Lions GM Brad Holmes not surprised about success of rookie class

A look at each rookie’s stats

ALLEN PARK — While veterans were key to the Detroit Lions 9-8 season including the big turnaround after a horrid start, the rookies played a huge role. A glance at the stat sheet is all the proof that is needed.

The 1-6 start was rough on one of the NFL’s youngest teams, but the rookies matured and as they grew they found a certain confidence and won eight of their last ten. 

It’s official the 2022 Lions draft class met and in some cases exceeded expectations.

“I’m not surprised about the success (of the rookie class). You don’t know if Kerby Joseph is going to pick off Aaron Rodgers three times in a season. You don’t know when James Houston gets going that he’s going to have eight sacks in just that small sample size. I can’t say we have that crystal ball, but we do know about who they were as football players,’’ Lions GM Brad Holmes said during his season-ending press conference on Tuesday.

“We knew Kerby Joseph was a ball guy, we knew he was a ball hawk, we knew he had outstanding instincts to get the football. So that’s not a surprise. We knew James Houston had all of the development or attributes and traits and the football character and intangibles to work with the development. Him having production is not a surprise,’’ Holmes added.

Houston may have been a surprise to others because he was a sixth-round pick. So was Malcolm Rodriguez who started 14 games. Joseph was a third-round pick. 

All eyes were on Aidan Hutchinson, the second overall pick, and he didn’t disappoint. 

“Ultimately, any of your draft picks, you just want to see them develop. You want to see them get a little bit better every week. You want to see that a mistake that they made early, they don’t make again, and really, they’ve all done that, and that includes Aidan,’’ coach Dan Campbell said. “And I go back to this, I mean he – he didn’t just walk in the door and all of a sudden, all these great things happen. I mean he goes into Washington, he has three sacks, and then it’s expected that he’ll have three sacks every week from then on, and that’s just not the reality, but the fact is he was disruptive, and he’s a football player, and he did improve.’’

A first-round pick is expected to contribute from Day One and Hutchinson did just that.

“We knew Aidan, we pretty much knew what his skillset was and what  his drive and determination and intangibles were,’’ Holmes said. “I don’t want to say we knew that the statistics would be what they were but we’re not really surprised that (the rookies) had success. That’s why we do all the work that we do.’’

Here’s a look at the 2022 Lions draft class and how they contributed:

— Defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson, second overall pick. In 17 starts, he’s had three  interceptions (he never had one in college), 9.5 sacks to lead all NFL rookies, two fumble recoveries and 52 tackles. His coming out party was in Week 2 when he had 3 sacks in the win over the Commanders.  

WR Jameson Williams, first round (12th overall). He played in first game on Dec. 4 after recovering from ACL surgery last January. His first and only reception was a 41-yard touchdown catch. He also had a 40-yard scamper for a touchdown. With no training camp and limited practice he was at a disadvantage with a lack of experience, but his speed was on full display. Expectations are high for next season.

— Defensive lineman Josh Paschal, second round, (46th overall). In 10 games with four starts, Paschal had a pair of sacks in Week 17 against the Bears and 16 tackles overall. He can be a force and the stats don’t always tell the story.

— Safety Kerby Joseph, third round (97th overall). In 17 games (14 starts) he became Aaron Rodgers’ biggest nightmare. Of his four interceptions three were against Rodgers with 2 in the Lions win at Ford Field and one at Lambeau on Sunday. Joseph was a standout with 2 forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and 82 tackles.

— TE James Mitchell, fifth round (177th overall). In 14 games he was targeted 11 times and caught every one with 1 touchdown. His role has developed after T.J. Hockenson was traded to the Vikings.

LB Malcolm Rodriguez, sixth round (188th overall). He’s a dynamo who got the eyes of coaches and fans from the start of training camp. He was a “Hard Knocks” star.. In 16 games (15 starts), he’s had 87 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery. Look for the ball and you’ll find Rodrigo.

