Seasons come and go, and with each passing season, the younger players on a team must step up.
This is the case in Detroit for defensive end Levi Onwuzurike, linebacker Derrick Barnes and running back Jermar Jefferson.
Two of the three -- Onwuzurike (second round) and Barnes (fourth round) -- are higher-round picks from the 2021 NFL Draft. The other, Jefferson, was a seventh-round selection in the same draft.
The concern for Onwuzurike and Barnes is how little time they saw the field.
Onwuzurike was only on the field for 34.71 percent of the time, while Barnes logged 39.26 percent of the snap count.
Jefferson beat the odds, making the team as a low-round pick. However, he only carried the ball 15 times for 74 yards (4.9 YPC average) and two touchdowns. Part of that was due to him being buried on the depth chart.
However, with the winds of uncertainty swirling between running backs D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams, Jefferson will need to be prepared.
Swift has been the starter. But, with late-season injuries, coupled with Williams being scheduled to make substantially more than Swift next season at $4.375 million, it is distinctly possible one of them ends up elsewhere in 2022.
The bottom line is Detroit needs more from its draft picks.
In what ways can these three players improve? Let's take a look.
3.) RB Jermar Jefferson
After making the team, Jefferson struggled to find his niche.
Running back Craig Reynolds came out of the blue to steal the thunder, leaving Jefferson trying to find his way.
If things stay the way they are presently on the depth chart, there will be a battle between Reynolds and Jefferson for the third running back spot. However, if things change and one of the top two backs ends up gone, Jefferson will need to really step up.
In an offense that throws the ball a lot to the backs (129 targets in 2021), there is opportunity for Jefferson to show he can step into the role of being a more dependable receiver out of the backfield.
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Swift (78) and Williams (28) accounted for 106 targets by themselves, and if either of them were to be gone come next season, it would create a real area of opportunity for Jefferson.
As a one-gear erect runner, it is going to be tough for him to beat out Reynolds. Jefferson may find more luck refining his receiving skills this offseason, so that he can possibly step more into that role in 2022.
2.) LB Derrick Barnes
He may have even less time than Onwuzurike to figure it out. With 2021 starting inside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin scheduled to become a free agent this offseason, Barnes could be thrust into a starting role as early as next season.
Although Barnes put up 42 solo tackles and two sacks, Lions head coach Dan Campbell publicly expressed disappointment in his young linebacker towards the end of the season.
After Detroit's contest with the Seattle Seahawks in Week 17, Campbell told 97.1 The Ticket, “He’s got to play better, and I thought he took a step back. We need more from our stack-backers. I think with Derrick, there’s things that he learns from that he doesn’t have to make a mistake to learn from.”
The biggest knock I had on Barnes coming into the season was his slow reaction time. Barnes needs to get into the film room and develop a better understanding of his assignments and what NFL offenses are doing.
1.) DE Levi Onwuzurike
He needs to do some real soul searching and decide if football is important to him.
Onwuzurike played in 15 games in 2021, and only managed to muster up 15 solo tackles and one sack. That is inexcusable for a player with his size, measurements and natural strength. Those stats scream “underachiever,” especially for a player selected just outside of the opening round at No. 41 overall.
Onwuzurike was not able to provide much of a push to earn more playing time, and that is going to need to change. Veteran starter Michael Brockers, who is ahead of Onwuzurike on the depth chart, only has one year left on his contract. The time for fun and games with Onwuzurike is over.
Bill Parcells had a saying, “That if they don’t bite when they’re puppy dogs, they’re generally not going to bite.”
Onwuzurike is going to need to find that "bite" before the word "bust" starts getting thrown around. He is going to have to dig deep and get off blocks more consistently. And, he is going to have to find a way to not look so soft.