Being a rookie in the NFL can be a difficult task.
The expectations for newcomers in the league often correlate with where they are drafted.
For a first-rounder, expectations can border on unreasonable. For later selections and undrafted free agents, it can be easier to slide under the radar.
The Detroit Lions welcomed seven draft picks in the 2021 Draft. With the rebuilding state of the franchise, it was expected that the early selections would be forced to contribute right away.
Thanks to injuries, all seven were forced to step into rather large roles right away.
Here are SI All Lions’ grades for Detroit’s seven rookies, following the 2021 season.
OT Penei Sewell: A-
Drafted: 1st round (7th overall)
Sewell was seen as the prized pick, as the Lions’ draft room erupted in celebration when he was available for selection with the seventh pick. The 21-year-old was seen as a plug-and-play starter from day one.
Initially expected to start at right tackle, Sewell was forced to flip to the left side when Taylor Decker suffered a finger injury and was placed on injured reserve. The rookie’s first task was to slow down San Francisco star Nick Bosa in the season opener. He did a serviceable job.
As the season went on, the Oregon product had his ups and downs. He struggled in Week 5 against Minnesota, leading head coach Dan Campbell to speak on his inexperience. Yet, the season as a whole could be seen as a success, as he allowed just five sacks.
In his last game of the season, a Week 17 loss to Seattle, Sewell did not allow a single pressure in 41 pass-blocking snaps. He showed a knack for competing with opponents at the highest level, and held his own against some of the best.
The youngster wasn’t afraid to mix it up with defenders and talk some smack, too. In his own words, the season was “not good enough." But, there’s plenty to be excited about in the near future.
DT Levi Onwuzurike: C
Drafted: 2nd round (41st overall)
The first of two defensive tackles selected by the Lions, Onwuzurike entered the season after opting out of his final college campaign.
The Washington product dealt with injuries in the preseason, and was held to limited action once the regular season began. Yet, once the season picked up, he became a member of the defensive line rotation.
His rookie season wasn’t memorable, as he finished with just one sack and 35 tackles. Campbell called for him to play better in a late-season media session. Following the season, general manager Brad Holmes said he and Campbell considered making the season a “redshirt” year for Onwuzurike.
With limited depth on the defensive line, Onwuzurike will see plenty of time and action in his second year. With a full, presumably healthy offseason, it will be interesting to see what year two looks like for him.
DT Alim McNeill: B
Drafted: 3rd round (72nd overall)
McNeill’s trajectory somewhat mirrored Onwuzurike's, as he started in a limited role. However, his production increased steadily, and he became a mainstay in the lineup as the season came to an end.
With McNeill, there were issues about his abilities as a pass rusher coming out of college. However, he had two sacks, and showed some strength in getting to opposing quarterbacks.
Where he appears to make his money, however, is as a run-stuffer. McNeill had success plugging run lanes, and emerged as a reliable run-stopper as the season progressed. In his last two games, he totaled eight tackles.
He played a total of 422 snaps, which accounted for 37 percent of Detroit’s total snaps. His workload was somewhat limited, but there’s a lot to like about how the season ended for the N.C. State alum.
CB Ifeatu Melifonwu: C
Drafted: 3rd round (101st overall)
The start to the season was interesting, to say the least, for Melifonwu. After playing just 12 snaps in the regular season opener, he was thrust into a starting role after Jeff Okudah suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 1.
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Yet, the starting spot would have to be deferred when Melifonwu suffered a thigh injury in Week 2. He missed nine games with the injury, landing on IR.
Upon returning, he played just 15 combined snaps in his first two games. However, injuries once again called him back to action, and he played 46, 72 and 67 snaps, respectively, in his last three games (all starts).
The rookie had his struggles in pass coverage, allowing 14 completions for 213 yards and two touchdowns on 23 targets, over the course of the season. The rangy defensive back took his lumps, but is expected to come back stronger with a full season.
How he fits in a cornerback room full of youth remains to be seen. Amani Oruwariye emerged as a top corner before his injury, and Okudah is expected to be back in 2022. This may leave Melifonwu competing with fellow rookies Jerry Jacobs and A.J. Parker for playing time next year.
WR Amon-Ra St. Brown: A+
Drafted: 4th round (112th overall)
Detroit’s first pick of the draft’s third day was its best.
St. Brown finished the season strongly, and established himself as a top receiving threat. He now holds the record for most receiving yards by a rookie in Lions history.
The USC product caught at least eight passes in each of Detroit’s last six games, and went over 100 yards twice in that span. His first career touchdown catch was the game-winner against Minnesota that gave Detroit its first victory of the season.
In addition to his receiving prowess, the rookie was used as a running back in certain formations. How that role evolves will be fun to watch.
After playing limited snaps early in the season, St. Brown turned into a full-fledged star, and should be among the best in the Lions’ receivers room next season. Whether he continues to be used as a slot receiver or transitions outside will be a situation to monitor.
It’s fair to say a large amount of optimism surrounding Detroit’s offense heading into 2022 was generated by the rookie wideout’s strong finish. He took many by surprise, given his later selection. However, he’s no longer a secret.
LB Derrick Barnes: C-
Drafted: 4th round (113th overall)
The Purdue product was drafted in the fourth round, despite making a recent transition to linebacker. This inexperience showed, as the rookie struggled in pass coverage early in the season.
He allowed 19 completions for 305 yards and two touchdowns on 22 targets in 2021, a sign of needed improvement. Campbell and company wanted to bring him along slowly as he continued to learn the position, but injuries once again necessitated a speedy introduction.
As a run-stopper, he was serviceable. The potential is there, as he finished with 67 tackles and two sacks. However, there are areas where he must improve.
Year No. 2 will be a big one for the former Boilermaker. Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Alex Anzalone both have expiring contracts, meaning there’s a chance Barnes will have an increased role.
Even if one or both are back with Detroit in 2022, it’s likely Barnes sees more opportunities. How he takes advantage of them will determine the outlook on him going forward.
RB Jermar Jefferson: D
Drafted: 7th round (257th overall)
Selected late in the NFL Draft after a surprising slide, Jefferson took the field knowing that his role would be limited behind starters D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.
Even with this prior knowledge, he couldn’t work his way into a consistent role when given opportunities. He wasn’t active until Week 6, and didn’t notch his first carry until late in a Week 8 blowout loss to Philadelphia.
He did score in that loss to the Eagles, one of two touchdowns on the season for the Oregon State product. He suffered an injury against Pittsburgh on a touchdown run in Week 10, and did limited damage after that.
Even with Swift and Williams out at various points in the season, Jefferson never got consistent carries. With the two starters out, Campbell elected to go with Craig Reynolds and Godwin Igwebuike as backup options over the rookie.
Jefferson was inactive for each of the Lions’ last three games, as a healthy scratch. With Reynolds’ late-season emergence, it will be a battle for the youngster to earn the coveted No. 3 RB spot out of training camp.