The Detroit Lions had a clear strategy in 2021 of playing and developing young talent.
At times, the sheer number of players that suited up without much prior playing experience was staggering.
Much of that was due to the vast number of injuries suffered by the team this season.
Cornerback Jeff Okudah was lost for the entire 2021 season in the season opener.
With all of the injuries, general manager Brad Holmes essentially had two options: Hit free agency to fill the holes or turn to the young players.
Holmes, who proved to be process-oriented in his first year as the Lions’ leader, stuck with the guys he had. The result was valuable experience for a plethora of young, inexperienced players.
“I have a, let’s call it an available free agents board filled with veterans who are available to come in and help,” Holmes said. “No, we stuck with our plan and let these young guys play and get valuable experience. At the end of the day, we did lay a good foundation.”
All seven of the Lions’ 2021 NFL Draft selections saw significant playing time in their rookie seasons.
Amon-Ra St. Brown was perhaps the most impressive, finishing the season with 912 receiving yards, setting the organizational record for yards from a rookie.
“He was who we thought he was going to be,” Holmes said of St. Brown. “It’s the same thing. You can say, ‘Oh he’s a fourth-round pick,’ but Amon-Ra, he reminded me of some of the guys that we had when I was back in L.A.”
Second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike dealt with injuries early in the season, and struggled late. Despite his inconsistency, Holmes and the coaching staff remain optimistic about his future in Motown.
“Levi, coming off of an opt-out, battled some health things earlier in the year,” Holmes said. “So, we’re at the point now, Dan and I thought he was going to be almost a redshirt. How well he performed down the stretch, it wasn’t always good. He’s got a lot of stuff to work on, and he’s aware of it.”
Another rookie who dealt with struggles was linebacker Derrick Barnes. Holmes is also optimistic about his future, pointing out moments of encouraging progress from Barnes throughout the year.
“It was little nuances, where you saw the growth and development in his game,” Holmes said. “I think the future is bright for him, as well.”
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With the season over, Holmes spoke on his optimism regarding the results the team got from its draftees.
“All seven draftees played critical roles, played valuable roles,” Holmes said. “Six of the seven were starters at some point in the season, even a seventh-round pick in Jermar Jefferson. He was able to contribute.”
The youth movement didn’t stop with draftees, as a trio of undrafted free agents also stepped into valuable playing time. With injuries in the secondary, A.J. Parker and Jerry Jacobs were forced into action. Additionally, T.J. Hockenson’s season-ending injury paved the way for Brock Wright.
“Those guys started games for us,” Holmes said. “That’s valuable for those guys. It makes the future bright.”
Holmes made it clear that his vision for the rebuild is centered around player development. Even as the team hopes to get back into contention, the GM maintains that the plan will always be to create opportunities for the young guys to get experience.
“We’re not scared to let young guys play, we’re just not,” Holmes said. “You can’t be on the driving range all day. You've gotta go play.”
Campbell grows as play-caller
Head coach Dan Campbell made a big move in Week 10 of the season, taking play-calling duties into his own hands and away from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn.
The first-year head coach took steps forward in each game, leading to an explosive season finale during which Detroit scored on two trick plays and beat the NFC North champion Green Bay Packers.
With Campbell calling plays, the offense’s total yardage improved weekly, ending with a 404-yard output in the final game. Quarterback Jared Goff also saw improved production, after Campbell took over the play-calling duties.
Holmes watched his head coach grow every week, and was pleased with the end result.
“I fully supported it, 1,000 percent,” Holmes said. “I knew that was hard for him to do. But, as a leader, you have to make some tough decisions. It was cool to see Dan grow as a play-caller as the season went on. He kind of made a big move, a tough decision, but he did what was best for the team at that time. After he did what was best for the team, now he’s good at it. He keeps growing.”
Holmes said he and Campbell collaborate on everything football related. When asked if Campbell will remain the play-caller, he said the head coach will get to make that decision.
“It’s his football team,” Holmes said. “I told him, ‘Man, you need to do what you want.’ If he wants to call plays, he should call plays. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t."