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Lions' Final 2021 Grades

Read more on the Detroit Lions' final 2021 grades.

The first step into the offseason is often one of evaluation.

After the Detroit Lions defeated the Green Bay Packers, 37-30, to finish a 3-13-1 campaign, the organization will now enter the evaluation stage, as it prepares to create a better product heading into next season.

The Lions will have plenty of questions to answer and decisions to make. Though it will be a long decision-making process, general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell will work together to ensure the Lions figure out the direction they feel is best for the team.

But first, here's an evaluation of the season that was. Here are SI All Lions’ positional group grades for the Lions, following the 2021 season. 

Quarterbacks: C-

The first step in the rebuild was a trade. Upon taking the job as GM, Holmes initiated a trade to send franchise mainstay Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams, in exchange for a plethora of draft capital and former top pick Jared Goff.

After five seasons in L.A., Goff took on the reins of becoming the Lions' undoubted starter. Early on, it was a struggle, as Detroit’s offense was often stuck in neutral. Through the season’s first 12 games, the offense scored over 20 points just one time.

The No. 1 overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft struggled with fumbles, leading the league at one point. He struggled with accuracy and consistency, resulting in an inability to sustain drives.

However, right around the time Campbell took over the play-calling duties in Week 10, a switch was flipped. Goff missed the Lions’ Week 11 game at Cleveland, but returned on Thanksgiving against Chicago to begin his road to redemption.

Behind their starting quarterback, the Lions beat a pair of playoff teams in Goff's final two starts of the season. First, it was a beating of the Arizona Cardinals, while the last game was a come-from-behind win against a medley of Green Bay starters and backups.

In his final five games, Goff threw 11 touchdowns, to just two interceptions. He missed two games, one with COVID-19 and another with a knee injury, but looked solid in his return during the Lions’ season finale.

In Goff’s absence, Tim Boyle made the first three starts of his career. All three were losses, and the young quarterback struggled with interceptions and accuracy while showing limited flashes of prominence.

Early in the season, it looked as though Goff was simply a stop-gap quarterback until the Lions could find their new franchise leader. Yet, the veteran orchestrated a turnaround, as he got comfortable with his new team.

At the very least, Goff has earned an opportunity in 2022 to get another look with an improved roster.

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Running backs: B-

The Lions have promising depth in their backfield with their one-two punch of D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.

Swift, in particular, was exciting in the first half of the season, scoring a touchdown in five of the team’s first seven games. His speed, paired with Williams’ power, gave the Lions a unique blend. Yet, the offense couldn’t find the right combination between run and pass early on.

Things didn’t improve in the second half, either, as both Swift and Williams would miss time with either injuries or illness. Swift missed four straight games before returning in Week 17, while Williams missed Weeks 14 and 15.

Swift, a Georgia product, had two consecutive 130-plus-yard rushing performances before he suffered his injury in Week 12. Heading into his third season, it will be interesting to see whether those career-best performances are sustainable.

Williams, meanwhile, failed to cross over 100 yards in a game, and finished with a modest total of 601 yards on the season. He should return in 2022 in a similar role.

Three youngsters made their NFL debuts in Detroit’s backfield in 2021. Jermar Jefferson, a seventh-round pick in 2021, played in just seven games, and carried the ball 15 times. Godwin Igwebuike contributed mostly on special teams, but had a pair of impressive scoring runs.

Craig Reynolds, meanwhile, was the darling of the preseason, and burst on to the scene with 112 rushing yards in his second career game. Yet, he would total just 35 yards in his last three games.

Swift is a lock to return and Williams is under contract for another year. But, the depth behind them remains uncertain.

Wide receivers/tight ends: C+

With Stafford and his top receivers gone, all eyes turned to third-year tight end T.J. Hockenson to be Goff’s top receiving threat. In the Iowa product, the Lions have a big, physical receiver who can make tough catches while absorbing contact.

He began the season by living up to his billing, as he hauled in 16 total catches in his first two games. However, opponents began to take him away in their gameplans. He still had big games in losses to Cincinnati and Philadelphia, but both games were blowouts.

In all, Hockenson finished with 61 catches for 583 yards and four touchdowns, before suffering a hand injury and undergoing season-ending surgery.

At receiver, Quintez Cephus was a top performer early in the season. Unfortunately, his season ended prematurely after he suffered a broken collarbone. In his place, the Lions struggled to find another top target until late in the season.

That top target was rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown, who finished the season with six straight eight-catch games. The 2021 fourth-round pick shot up the depth chart, to finish the season with a team-high 912 receiving yards.

Kalif Raymond was reliable and speedy, handling punt returns and occasionally burning defenses with his blazing speed. He had a pair of 100-yard games, including in the season finale against the Packers.

Josh Reynolds was a nice waiver-wire pickup just after the halfway point of the season. With his addition, the Lions added veteran depth and a familiar face for Goff, who played with him for four seasons in L.A.

KhaDarel Hodge had ups-and-downs in his first full season, having a breakout game against Seattle but struggling to climb the depth chart when the team was at full health.

Similar to the running back position, Hockenson and St. Brown form a formidable duo to build on. However, questions remain at the position from a depth perspective, as Raymond and Reynolds are both set to be free agents.

Offensive line: B

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The Lions, in drafting Penei Sewell with their first pick of the 2021 NFL Draft (No. 7 overall), signaled a commitment to building the team in the trenches. Sewell delivered on his promise with a solid rookie season.