— Linebacker James Houston, sixth round (217th overall). He opened eyes with  five sacks in his first four games, starting on Thanksgiving. He set an NFL record with seven sacks in his first six games and  finished the season with eight sacks. He’s a force who spent the first three months on the practice squad. He had a pair of sacks and a special teams fumble recovery in his first game on Thanksgiving. 

— Cornerback Chase Lucas, seventh round (237th overall). In six games mostly on special teams, he had three tackles. He was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 10 with a hamstring injury. He missed time earlier in the season with an ankle injury.

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Five things to watch as the Lions face the Panthers; plus prediction

When the stakes go higher for the Lions — like they will against the Carolina Panthers on Saturday — the team’s temperature must go down. That’s the way coach Dan Campbell sees it and he’s guided this team to six wins in the last seven games to make a playoff berth a possibility.

The Panthers (5-9) still have a shot at the playoffs so the Lions (7-7) can’t take them lightly. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

Give Campbell credit for keeping the focus on each day and each game instead of the big overall playoff picture. So far they have kept marching forward, keeping the outside noise on the outside.

“I kind of feel like – if it was going to happen, it would’ve happened last week because I felt like all of sudden there was this big – all this attention and everybody wants a piece of the players and coaches,’’ Campbell said. “And so, if it was going to happen, it was then. I think because that was a big swing, we were in the sewer before that and then all of a sudden, we’re – life’s great. So, I feel like, alright, we’re through it. 

“Now, to me it’s – man, the emphasis is on – there again, you can never lose sight. You’ve got to respect the opponent and what they’re capable of. They’ve got a chance to win this division, they’re very much in the hunt. So, we understand that. We identify that. We know it’s a physical unit, but the other thing is, man, you don’t know. This is a – we’ve got an opportunity and you just don’t know when these opportunities are always going to be there, and so we can’t let this slip through our fingers,’’ the coach added.

Five things to watch:

1. The defensive game plan will be similar to last week which resulted in a win over the Jets. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said first- and second- down efficiency will be key. “That has got to be on point because what you don’t want with this team, you don’t want to get them in a third-and-short because when they get into a third-and-short, I guess third-and-5 or less, man, it’s really first and second down for them because they will still run the ball in those situations,’’ Glenn said. “So, now you can’t really anticipate what they’re going to do. So, as far as framing this game, we have to do everything we can to be really, really stout.”

2. The offensive line probably doesn’t get enough credit for keeping Jared Goff safe. All they have to do is keep it up. Goff hasn’t thrown an interception in six straight games and hasn’t been sacked in the last two games. In the last seven games since the 6 of 7 win streak started he’s been sacked 6 times. In the previous 7 games when the Lions started 1-6 he was sacked 13 times. Carolina’s Brian Burns has 10.5 sacks so far this season. “It’s a catch 22 for me as I’m calling it because I mean, they come to the sideline and they ask for more runs. But yet, when they’re protecting that well, let’s throw it a little bit more, good things are happening. But no I joke around with them about that, but no they’ve done a great job,’’ offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said. “It’s them doing a phenomenal job with their technique and fundamentals in pass protection, but it’s also a testament to our route runners being disciplined, playing fast, being at the right depth and our quarterback’s playing with timing and anticipation.’’

3. Emphasis has been to improve the run game in recent weeks. They’ve had 100 yards rushing or more in the last three games – all wins. Johnson said he’d love to run the ball more but the negative runs really hurt. “We need to be efficient, and we need to get going, stay on schedule and ahead of the sticks. We were in too many second-and-longs last week, and it made our lives difficult, so yeah no, I think they certainly recognize it’s something that we’ll continue to address as the week goes on too,’’ Johnson said. ” And that’s kind of been the story of our season: fires pop up. We’re just in a race to try to put them away, and sure enough, another week comes by, and other fires pop up, so it’s our cycle right now.”

