NFL Analysis


5 min read

Detroit Lions' NFC Championship Run Fueled By Stellar Rookie Class

Jahmyr Gibbs stiff arms Buccaneers safety Antonie Winfield Jr.
Jan 21, 2024; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs (26) runs with the ball against Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) during the second half in a 2024 NFC divisional round game at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

It's been quite the journey for Dan Campbell and the Detroit Lions. Coming out of Week 8 in 2022, the Lions were 1-6, and Campbell’s record was 4-19-1 through 24 games. 

The Lions were again trending in a terrible direction, and it was becoming increasingly clear Campbell wasn’t the guy for Detroit.

But the Lions caught fire in the season's second half. They won eight of their last 10 games, including a Week 18 game against the Packers to knock Green Bay out of the postseason. Detroit missed the playoffs with a record of 9-8, but it was evident it was improving.

Going into the 2023 offseason, the NFC looked loaded again. The Eagles were coming off a narrow Super Bowl loss after a 14-3 season. The 49ers had the NFL's best roster, and the Cowboys had another 12-win season. 

It always seemed like the Lions were destined to be the fourth-best team (at best) in their conference.

The Draft Changed Everything

Then, the 2023 NFL Draft happened. Armed with four picks inside the top 50, the Lions had a fantastic opportunity to add talent to their already solid roster. With their first pick, they made the somewhat controversial selection to take RB Jahmyr Gibbs 12th overall.

Taking a running back in the first round — let alone in the top 15 — is usually a bad idea. Running backs don't have a lot of positional value and don't maintain their peak as long as quarterbacks, tackles, wide receivers, EDGE rushers, cornerbacks, etc. However, the Lions ignored all that to select Gibbs at No. 12 (after a trade back from No. 6). 

Gibbs had a fantastic rookie season, totaling 1,261 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns. He averaged a whopping 5.4 yards per touch, helping make the offense more explosive. Gibbs is a perfect fit in Detroit, especially with David Montgomery. But Campbell deserves a lot of credit for how he’s used his rookie running back. 

Teams that spend high first-round picks on running backs tend to use them a lot in their rookie seasons. That makes sense; you want to get as much bang for your buck. 

Ezekiel Elliott (2016) received 354 touches in 15 games as a rookie for the Cowboys. Leonard Fournette (2017) saw 304 touches in 13 games. Those teams leaned hard on their rookie running backs, but they were gassed by the time the playoffs rolled around.

That isn’t the case for Gibbs because the Lions did a fantastic job managing his workload. Gibbs saw 234 total touches in 15 games, an average of about 15.6 touches per game. 

But in the playoffs, he's looked like the fastest player on the field. Against the Buccaneers, Gibbs totaled 114 yards on 13 touches and scored a beautiful 34-yard touchdown.

We can debate positional value, and it’s warranted. But when a team can effectively manage its stud running back and keep him fresh for the playoffs, it’s quite the weapon in big games.

There is no doubt Gibbs has been a wonderful addition to the Lions. Detroit knew it had a window with Jared Goff and decided to try to maximize it by selecting one of the most dynamic running backs we’ve seen in a while. 

Gibbs Isn't Lions' Only Star Rookie

Gibbs wasn’t the only rookie to make an impact this season for the Lions. Sam LaPorta has emerged as one of the league’s best young tight ends.

Despite playing on a bum knee, LaPorta led the Lions in receptions (nine) against Tampa Bay and made several big plays to move the sticks. His route running and quickness make it nearly impossible for linebackers to cover him.

LaPorta was open in the middle of the field whenever the Lions needed to convert on third down. He scored 10 regular-season touchdowns and has all the makings of a future All-Pro. Gibbs and LaPorta revamped Detroit’s offense, making it significantly more dynamic.

On Sunday, Gibbs and LaPorta were the difference makers. Tampa Bay has elite linebackers and safeties, but those two rookies racked up a combined 175 yards on 22 touches. They weren’t afraid of the moment and delivered every time their numbers were called.

Gibbs and LaPorta alone would make this one of the year’s best draft classes. However, the Lions also added Brian Branch, a versatile defensive back from Alabama. 

Did he step up in the playoffs? Duh, of course, he did.

Branch led the Lions in tackles against the Buccaneers, and he recorded a huge first-quarter sack to end a drive and another big tackle for a loss before halftime.

He was all over the field, and it's so clear the moment wasn't too big for him. The Lions will need Branch even more next week to pull off an upset in San Francisco. 

The Lions are 6.5-point underdogs against the 49ers, and that's not a surprise. This is the Lions’ first time in an NFC Championship Game since 1991 and only the second time in franchise history. 

This team feels different and dangerous. A big reason why is due to those three rookies. If they continue to play at this level — like they've done all season — there is no reason they can't walk into San Francisco and upset the No. 1 seed. 

The 2023 draft class turned the Lions from loveable losers to legit Super Bowl contenders overnight.