It was not easy for the rookie from Oregon, as he had to begin the season at left tackle with the injury to Taylor Decker. When the veteran returned, the rookie finished the season at right tackle. He finished the year among the highest-rated rookie offensive linemen, according to Pro Football Focus.

Opposite him, Decker had a solid second half, after missing the first eight games with a finger injury. Upon his return, he was a mainstay in the Lions’ starting unit, and wound up playing in 95 percent of the team's offensive snaps. Against Seattle, he hauled in a short touchdown strike from Boyle.

Decker wasn’t the only starter who dealt with injury, as center Frank Ragnow suffered an injury in Week 4 that ended his season. Behind him, Evan Brown filled in admirably, and held his own.

Jonah Jackson was up-and-down at guard, as was Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Both dealt with injuries, for which they were replaced by Tommy Kraemer. Matt Nelson and Will Holden were the team’s top fill-ins at tackle.

With so much youth at the position, the Lions are optimistic about the future of their offensive line. The good performances in stretches by youngsters Sewell and Jackson show why.

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Defensive line: D+

The youth movement extended to the trenches on the opposite side of the ball, as rookies Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill were forced into action early and often. The duo produced mixed results, with McNeill emerging as a solid run-stopping option late in the year while Onwuzurike struggled.

On the edge, Detroit leaned on unproven options. Charles Harris, a former first-rounder on a prove-it contract, was the best of the bunch, and should be due for a payday after notching 7.5 sacks. The team's No. 1 EDGE rusher going into the season, Romeo Okwara, was lost for the year in Week 4 with a torn Achilles, creating opportunities for his brother Julian. In his second pro season, Julian Okwara finished with five sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.

Austin Bryant also chipped in with 4.5 sacks in 14 games of action, and will likely be on the roster bubble heading into next season.

Despite the reasons for optimism, this was a unit that struggled against the run. Opponents averaged 135 yards per game on the ground and two teams, Seattle and Philadelphia, crossed the 200-yard mark in the run game.

The youth is evident, and there are indeed reasons to be hopeful. However, Detroit will need to improve against the run if it wants to take the next step in the rebuild.

Linebackers: C

Detroit’s struggles at the second level contributed to the tough times against the run. However, this position group showed promise, with a blend of veterans and youngsters.

One of Campbell’s early moves was to add veteran Alex Anzalone, who wound up becoming the defense’s signal-caller before suffering a season-ending injury against Arizona. The former New Orleans Saints linebacker was a good addition that helped mentor the youth.

Perhaps one of the biggest stars of the season was Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who went from special teams ace to starting linebacker over the course of the season. The fifth-year player worked his way into the new role with his hard work, which produced more and more positive results as the season went on. He finished with a career-high 82 tackles.

Rookie Derrick Barnes showed flashes with his performance, but couldn’t put together consistency and was ultimately called out by Campbell late in the season for his performance. The progress he makes in 2022 will be a storyline to follow.

The Lions will return most of their depth at this position in 2022, so the growth of players like Barnes and Reeves-Maybin will be key.

Secondary: C+

The Lions’ secondary depth was tested right away, as prized second-year cornerback Jeff Okudah was lost for the season in the opener with an Achilles' injury. As a result of this, Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn were forced to try a variety of options in the defensive backfield.

With Okudah gone, in stepped rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu, who was promptly injured the following week. Eventually, the Lions settled on a combination of Amani Oruwariye and Jerry Jacobs.

Oruwariye broke out in 2021, snagging six interceptions, before suffering a season-ending thumb injury in Week 15. Before he was hurt, however, he emerged as one of the top young corners in the league.

Jacobs, meanwhile, grew into a solid player as an undrafted rookie. He suffered a knee injury that ended his year against Denver, but had started to look like a potential starter for the organization in 2022. He wasn’t the only undrafted contributor, as A.J. Parker also showed promise in his first year.

Melifonwu returned in Week 13, and wound up starting a total of four games. He was targeted 17 times, and allowed 11 completions for 191 yards and two scores. Improvement is needed from him in year two.

The safety position was led by Tracy Walker III, who had 108 tackles in 15 games. He proved to be very reliable as the season wore on, becoming a solid leader, to go along with his on-field performance.

The Lions cycled through players opposite him, settling on the duo of Will Harris and Dean Marlowe at the other safety spot. Marlowe finished the year as the starter when Harris, who had struggled in open-field tackling and pass-coverage situations, was forced to slide to cornerback because of injuries.

Special teams: B

Jack Fox proved last season was no fluke, launching a number of big boots in his second year as the team’s punter. Thanks to some creative play-calling, he also got to throw three passes and completed two.

He averaged 49.2 yards per punt, up a tick from his rookie campaign. While the Lions’ offense struggled, Fox provided a useful weapon, as he controlled field position with his booming leg.

Detroit may have also struck gold when it comes to placekicker Riley Patterson, who proved to be a worthy midseason addition. He finished the season 13-for-14 on field-goal attempts, and was perfect on extra points.

Patterson provided a relief, after the Lions struggled with Austin Seibert and Ryan Santoso doing the kicking early in the season. Santoso, in particular, struggled mightily, missing an extra point and a field goal in a tie with Pittsburgh.

The Lions' cover units didn’t allow a return touchdown, but struggled with penalties. The units, meanwhile, were mostly sure-handed when it came to tackling and limiting big plays.

Detroit didn’t produce much in the return game, with Raymond handling punts and Igwebuike taking kicks. Neither provided a score in the return game, although both mixed in long returns on occasion.