Expert Analysis


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Pride in Detroit: How NFL Teams are Emulating Lions’ Success

Detroit Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs
Detroit Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs (26) celebrates a touchdown against Tampa Bay Buccaneers with wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (14) during the second half of the NFC divisional round at Ford Field in Detroit.

Could the Lions, the Detroit Lions, be the team that the rest of the league emulates next week as the 2024 NFL Draft makes its way to the Motor City?

If this year’s free agency is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.

So what exactly did the Lions do in last year’s draft that was so groundbreaking and revolutionary?

They drafted good football players.

Yes, it sounds ridiculous on the surface to suggest that drafting good football players is some type of newfangled concept the Lions invented. However, in a league that has skewed toward the analytics, especially when it comes to positional value, Detroit essentially zigged while so many others around the league continued to zag.

Jahmyr Gibbs, in a light blue uniform, runs with the ball
Detroit Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs (26) runs against Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Zyon McCollum (27) during the second half of the NFC Divisional Round at Ford Field in Detroit. (Detroit Free Press/USA TODAY-Sports)

Finding Unconventional Value

Things started with pick No. 12 when the Lions took a running back, the player considered the second-best prospect at that position, with a premium pick. It had been a long time since the No. 2 ball carrier had been taken that high, but Detroit GM Brad Holmes liked what he saw from Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs and pulled the trigger.

Gibbs went on to have a fantastic rookie season. His explosiveness was a significant catalyst in the Lions' success throughout the regular season and into the NFC Championship Game. 

Based on the running back market in this year's free agency, the rest of the NFL took notice. The Philadelphia Eagles, long known for declining to pay top dollar at the position, started the open market with a bang by signing former New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley to a three-year, $37.5 million deal that included $26 million guaranteed.

It wasn’t just the Eagles. The Green Bay Packers (Josh Jacobs), Baltimore Ravens (Derrick Henry) and Chicago Bears (D’Andre Swift) were among teams that paid significantly more for running backs in free agency than they typically have. Whether or not that leads to teams such as the Dallas Cowboys pushing running backs up their board in a year without a surefire first-round pick remains to be seen.

Still, the Lions appear to have been ahead of the curve in recognizing that running backs had become undervalued.

“I think as you've seen this year in the market, maybe that dynamic has gone a little too far to the other side and teams are realizing that there's still really good players, that they're valued. And it's a position where you can really upgrade performance at a pretty efficient [price],” Minnesota Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said after his team signed running back Aaron Jones.

Jack Campbell, in a light blue uniform, tackles a Tampa Bay running back
Detroit Lions linebacker Jack Campbell (46) tackles Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Rachaad White (1) during the first quarter in a 2024 NFC Divisional Round game at Ford Field. (Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports)

Balancing Both Sides of the Ball

The Lion's second first-round pick (No. 18 overall) was an off-ball linebacker, which has become the running back position of the defense in terms of the disdain some franchises have for allocating resources like high draft picks or large contracts. Detroit's “reach” for Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell also paid off — he started 12 games and finished with 95 tackles and some votes for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Like they did with running backs, teams spent more in free agency on the position to secure the services of Frankie Luvu (Washington Commanders), Patrick Queen (Pittsburgh Steelers), Azeez Al-Shaair (Houston Texans), etc. Also, like with running backs, there are no elite prospects in the coming draft. Yet you have to wonder if Campbell’s success leads to Michigan’s Junior Colson or Clemson’s Jeremiah Trotter Jr. getting selected higher than they otherwise would have in recent years.

Sam LaPorta jumps in the end zone and reaches with his right fingertips for the football while a Buccaneers player tries to tackle him
Detroit Lions tight end Sam LaPorta (87) reaches for the ball against Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Ryan Neal (23) during the second half in a 2024 NFC Divisional Round game at Ford Field. (David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports)

Finding Talent After Round 1

The second round was more of the same for the Lions when they took Iowa TE Sam LaPorta before many thought he would go. He proceeded to set the NFL rookie record for receptions by a tight end. That seems especially relevant as the debate regarding Georgia’s Brock Bowers rages. Some — presumably the Lions based on their draft last season — would argue that Bowers is an outstanding player and as a result, teams shouldn’t hesitate to draft him and upgrade the position on their roster.

The argument against Bowers as a top-10 pick is the same positional value discussion had every year about running back and linebacker.

Is it worth taking a position less valuable than cornerback, offensive tackle or edge rusher with a premium pick? In fairness to those teams that place a high value on positional value, the logic is primarily financial because high-level tight ends don’t make nearly as much money as the highly sought-after positions. The value created by having a star at the position on a rookie contract isn’t as significant.

Brian Branch plays tightly on Drake London, who is leaping with his left arm outstretched for a ball that isn't on-target
Detroit Lions safety Brian Branch defends Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Drake London during the second half at Ford Field in Detroit. (Detroit Free Press/USA TODAY-Sports)

Positional Value Only Matters if You Play

The question is: How much does it matter if the player you pick at the more sought-after position isn’t the same caliber as the one at the less “valuable” position or, even worse, can't play at all? Shouldn’t things still be about making sure you get good players?

That's the case in Detroit.

The Lions took the first safety off the board in versatile Alabama DB Brian Branch at pick No. 45. He finished ahead of Campbell in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting while playing primarily at the nickel back spot for the Lions. Could that help a safety such as Minnesota’s Tyler Nubin or a nickel back such as Missouri’s Ennis Rakestraw in this year’s draft?

Only time will tell, but based on the dominance of Detroit’s 2023 draft class and the record-breaking season that followed, maybe it should.