2021 NFC North preview: How do the Detroit Lions stack up?

Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell (Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell (Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press) /
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Brad Holmes, Detroit Lions
Detroit Lions, Head Coach Dan Campbell and General Manager Brad Holmes (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images) /

How does the NFC North look heading into 2021? The Detroit Lions are underdogs but the division could be closer than many national pundits will admit.

It’s almost July, which means that we’re pushing towards camp time for the Lions and the rest of the NFL. The division is currently being shaped by upheaval at the quarterback position, so let’s discuss how the Lions fit in.

Pro Football Focus has identified part of the problem facing the Lions but that doesn’t mean that the Lions are out before the season starts as the media would have us believe.

The State of the Detroit Lions

Firstly, it’s always good to see enthusiasm from the Lions fanbase, reflecting some good offseason hires, starting with general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell. Campbell, who has played in Detroit as a player, has also lured some gifted ex-players to coach this team. It doesn’t seem like smoke and mirrors or just the typical summer Kool-Aid.

Isiah Thomas, the former Detroit Pistons championship guard and Hall of Fame inductee, said this on the 32nd anniversary of their first NBA title, “When you judge us individually and not collectively, you miss what the Detroit Pistons and Bad Boys were all about.”

We believe that his quote speaks more broadly of Detroit and its fans on top of the truth about the Bad Boys era. The chi of Detroit, not just Isiah’s Bad Boys, is our mental toughness, hard work, and our collective resiliency as a city.

Campbell and his staff have tapped into that vein and their message has resonated with fans. Campbell has a real “dude-vibe” but exudes confidence and a desire for great competition. His colorful turn of phrase and disregard for the way the national media takes his repartee has endeared him to Lions fans immediately.

Couple his ability to have some fun with his ability to pivot right back to the importance of winning every rep in practice for players and you have a guy that many fans would love to see succeed in Motown. The bevy of “biting knee caps” memes and references tell the story of how he has connected to Lions fans who often voice their Bad Boys mentality by saying, “Detroit versus everybody.”

Aaron Glenn is the defensive coordinator, with Dom Capers assisting, and Anthony Lynn as the offensive coordinator provide experience and drive to the staff. In total, the coaching staff employs eight former NFL players who bring their experience to the table. That’s the culture of competition that Campbell seems to be cultivating.

Congratulations to owner Sheila Ford Hamp who leaned on a panel of advisors including former Lions greats Chris Spielman and Barry Sanders to bring Holmes, Campbell, Glenn, and Lynn to the Motor City; they have started off on the best foot of any regime in recent memory.

Secondly, the roster is undergoing some growing pains but is probably in as good of a shape as we could hope for coming off of a 5-win season where the general manager and head coach have been fired. Holmes has continually referred to the process as a re-tool, not a rebuild; perhaps the turn of phrase is just semantics but it does reflect his desire to compete right away and not throw any seasons away before they happen.

Detroit Lions fans are divided on the issue; many have espoused the, “It’s GM-speak to hint that you plan to compete when it’s obviously a rebuild”, while others see the philosophical Holmes as pragmatic and that he wants to compete in 2021 but is also unwilling to sacrifice the future vision for his team to compete now.

Pro Football Focus has identified its Top-50 players in the NFL and to few people’s shock, zero Lions made the list. It would be too easy to dismiss the list as just biased against Detroit. While that is a legitimate gripe about the national media, it seems to be solid substance in this case. It is opinion but it illustrates a bigger point about roster talent that is lacking at the moment.

The Packers have four players in the top fifteen, the Bears have two, and the Vikings have three on the list, as well. This illustrates the up-hill battle for the Lions team, front office, and it’s 2021 schedule.

For reference, Matthew Stafford is still near the bottom of Top-100 lists even as a Rams player and Kenny Golladay doesn’t appear as a Giant.