It’s the season of hope. It’s the season of dreams.
It’s the start of the Detroit Lions regular season.
It’s also often the beginning of high expectations crushed by poor performance on the football field. But the Lions beat reporter for The Detroit News, Justin Rogers, says the team’s long-suffering fan base might wear a collective smile at the end of this year.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.
Justin Rogers: You look at last season and you see a three-win team. And that’s one of the worst records in football. But you look at the way they finished the season. Three of those wins came in their final handful of games. You see the competitiveness and the resiliency, the buy-in, if you will. They’ve upgraded the talent across the board. One of their biggest deficiencies was the pass rush. They go out with their number two overall draft pick, which they earned because of that three-win season, and they draft local hero (former University of Michigan defensive lineman) Aidan Hutchinson, who’s very much not looked like a rookie in these early stages of the preseason.
Then, offensively, they fill the obvious holes they had in the roster. They sign D.J. Chark, a big-bodied, fast outside receiver. They’re healthier across the board on offense, even though they just lost a piece along the offensive line. I think there’s reasonable optimism to say that they’re going to take that next logical step in the progression in a rebuild. You know, this isn’t a team that’s going to be competing for a Super Bowl this year. But to think that they can win seven, eight, maybe even nine games is kind of the benchmark for what you want to see in the second year when you tear it down and you start building it back up from the studs.
WDET: What about the player development, especially a couple of those who were pretty high draft picks but were injured at the time they were chosen? Brad Holmes, the Lions’ general manager, said he didn’t really like to pick injured players when he was going to do a draft. But he thought these guys were so good that he wanted to go that way.
Yeah. Two of their draft picks, Josh Paschal, the second rounder, and their second first rounder, Jameson Williams, are on the injured list. They’re gonna be out at least a minimum of four games. Williams injury was known heading into the draft process. He had torn his ACL in January. But you have to remember that a draft pick, maybe unlike a free agency signing, is a four-year investment. Particularly those first rounders, they’re guaranteed a four-year contract. So yeah, maybe he’s gonna miss the first half of his first season. But we’re not drafting him for that. We’re drafting him for 2023, 2024 and 2025, when he should be fully coming into his own. It makes sense to take a chance on the talent.
And with Williams, honestly he could probably suit-up right now. But the Lions are being smart, they’re gonna wait until he builds up all of his strength. And, again, this isn’t a Super Bowl contender. So you can afford these injuries now with young players, as long as they’re continuing to develop in the classroom, as long as they get some practice time and playing time in the second half of the season. Heading into that next year, I think you’re fine.
The team was featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” program this year, showing it behind the scenes. And across the country now, the Lions have become a trendy pick to maybe even make the playoffs. Which you sometimes heard in Detroit over the years. And then it becomes hopes dashed yet again. So do you think this year there’s been some hope that perhaps is a little bit overblown?
You know, the nice thing about “Hard Knocks” is the ability to see the culture that’s being implemented, to see the way [head coach] Dan Campbell interacts with his players and the coaching staff he’s built. The way that trickles down from the top of the organization. So I think it was good for local fans to see that. I had not really watched “Hard Knocks” beyond clips in recent years. Turns out I’m pretty busy during this time of year annually. But from everything I’ve read this was one of the better seasons of the show because of the personalities involved with the Detroit Lions at the top. So yeah, there’s positive vibes coming out of it. Obviously that translates to a desire to see the team be successful, maybe more than a rational assessment that they will be successful.
But they are progressing nicely with the rebuild. They are following a blueprint. You can see what that blueprint is. They do have that young roster that largely has another year of experience. Some of the rookies they’ve added this year don’t really have that rookie mentality where you feel like they’re gonna go out and make a bunch of mistakes. They’re smarter than that. A couple of those guys, they’re gonna play a real role on the team. Playoffs are a pretty ambitious hope. I mean, it just really is. To go from three wins to 10 wins, which is probably the threshold to earn a postseason berth, is quite a jump. But it’s not outside of the realm of possibility. As I said earlier, I think seven or eight wins is probably far more realistic. And fans should not be disappointed with something like that. That shows healthy, healthy progress. But it’s okay at this time of year to dream a little, I suppose.
One of the players that was featured on “Hard Knocks” and has become, in a way, a fan favorite that many might not have been expecting, is Malcolm Rodriguez. He was drafted low and is not exactly a giant in stature. But it looks like he may have vaulted himself into a starting role on the team. From you having watched him throughout training camp and so on, what’s been your assessment of Rodrigo?
The fact that he’s even a question I think speaks to the interest level in Malcolm Rodriguez and what he’s accomplished. There was a scene in that “Hard Knocks” season finale where Lions team president Rod Wood was saying that Rodriguez’s jersey was the second-most requested by fans. And it’s kind of neat. This guy hasn’t played a down. But he fits the blue-collar mentality that the city and fans love. I think the linebacker position specifically is always one that kind of captures the imagination of fans going back to the 1960s and ’70s, some of the hard-hitting guys that filled that position across the league, all the way to the modern era.
Fans just want a great linebacker. The Lions haven’t had a great linebacker since Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy were back there. And that was such a short-lived thing. One of those guys kind of aged-out and the other one suffered an injury that derailed his career. So the nice thing about Rodriguez is, he probably was going to offer meaningful contributions regardless, in terms of what he could do on special teams covering kicks and blocking for kicks, because he’s that kind of heady, try-hard player. But to excel the way he has, to grasp the starting role the way he has, has been something that I haven’t experienced or seen in my 10-plus years covering this team. You just don’t see a low-round rookie with low expectations like him come in and just clearly earn the job the way he has.
Listen: The Detroit News Lions writer Justin Rogers previews the team’s 2022 season
Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP