For anyone who’s still confused by the Detroit Lions’ 2023 draft, allow GM Brad Holmes to explain the vision.
“We don’t want to take a step back, and we don’t want to stay stagnant,” Holmes said on April 29. “We appreciate and we are extremely proud of the success that we had last year, but we didn’t make the playoffs, you know? We didn’t make the playoffs, and that’s not good enough. So, we gotta get to the point as a football team where we can put ourselves in a position where we can get in the postseason and hopefully make some noise.”
Sure, the Lions could’ve taken a more long-term approach and drafted an outside cornerback, defensive end or offensive lineman — premium positions — in the first two rounds. But those weren’t glaring holes. The Lions’ edge room is deep and versatile. They added two starting corners in free agency. And they have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
With this draft, Holmes was looking to draft game-ready talent at positions of need. It’s how the Lions drafted an “offensive weapon” at running back, a “future anchor” at linebacker, a “gritty” mismatch at tight end and an “instinctive” defensive back, as Holmes described Detroit’s first four draft picks.
In their own way, each contributed to the Lions’ 21-20 win Thursday over the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I didn’t feel like any of those, any of our pups, that it was too big for them,” coach Dan Campbell said Friday. “I felt like, boy, they settled in and the stage wasn’t too much for them. And, man, that was really encouraging. I really thought all those guys really helped us out and had a part in that win last night.”
Let’s review how they did it.
The Lions knew they could beat the Chiefs, and now a season tone has been set
Gibbs looked as advertised against the Chiefs despite a limited sample size. He looked explosive as a receiver and out of the backfield. He rushed for 42 yards on seven carries (6.0 YPC) and added two receptions for 18 yards. If he hadn’t tripped on a red zone carry, Gibbs likely would’ve scored a touchdown in his NFL debut.
What was really impressive about Gibbs, more than the burst and acceleration, was his power. Gibbs was bouncing off defenders, generating six missed tackles on those seven carries, per PFF. Of his 42 rushing yards, 34 came after contact. For a smaller back who’s barely 200 pounds, that was impressive to see.
Jahmyr Gibbs might be a problem 😤 @Jahmyr_Gibbs1
— NFL (@NFL) September 8, 2023
While Gibbs’ usage seems to have upset the fantasy community, best believe the Lions don’t care. It appears to have been partly by design, partly just the flow of the game. The Lions were trying to take it slow with their rookie running back, easing him in with nine touches. Additionally, facing a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes — who can put points on the board in a hurry — likely increased David Montgomery’s workload. One of the best ways to defend Mahomes is to keep him off the field, and the Lions did that by hammering the run with Montgomery and eating up clock. Montgomery was on the field for 55 of the offense’s 70 snaps, compared to 19 for Gibbs.
Gibbs’ strengths as a pass-catching back weren’t as necessary in this one. But they will be.
“He’ll begin to get more touches now,” Campbell said Friday. “That was just the beginning.”
Jahmyr Gibbs running with a purpose 💪
— NFL (@NFL) September 8, 2023
In the days leading up to the Chiefs game, Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was asked to offer his expectations for rookie defensive back Brian Branch.
“To be a damn good player,” Glenn said, straight-faced. “I mean, we knew that when we drafted him. … There’s a reason why we had him graded that high.”
The Lions did. Other franchises did not. Widely regarded as one of the best defensive players in the draft, Branch fell all the way to pick No. 45. The reasons Branch lasted as long as he did remain puzzling, though you can try to piece together a few. A nickel with some safety capabilities isn’t exactly a premium position. His 4.58 40 didn’t wow scouts, and neither did his measurables. But turn on the tape and you’ll see exactly what kind of football player you’re getting in Branch.
He did his best to show a national audience in his first pro game.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) September 8, 2023
Branch recorded a game-altering pick six, catching a ball that deflected off the hands of Kadarius Toney and taking it to the house to tie the score at 14, just when it seemed the Chiefs were gaining momentum. Say what you want about the play and how much Branch had to do with it, but this was par for the course for him in training camp. He was always around the football — right place, right time. At some point, that’s not luck. It’s just a player’s identity, and Branch has been this way since his freshman year at Alabama.
