How Jahmyr Gibbs, Sam LaPorta and other Lions rookies helped the team excel


It feels so long ago, the criticism, the takes, the opinions about the Detroit Lions’ 2023 draft class. There were many of them — few positive, few willing to let things play out on the field.

But the Lions never apologized for acquiring game-ready talent they felt would help them take the leap from good to great, entering a year with increased expectations.

“At the end of the day, we acquire these players for a lot of different reasons,” Lions GM Brad Holmes said, shortly after the draft concluded. “But ultimately, what are we trying to accomplish? We’re trying to win games. That’s why we acquire these players. … That’s what the ultimate goal is, and that’s what our vision is.”

That vision, for many, was hard to see at the time. Detroit’s 2023 draft class received poor grades. It was criticized for lack of positional value. Its first four selections — a running back at No. 12, a linebacker at No. 18, a tight end at No. 34 and a slot corner at No. 45 — had many among NFL circles wondering if the Lions failed to capitalize on capital, knowing they might not be drafting this high again for a while.

But if this season proved anything, it’s that the Lions had the foresight to make a blurry picture visible. These rookies have helped catapult them to the NFC Championship Game, set to play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday for a trip to the Super Bowl. And none looked fazed by the moment.

“I’m just going to bring it back to Brad Holmes,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said last month. “It’s a hell of a job by him, once again. Took a lot of criticism for those picks, but they look like they’re OK, so I’m glad we got them.”

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The first pick started it all. The Lions traded down from No. 6 to No. 12, then shocked many by selecting Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs, a player Holmes fell in love with after attending the Alabama-Texas game in the fall of 2022.

Gibbs was viewed as a perfect fit for a rushing offense the Lions spent all offseason telling people they wanted more out of. In his first NFL season, Gibbs lived up to the hype, recording 1,261 scrimmage yards and 11 total touchdowns in 15 games while splitting carries in Detroit’s backfield. From Weeks 7-18, Gibbs ranked third in the league in rushing yards (766), as the Lions increased his workload. He just missed a Pro Bowl nod, serving as the NFC’s first alternate at running back. But to fully grasp the level of play Gibbs has provided, though, look at the underlying metrics between him and his predecessor, D’Andre Swift.

Jahmyr Gibbs vs. D’Andre Swift

Player Yards after contact PFF breakaway rate PFF Elusivity rating

3.12 (16th)

38.6 percent (3rd)

70.7 (14th)

2.42 (54th)

26.1 percent (17th)

46.0 (43rd)

This month, Gibbs became one of three rookies in NFL history to record at least 80 rushing yards, 80 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a single postseason. Factor in David Montgomery’s contributions as the bruiser in this backfield (1,015 yards and 13 touchdowns), and the Lions arguably have the most feared one-two punch in football.

“His running ability, his vision, he’s just, to me, he really is a complete back that’s continued to develop,” Campbell said of Gibbs this week. “We played the Ravens early in the year and that’s when you felt like, ‘All right, the light’s coming on.’ And he’s just, every week, gotten better and better and better. He’s playing at a high level right now.”

 

When the Lions drafted linebacker Jack Campbell in the first round, outsiders weren’t the only ones with questions. Lions linebacker Derrick Barnes, a 2021 fourth-round pick who had yet to put it all together through his first two seasons, called his position coach, Kelvin Sheppard. While Barnes is a team player and was happy to see talent added, he wanted to know what it meant for him and his future with the Lions.

Sheppard reassured Barnes that he’d have a chance to compete, that this was iron sharpening iron, and there was room for multiple players to contribute.

That’s all Barnes needed to hear.

“I’m telling you right now, he’s not going away quietly,” Sheppard said of Barnes over the summer. “That is a player I’ve seen walk in this building, since we started up Phase Two, and look like a completely different player.”

That’s turned out to be true. In many ways, Campbell and Barnes have helped one another. Barnes has given tips to the rookie linebacker as he navigates the league. Campbell recorded 95 tackles (second on the team) and was excellent against the run. The Lions view him as a future anchor of their defense and saw him grow throughout the second half of the season.

Campbell offered Barnes competition and a sense of urgency, helping the Lions get the most out of his game in his third season. Barnes totaled 81 tackles and ranked 16th in stop percentage among qualified linebackers. His most notable play came in the divisional round, recording his first career interception to seal the Lions’ 31-23 win over the Buccaneers. The Lions found a home for each, and they’ve made each other better.

 

Then there’s Sam LaPorta. When the Lions selected him at No. 34, he wasn’t even the top consensus tight end available, per most draft analysts. That was Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, taken by the Raiders one pick later. But the Lions trusted their evaluation, viewing LaPorta as a game-ready piece for their offense.

Detroit’s brass coveted LaPorta’s toughness, contested catch ability, versatility as a route runner, ability after the catch and willingness as a blocker. He was one of the best players on the field during rookie minicamp, then minicamp, then OTAs, then training camp and into the regular season. It’s hard to succeed as a rookie tight end, in part because of all the things they’re asked to do in both the run and pass games. But LaPorta has passed every test with flying colors.

LaPorta set a record for receptions by a rookie tight end (86), recorded the second-most touchdowns in history by a rookie TE (10), the fourth-most yards (889) and earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. Against the Rams in the divisional round, LaPorta, playing on a hyperextended knee, gutted it out and managed to catch a touchdown in the Lions’ 24-23 win. Against the Buccaneers, LaPorta led the Lions in receptions with nine for 65 yards. He looks like a steal even as a borderline first-round pick, and a force at tight end for years to come.

“I tell you, man, the kid just continues to impress,” offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said. “It’s one way or another. It’s what he does on the field. … I mean, it’s incredible for a rookie. He really is.”

 

And, finally, there’s Brian Branch. Branch was in the Kansas City green room on the first night of the draft, expecting to hear his name called in the first round. That didn’t happen.

The NFL so often misses on safety/nickel evaluations, opting for athleticism and testing results over instincts and game tape. Such was the case for Branch, an undersized defensive back from Alabama with a 4.58 40-yard dash.

Detroit traded up to select him 45th, and it paid off. He finished with 74 tackles, seven TFLs, 13 passes defended and three interceptions — already looking like one of the best nickel corners in the league. In the divisional round, Branch led the Lions in tackles with nine, adding two TFLs and a sack. He is a versatile, dependable piece, with the look of a mainstay for years to come.

“He’s really just taken off in the things that he’s able to do,” Campbell said. “What he brings to the table, his blitz ability, his coverage ability, the fits in the run game, all of that.”

 

The Lions took an unconventional path to reach the NFC Championship Game, but they are the latest example that there’s no one way to win in the NFL. The Chiefs and Ravens are in the AFC Championship Game with a pair of MVP quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson. The 49ers have succeeded with Brock Purdy, the last pick in the 2022 draft. The Lions are here with Jared Goff, a quarterback who was written off, a coaching staff that believed in him and a front office that fielded a roster with emerging talent everywhere you look.

The Lions aren’t just winning games. They’re winning playoff games.

Their 2023 draft class is helping them do it.

(Photos of Jahmyr Gibbs, Sam LaPorta and Brian Branch: Jared C. Tilton, Nic Antaya and David Eulitt / Getty Images)





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