The first half of the 2021 season has not been kind to the Detroit Lions. Injuries and bad bounces played their part in the 0-8 start, but make no mistake, this team is just not good right now. And that’s somewhat to be expected when your roster is as young and inexperienced as the Lions currently are.
Beginners would always be part of the plans this year, but injuries in many key positions have significantly accelerated those timelines. Instead of sitting and learning for a year, several rookies have been thrown into the fire, forced to learn and adapt quickly.
Let’s take a look at how each player fared halfway through their rookie campaigns.
Penei Sewell, LT
Sewell was selected seventh overall in the 2021 draft and has had a lot to live up to in his first year as a pro. Originally the plan was to have him cut his teeth on the right tackle, with veteran Taylor Decker on the left tackle . But when Decker suffered a thumb injury ahead of the season opener, plans quickly changed and Sewell has been on the left ever since.
With Decker returning to the left tackle this week, the coaching staff are returning to their original plans with Sewell on the right.
Regardless of which side he’s on, we’ve seen a lot of why many stood so high on Sewell as a prospect coming out of the University of Oregon. He’ll still have his rough reps in pass protection, especially against speeders, but he’s adapting quickly. His power at the point of attack seems to flash multiple times per game and his ability to go to second level and punish outmatched linebackers and safeties is truly a spectacle.
Sewell still has some things to clean up with his set points and island hands (Lewis got him with a nasty cross-chop), but he consistently shows off much of what made him a special prospect and did it again in Week 7. pic.twitter.com/EF94VIjqAG
— Brandon Doorn (@BrandonThornNFL) October 25, 2021
The next step in Sewell’s progression is eliminating some of those bad replays that occur during the early stages of games, before Sewell has had a chance to feel the pass rusher. Putting together a complete, flawless game would be a great boost to a foul that desperately needs it.
Levi Onwuzurike, DL
Onwuzurike seems to be playing more of a role for himself, with a career of 29 snaps in week 8 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
His totals for the season (11 total tackles, one batted ball, and one rush) don’t stand out, but with veterans like Michael Brockers and Nick Williams struggling in recent weeks, Onwuzurike may be getting more reps sooner rather than later.
This defense needs more from the defensive tackle position, both in run support and pass rush. If the Washington rookie can up his game even a little, I think that’s enough to justify taking snaps of the veterans in the room.
Alim McNeill, NT
McNeill’s playing time, probably more than any other rookie, fluctuates weekly depending on the opponent and the associated game plan. When he does see the field, he is often drafted over the center as a nose tackle.
Coming out of NC State, McNeill was expected to make an immediate contribution against the run and while he has played well in sprints, the Lions need more consistency on a down-to-down basis.
Being strong against the point of attack and being a reliable anchor for the offensive defense should be McNeill’s goals in the second half of the year. Any pressure he puts on quarterback opponents would be nothing but gravy.
Ifetu Melifonwu, CB
When sophomore cornerback Jeff Okudah was lost to an Achilles tendon for a year, the situation changed abruptly for Melifonwu. He went from thinking he would have some time to learn on the sidelines to playing most of his team’s snaps.
And prior to the thigh injury that has sidelined him since Week 2, it looked like he was up to the challenge, despite looking pretty rough when he got out of college.
Lions head coach Dan Campbell was non-committal when asked if Melifonwu would be ready for action again this season, but did say the rookie corner was progressing in his rehabilitation. Getting him back on the pitch, even if only for the last few weeks of the season, would be crucial to his long-term development.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR
With how clumsy the Lions attack has been for eight weeks, Dan Campbell is ready to shake things up. And for St. Brown, that means more opportunities as an outside recipient.
Over eight games, St. Brown has 27 receptions for 250 yards. Certainly not a stat to write home about, especially when you consider that St. Brown is third on the team at receptions, behind only tight end TJ Hockenson and dwindling D’Andre Swift. But with more reps on the outside as the Z receiver, St. Brown may be able to provide great playability for an attack that is urgently needed.
Admittedly, St. Brown was one of my favorite rookies of this draft class. He may not be a elite athlete, but he struck me as a very polished runner, who understood what defense was trying to do to him.
Hopefully this year, for the sake of the Lions, there will be more to unlock with St. Brown’s abilities.
Derrick Barnes, LBA
A fan favorite since August training camp, Barnes has seen a steady amount of action in his rookie year. He is explosive and flows well from sideline to sideline, something this linebacking corps has been lacking in recent years.
However, he is still a rookie and learning the ins and outs of defense from defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. Veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone said he will guide Barnes and let him make calls on the field in real time. This should help Barnes in the long run, when as early as next year he could wear the defensive headset full-time and make calls alone.
Jermar Jefferson, RB
Jefferson, first active on offense in Week 8, delivered one of the few highlights to come from the Lions’ terrible show against the Eagles. Since he’s not much of a factor in special teams, Jefferson’s role could be limited as long as running backs Jamaal Williams and Swift are healthy.
Jerry Jacobs, CB
One of the real feel-good stories of this season has to be UDFA rookie Jerry Jacobs. Coming into training camp, Jacobs seemed a bit of a contender to make the final roster.
Then he made the list. Then Okudah and Melifonwu broke out for weeks. And before you know it, Jacobs started at cornerback for the Lions.
A strong tackler and willing competitor, Jacobs doesn’t back down. When beaten, he looks like the very underestimated ability to quickly forget, and move on to the next down.
His growth and maturation process speaks volumes about what defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant does to young players like Jacobs. If he can keep rising, that would be a big plus for the future and the foundation of this team.
AJ Parker, NB
Another UDFA rookie thrown into the fray, Parker started the season strong but has since taken his share of the chunks.
And while his play has been inconsistent at best, the Lions are so thin in the secondary, it would be huge to get Parker back for their Week 9 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Similar to the situation with Jacobs, if the Lions can definitively conclude that they’ve unearthed another gem during this painful, rebuilding season, that would be another building block for 2022 and beyond.
Mark Gilbert, CB
Originally signed by the Steelers training squad, Gilbert has been active a handful of times, taking his first defensive snaps (14) in Week 8.
Tommy Kraemer, Oregon
Kraemer was first activated against Philadelphia and has since been released and returned to the exhibition squad.
Brock Wright, TE
With veteran tight end Darren Fells calling for his release, expect yet another UDFA rookie to get plenty of shots with Wright (for now) as tight end No. 2 behind Hockenson.