4. It’s been a slow roll-out for rookie wide receiver Jameson Williams. In his first three games he has one catch – a 41-yarder for a touchdown.The Panthers’ defense will have to keep an eye on him when he’s on the field. He and Jared Goff are building chemistry during practice. “It’s a weekly process, and I think it is coming along. We try to push Jamo a little bit more every week in terms of the routes we’re asking him to run, not just for the game, but also for his development and for Jared’s chemistry with him,’’ Johnson said. “We’re trying to see what he’s capable of, and what he’s comfortable with at this point coming off that injury. So, I think we’ll continue to see a growing connection between those two. It’s just time on task.”

5. Don’t play not to fail. This is a young team finding its swagger and learning to win. As the stakes get higher, Campbell has to make sure they don’t get too tight. The coach talked to them at halftime of the Jets win and it worked and he doesn’t think it will be an issue moving forward. “They know that. I don’t feel like I need to beat that one over the head. They get it, and it’s been acknowledged, and now it’s – listen, I think we have a pretty good idea of who we are, where we’re at, and I think more than anything, it’s about – look, we’ve got some guys in this locker room that have won now. I mean we do,’’ Campbell said. “Alex (Anzalone) has won. Jamaal (Williams) has won. (Michael) Brockers has won. Shoot, (Kalif Raymond) Leaf’s won, and then we’ve got a whole slew of young guys that don’t really know. They don’t know any better, and that’s kind of a good thing, honestly.’’

(Prediction: Lions 31, Panthers 21. It could be a Merry Christmas for the Lions if all three units continue to play solid football.)

Five reasons the surging Lions handed a loss to the Vikings

DETROIT – Dan Campbell is drained and exhausted, but in a good way. He can’t wait for the Lions winning to continue through the next four weeks. The playoffs remain a posssibility.

The Lions took another step in the right direction with a 34-23 win over the division rival Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at an electric Ford Field. The win boosted Detroit’s record to 6-7 and 3-1 in the division. The Lions have won five of their last six and had no intention of the Vikings (10-3) clinching the division at Ford Field.

“The guys know how I’ve felt all week about this game. But yeah, look I don’t think there’s a surprise here. I’ve said it before, it’s hard when you get down in the dumps and you were where we were at, it’s easy to lose faith, but these guys never did and we stayed true to what we’re about and they knew, they believed we were one play away and that’s where we’ve been,’’ Campbell said.

It seems a long way since the 1-6 start.

“Now we’re making the play, we’re making the one extra play, this – it’s not costing us. And we’re able to overcome some of these mistakes we were making earlier. So no, our guys, they know they belong,’’ the coach added. “They know they belong and they know when they play football like we’ve been playing the last six weeks we can play with anybody. That’s the truth.” 

Campbell, who has made coaching mistakes and is the first one to admit it, called a game that was not absolutely perfect but was perfect for the opponent and the minute.

He and his coordinators dialed up a fake punt, a crucial third-down pass to right tackle Penei Sewell and set up a 48-yard touchdown pass play to rookie wide receiver Jameson Williams. It was a little edgy and just the right mode for a young team that develops more confidence with every snap.

Five of the main reasons the Lions won:

1. Two plays stood out to Campbell. One was the fumble forced by Isaiah Buggs and recovered by Kerby Joseph late in the first half. The Vikings were deep in the Red Zone and a touchdown would have tied the game going into the half. Instead Buggs forced the fumble at the Lions’ 3-yard line and the Lions got the ball back with 59 seconds in the half. They couldn’t score  — Michael Badgley’s 49-yard field goal attempt was wide left — but they maintain a 7-point halftime lead. The other notable play was the fake punt early in the third on a fourth-and-8 at Detroit’s 26. Failure would have given the Vikings optimum field position, but the ball was snapped directly to C.J. Moore who ran it for 42 yards. “We knew the look they were going to give us and we’ve – and I’ve got a lot of trust in our guys. We’ve worked things a number of ways, seen all kinds of looks and those guys just make it work and I trust Moore.”’’ Campbell said.