A bonus: Per ESPN’s NextGenStats, Branch was clocked at 20.7 mph on his return. Only three defensive players were clocked faster on returns in 2022.
Game speed > 40 time.
It wasn’t just the interception. Branch was sticky in coverage, allowing just two receptions on four targets for a total of 7 yards, per PFF. His passer rating when targeted was 56.3, and Branch recorded two “stops,” or tackles that constitute a “failure” for the offense.
There’s a reason the Lions traded up for Branch and reconfigured their defense to plug him in as a starter. He’s a piece this secondary was missing, and they’re happy to have him on their side.
“The thing about Branch is, man, he’s a playmaker and he came up with a big one for us,” Campbell said. “And I think what’s most encouraging is he’s got a ton to clean up, and when he’s got that stuff cleaned up, he’s going to be that much better. But he’s got a knack for finding the football.”
The narrative about rookie tight ends is they typically have a tough time adjusting to the NFL. They’re asked to do so much — run block, pass protect, catch the ball — that it can sometimes be an overwhelming amount of work for a first-year player trying to navigate the league.
Don’t tell LaPorta that.
The Lions asked LaPorta to do everything in his NFL debut. He paced Detroit tight ends in offensive snaps, playing 58 of a possible 70 compared to 27 for Brock Wright and six for James Mitchell. He was targeted five times — second-most behind Amon-Ra St. Brown — and caught all five for 39 yards. No surprise, considering the chemistry he displayed with Jared Goff in training camp, often looking like his second-favorite target. Two of LaPorta’s receptions went for first downs, and 18 of his 39 yards came after the catch. Goff’s passer rating when targeting LaPorta was 99.2.
As a blocker, LaPorta looked even better than his billing coming out of Iowa. Montgomery wouldn’t have scored the go-ahead touchdown without a crucial block from LaPorta, which is something Campbell made sure to highlight in his postgame news conference. And that run when Gibbs tripped? LaPorta won his rep against 2022 first-round defensive end George Karlaftis (No. 56), one of the reasons Gibbs nearly scored.
“LaPorta, I thought, did some really good things,” Campbell said. “And honestly, he blocked well. It’s some of the best blocking I’ve seen out of him even through camp, so that was encouraging.”
There will be some growing pains along the way as LaPorta figures out the NFL, but in a hostile environment against the defending champs, LaPorta looked unafraid of the moment and ready to go. That’s all you can ask for.
Of the Lions’ first four selections, Campbell played the fewest snaps, but they were essentially starting-caliber reps. Alex Anzalone paced all Detroit linebackers, playing 61 snaps, followed by Derrick Barnes (27), who got the start alongside Anzalone, then Campbell (25) and Malcolm Rodriguez (14).
Even though Campbell isn’t quite a starter yet, he’s playing meaningful reps and displayed some of the attributes that made him a first-round pick.
The rookie Jack Campbell showing off in pass coverage
— NFL (@NFL) September 8, 2023
Campbell was known for his coverage ability coming out of Iowa. Of Campbell’s 25 snaps, 19 were in pass coverage. His ability to flip his hips and use his length to make a diving PBU as Toney sat and waited for the ball was impressive for a linebacker as big as Campbell. Heck, it was impressive for a linebacker, period.
“I thought Jack really stepped up,” Dan Campbell said. “I’m watching his tape and, to me, he didn’t play like a rookie, which is encouraging. Now, he’s got a few things to clean up, but that was pretty good. He was on it.”
When he figures it out and the game slows down, Jack Campbell could be a good one.
The same could be said for each of these rookies.
“Those guys helped us win, but yet, there’s room to improve and grow with all of them,” the head coach said. “That’s a good thing.”
(Photos: Denny Medley / USA Today)
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