Sunday marked the dawn of a new era for the Detroit Lions.
Not only was the game the start of the Dan Campbell era, it was also the beginning of the careers of Detroit’s highly-touted rookie class.
Among these rookies are the team's first-round selection and the No. 7 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Penei Sewell, and the No. 112 overall pick in the '21 draft, wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.
In addition, two undrafted free agents made their NFL debuts in defensive backs AJ Parker and Jerry Jacobs.
Here’s a look at how each rookie performed in Sunday’s loss to San Francisco:
OT Penei Sewell: B+
Sewell had arguably the toughest draw of anyone Sunday. The Oregon product was forced to move to left tackle midweek, following an injury to Taylor Decker. In addition, he was forced to match up with Nick Bosa, one of the league’s best defensive ends.
Sewell performed well, holding his own against Bosa, after a couple of early mishaps in pass-protection sets. He looked very comfortable in run-blocking situations, using his feet well and moving guys around.
The rookie played 92 snaps in his debut, a sign of faith in him from the Lions’ staff. If his performance was an indication of his future, fans have a lot to be excited about with him. Sewell wasn’t perfect, but there is so much here to build on.
DT Alim McNeill: C
McNeill played 28 snaps in his debut. With the 49ers running the ball seemingly at will early, it was likely that McNeill was out there as long as he was able to provide some sort of run-stopping presence.
It was a rough day all around for Detroit on defense, as San Francisco ran the ball at will. McNeill wasn’t a huge problem, but he really didn’t do anything to solve it.
CB Ifeatu Melifonwu: C+
Melifonwu played just 12 snaps in his debut. He recovered the late fumble by Deebo Samuel to set the Lions up with a chance to tie, but also missed a tackle and struggled a bit while he was in.
With Jeff Okudah down for the season with an Achilles' injury, Melifonwu’s workload is about to increase. The days of him playing so little are likely gone for the near future.
WR Amon-Ra St. Brown: B
The USC product finished the game with just two catches for 23 yards. Yet, he was missed on one of his four targets by Jared Goff, who had him wide open near the 10-yard line. Had the two connected, St. Brown would’ve had his team’s first score of the season.
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The offense didn’t do St. Brown a ton of favors on Sunday, with a majority of Goff’s targets going underneath to running backs Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift, along with tight end T.J. Hockenson.
Fans should be optimistic with the future of St. Brown, but it will be difficult for him to make a bunch of big plays with how limited the offense is.
LB Derrick Barnes: B-
Barnes played just five defensive snaps. He made one tackle, but also allowed a reception in pass coverage. It’s tough to give a grade based on such a low sample size. Yet, four of his snaps were against the run, and PFF gave him a 80.2 grade for his performance in those run snaps.
The coaching staff loves what Barnes can bring. That much is true. However, he is still a bit of a project, and will likely be eased into a bigger role. Until he can supplant the veteran linebackers that Detroit employs now, he will have to make his mark through primarily special teams.
DB AJ Parker: B+
The undrafted rookie out of Kansas State was not targeted once in his NFL debut. He played a total of 21 snaps, including 11 in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. Parker was the second-highest graded player on Detroit’s defense in the season opener.
PFF gave Parker a 75.0 grade in run defense and a 66.3 grade in pass coverage. We’ll see where his production goes with an increased workload, but it was a good start for Parker.
DB Jerry Jacobs: C-
Jacobs didn’t see the field on defense, playing only on special teams. It doesn’t look like there’s a clear role for him on that side of the ball, but it’s clear Detroit likes him on special teams. He brings a lot with his athleticism.
The loss of Okudah opens a role. Though Jacobs will by no means be stepping into a starting role, there’s an opportunity for him to take. Detroit recently re-signed Quinton Dunbar, meaning Jacobs’ workload may not increase. However, he could still get a chance in some capacity.
Did not play
DT Levi Onwuzurike, RB Jermar Jefferson, OL Tommy Kraemer
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