense could help get more pressure on the quarterback -- and maybe, just maybe, Okwara could be a huge benefactor.

New face to know: Penei Sewell, right tackle. This was a good first pick by new GM Brad Holmes, and he was certainly excited about making it. Sewell was one of the best offensive line prospects in some time. It makes sense to have a solid foundation up front. But it should be noted Sewell is just 20 years old (he turns 21 in October). He opted out of last season. And he's switching from left tackle (where he played at Oregon) to right tackle. Mostly because Taylor Decker is a stud. And you passed up a chance at Justin Fields to take him. Not only that, but Sewell has said it's going to take some time to make that transition. Shoot, I really did mean this in a good way, so let me say this: The Lions nailed their last two first-round OL picks -- Ragnow and Decker -- so let's make it a true streak with a third straight hit.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: MEDIUM. I'm going to say this: Most first-year coaches would be given a little wiggle room to get the program in shape, but Campbell is such a wild card. And while his strong personality feels infectious right now, it's also the type of thing that could be held against him -- fairly or unfairly -- if it doesn't get results. Like, what if this just turns into a disaster? What if Goff is bad, the team looks rudderless and chaos reigns? Campbell could wear out his welcome in the Motor City real quick. Especially with a former head coach as offensive coordinator. I'm not saying the Lions need to reach the playoffs. But they have to be competitive. And Campbell needs to show he can handle things other than press conferences.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. 49ers. Campbell gets started against one of the brightest young minds in the game, and a team that is expected to be a contender for the NFC title. And good news: You're going to Green Bay the following week for Monday Night Football. That's tough, no matter who is playing quarterback for the Packers.
  • Week 4 at Bears. Many people feel like this could be the first game Justin Fields starts. And you Lions fans will get a chance to see if you'll regret passing him up or not. Though that's going to be something that will take years to hash out.
  • Week 7 at Rams. The Jared Goff REVENGE GAME. And it's also a Matthew Stafford REVENGE GAME. But wait, didn't Matt ask to be traded? Whatever. Should be a lot of fun.

Will the Lions be able to …

Find a No. 1 receiver? The Lions lost Kenny Golladay, which was bad. But they also lost Marvin Jones, which actually might have been worse. The Lions are going to need to get production from guys like Quintez Cephus -- a player I tried to get over in fantasy last year, and it was never quite there. But there is certainly talent. He was targeted 35 times and turned that into 20 receptions for 349 yards and a pair of scores. (I want to say I started him in those games, but can't confirm.) That was almost the exact same production Golladay gave Detroit last year, so there you go. Jones' exit leaves 115 targets on the table, and with just Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman in front of Cephus, this could be a breakout season for the second-year wideout. Another name to watch out for is Amon-Ra St. Brown, a favorite here in Southern California. He could also be in the mix for those targets, too.

See Jeff Okudah develop into a shutdown cornerback? It was kind of a rough season for last year's No. 3 overall selection. Pro Football Focus ranked him 115th out of 121 qualifying cornerbacks after he allowed 38 completions on 50 targets. And he played in a division with Mitch Trubisky. All right, cheap shot. Okudah had surgery to repair a groin injury and has stayed in Detroit to work with new coordinator Aaron Glenn, who himself is a former first-round pick and Pro Bowl CB. But Okudah is just part of the puzzle. As I mentioned above, the Lions have to do a better job at getting to the passer. If you allow a quarterback to sit back there and throw the ball all day, even the best corners are going to struggle.

Let D'Andre Swift thrive? Look, this is probably more fantasy based than anything else, but why can't the Lions just let D'Andre run free? He's a good player and should be allowed to tote the rock a little bit more. It's like watching Ed Helms on The Office -- we just want the best for him. But the writers ruined his character, what with him abandoning Erin to go sail away with his brother. And I'm not even mad the Lions brought in Jamaal Williams from Green Bay. Every NFL team is going to want to bring in at least one other person. Campbell comes from New Orleans, where Latavius Murray was backing up Alvin Kamara. But it feels like the Lions keep reaching out to guys like Todd Gurley, and I'm going to be honest: It's a little disconcerting.

One storyline …

… people are overlooking: T.J. Hockenson is still in the mix. I mean, when talking about the top receiver earlier, what I should have talked about was who could be the top pass catcher. Hockenson has all the tools needed to be a great tight end at this level. He was second on the team last season with 101 targets and second with six touchdowns. A third-year breakout could be in the works here. If you look at what Tony Lynn did with the Chargers last year, Keenan Allen led all pass catchers with 147 targets. Tight end Hunter Henry was second with 93, despite playing in 14 games. And I already told you, the Lions don't have a Keenan Allen-type, so it wouldn't surprise me to see Hockenson lead the team in targets.

… people are overthinking: The Lions have a damn good offensive line. I was a little bit shocked Pro Football Focus had the Lions' offensive line ranked 10th coming into this season. Up several spots from last year. With Penei Sewell joining Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker, Detroit has a pretty good core up front. Jonah Jackson showed promise as a rookie last year, too. A big question, as previously mentioned, is Sewell moving to the right side of the line. But Campbell comes from the Saints, and they have consistently been great up front. I expect that to continue. And for real, if Goff is going to come through ... if Cephus is going to break out ... if my guy D'Andre is going to run wild ... it all starts with the line.

For 2021 to be a success, the Lions MUST:

  • Set up their roster for success. What the Lions really need to see is that this program is headed in the right direction. The offensive line looks like the best unit on the team, and that's a great starting point. The D-line has some promise, too. If they can continue to develop (and build around) the trenches, they'll be on their way. They could win fewer than five games, but if the team looks competitive -- and if Glenn has the defensive scheme working -- that should be enough.

In closing

I'm kind of excited. The Lions are going to be a lot of fun. Campbell is like a wrestler who can cut some great promos, but now it's time to see what he can do in the ring. Is he going to be like Randy Savage, who was not only a genius on the mic but one of the best workers in the world? Or somebody like the Ultimate Warrior, who cut great promos but couldn't work for [stuff]. I'm excited to find out. BTW, the best match of Savage's career happened at the old Pontiac Silverdome. I'm not sure if that's a sign or not, but wanted to end here on a good note.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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