2. Talk about efficiency in action, the Lions’ first two touchdowns were on passes of 48 yards to Jameson Williams and 41 yards to D.J. Chark. Campbell said the run game can be better but they can make up for it with explosive plays. “To be able to deliver that element to our offense is huge because I feel like with that we’re pretty well-balanced. We can do – we can kind of play any type of game we need to offensively and that’s a good thing. And it all starts with our offensive line,’’ Campbell said. On that Williams touchdown, quarterback Jared Goff said he couldn’t believe how wide-open he was due to busted coverage.

3. Jared Goff said he is playing the best ball of his career and you won’t find Campbell disagreeing with that assessment. Somebody has to get the receivers those deep balls and run the offense with efficiency. Goff was 27-39 for 330 yards and three touchdowns. It was his fifth straight game without an interception. “He’s playing outstanding and he’s a direct link as to why we are playing better. He’s playing really good football and he’s taking care of the football. He’s making big throws, man. He’s been highly accurate and just – man, there’s a lot of faith. A lot of faith in him and he’s got a lot of faith in us. And so, man, I thought he had another hell of a day,’’ Campbell said. “He stepped in there and I’ll tell you what, he’s cool, he’s calm, he’s collected, he’s making these throws. And the O-line is blocking well. They’re protecting the heck out of him, so I don’t disagree. It was good to see, man.’’

4. The defense’s swagger grows each week thanks to defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. “He rallied the troops. He never let them give in, he never let them lose faith and he just kept coaching his ass off, as did that whole staff. And they’ve begun to grow, they’ve grown and we had to – we kind of had to bring some stuff. We had to pull everything back to the studs, man, we had to break it down and simplify and now we’re able to start pulling it back in, man, we’ve started to implement a lot of things that we were doing even last year,’’ Campbell said. “So, now that we’ve got them back to where – to where they are playing with confidence, they trust the guy next to him. And all these young guys are growing, now we can be a little more complex.” Linebacker Alex Anzalone’s 9 tackles pushed him to 100 for the season. Defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs finished with three quarterback hits, 1.0 sack and one forced fumble. Rookie linebacker James Houston became the third rookie in team history to record a sack in three-straight games. Rookie Aidan Hutchinson had two solo tackles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and a  sack.

5. That defense stuffed running back Dalvin Cook who had 15 carries for just 23 yards, his lowest total yardage since Week 2. “We put a lot of strain on the front seven is what we did. Honestly, and it was gap responsibility, we asked the nickel to do a lot of things, but man we had to fit it. We asked our big boys in the middle to have to bang away (Alim McNeill) Mac and Buggs, we put a lot on those guys, and so really it was more about those guys up front and our linebackers,’’ Campbell said. They were going to have to take that away because we used an enormous amount of resources on the backend with (Vikings WR Justin) Jefferson, as you can see.’’

BONUS: On third-and-7 with 2 minutes left at the Vikings’ 41, Goff threw a 9-yard completion to Sewel, the right tackle who had reported eligible. “That was part of the package we were going to have that we could use in the red zone if needed. And then, it felt like that was the right time to bring it out. We had practiced – had good practice reps with it. We’d used him earlier in that fast motion, and so we just – we felt really good about it being there because when you see him coming you’re not going to just think he’s going to the flat, he’s going to block you one more time like he did before,’’ Campbell said. “So, it was a great call, we trusted him. Look, we know what kind of athlete he is, he’s a phenomenal athlete. I mean, we talk about – who knows what kind of tackle he’s going to be, I think a pretty dang good one, he already is. But he could be a Hall of Fame tight end in my opinion too if he wanted to lose a little bit of weight. But he is, he’s got real good hands. He’s got real good feet, we felt like he was going to be wide open, which he was. And we told him to stay in bounds and he did.”

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions.)

(Up next: Lions (6-7) at N.Y. Jets (7-6) at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 18. The Jets lost 20-12 to the Bills on Sunday.)