A second season can bring a mix of fresh enthusiasm, opportunity and heightened expectations that ranges from possible to improbable.
The Detroit Lions are experiencing all those elements and more as they prepare for Sunday's season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles at Ford Field. The second season promises to be better under GM Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell than the 3-13-1 record they endured with a talent-depleted roster in 2021.
To that end – expectations of an improved team and a better record – my 2022 kickoff Monday Countdown is not a strict prediction column.
The prediction in here for the Lions' won-loss record is almost incidental to what's really important for the season to be considered a success.
The Lions need to show real improvement, not just a slight gain over last season's record. Ultimately, improvement is decided by the record, but it's also evident in the eye test. In that regard, no doubt the Lions will look better.
It's just a question of how much better. For that, we look at how the roster has been strengthened on offense and defense and players who should play key roles (Jared Goff isn't alone in that category); areas where the Lions have been consistently deficient; my prediction for the NFC North and where the Lions will finish in the division.
1. We start with Dan Campbell:
Roster comparison: Campbell gave a less than glowing analysis when asked about the roster's strength before the start of last season. Campbell does not sugar-coat things, and he answered with the bitter truth.
The margin for error was so thin, he said, that the Lions would have to be almost perfect to win. His roster assessment was borne out when the Lions lost their first eight games before scratching out a tie with the Steelers.
The 2022 Lions are far more competitive because of player acquisition – the draft and free-agent additions -- and development of young players by the coaching staff.
"We're a lot further ahead than we were last year," Campbell said at the end of training camp. "We're much more competitive. The talent has been upgraded."
2. Offense – QB leadership: Goff seems more comfortable than a year ago. He's the leader of the offense, as a quarterback should be. He finished strong last season, with 11 TD passes against two interceptions in the last five games he played in.
He should take a step up under first-year offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. They spent considerable time in the offseason developing an attack that works to Goff's strengths. He's an accurate passer, with a strong cast of receivers – tight end T.J. Hockenson, wide receivers DJ Chark, Amon-Ra St. Brown and others, and running back D’Andre Swift.
With a strong line up front, the Lions have run or pass options available in most situations.
"I know the standards we have for ourselves have risen tremendously from where we started in training camp," Goff said. "I think that's the main thing, is our standard is different now.
"Guys are holding themselves and each other accountable. What Ben has done through the spring and training camp is tremendous."
Bottom line: The Lions can win games on offense.
3. Player to watch: Swift. He made public his ambitious goal of gaining 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving. In his first two seasons combined he has 1,138 yards rushing and 809 receiving.
Staying healthy is an issue. He missed three games as a rookie and four in 2022.
Johnson sees Swift as a player who can make an impact on the entire offense.
"He's an explosive playmaker," Johnson said. "He's going to open up the rest of the weapons on this offense."
4. Defense – change for the better: The switch to the 4-3 front with an attack style suits the players. It plays more to their strengths compared to the read and react style of 2021.
The Lions should improve on the 30 sacks they eked out in 2021, third fewest total in the league.
The run defense showed improvement in the preseason. The Lions held the Colts to 30 yards on 18 carries in Week 2 with a long run of five yards, and limited the Steelers to 57 yards on 20 carries in Week 3 with a long run of 12 yards.
"I would say our d-line has taken a huge step as far as how we're going to play up front," said defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn.
The return to health of cornerback Jeff Okudah should help the secondary. He played only one game in 2021 because of an Achilles injury and nine in 2020 with four starts because of a core muscle injury.
Okudah played well enough in the preseason to get his starting job back.
5. Player to watch: Defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson. He provides a pass rush and a complement to Charles Harris at the other end. Hutchinson has the versatility and physical traits to move inside in some situations.
At 6-7, 265, Hutchinson fits the Lions' model of lean, athletic pass rushers who can get to the quarterback and disrupt the passing game.
6. Win at home: The Lions have to do better at Ford Field. The noise level there gives them an advantage over visiting teams, but they have not cashed in on it. They've had four straight losing records at home since going 4-4 in 2017. They've been 3-6 twice – in 2018 and 2021.
7. The North: The Lions need to do better against NFC North rivals. They've had four straight losing records since going 6-1 in 2017. They've been 2-5 twice – in 2018 and 2021.
8. NFC North predicting:
- Green Bay Packers. They won't win 13 games for the fourth straight year, but they're the best in the North.
- Lions. Playoff contenders at some level – probably for a wild card berth -- with a 9-8 record.
- Minnesota Vikings. Four playoffs in 12 years.
- Chicago Bears. Justin Fields is the Bears' QB of the present and future. He also inherits their problems.