Following an 0-8-1 start to the 2021 NFL season in Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell‘s first year as the team’s leader, offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn was relieved of his duties. Campbell took over the play-calling chores the rest of the way, but he found help in tight ends coach Ben Johnson receiving an expanded role that included being the passing game coordinator.
After Week 18, Campbell officially parted ways with Lynn and ultimately promoted Johnson to offensive coordinator. The 35-year-old Johnson worked closely with Campbell in the second half of last season, which helped make this a natural transition, especially considering Campbell’s background as an NFL tight end and positional coach. The duo also worked together in Miami from 2012-15.
Well, that’s going to be tough to nail down since Johnson has yet to call plays. First of all, Campbell has yet to publicly state whether he or Johnson will call plays in 2022.
So what can we safely surmise?
Given Johnson’s extensive history as a tight ends coach, it’s not a huge jump in logical procession to presume we will continue to see a heavy dose of T.J. Hockenson. Given the raw talent of running back D’Andre Swift, count on his role remaining mostly stable as long as he remains healthy. Johnson also has history coaching wide receivers, and he assisted Campbell in designing plays as the season went along. It helped translate to improved offensive play — relatively speaking — to close out the year.
Another aspect we can count on is commitment to running the ball and being a tough team. There’s no chance someone as dedicated to these tenets as Campbell would hire anyone to the contrary. This won’t be a team that throws 40 to 50 times a game with consistency, provided the defense takes steps forward. Last year, the Lions ranked 13th in pass-run ratio, throwing 593 times at a rate of 58.1 percent of the offensive snaps, or 34.9 times per outing. When you lose all but three games, that sort of thing is going to happen, and it’s not even as lopsided as it could have been.
Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown gushed about Johnson’s abilities and football IQ during an interview with the Detroit Free Press last month:
“His attention to detail when he was installing these plays in the red zone,” St. Brown said. “He presents really well. He’s super confident up there. He knows what he’s talking about. You can just hear it in his voice. So, I just remember him going up there, I think it was early in the year, installing red-zone plays, and right from then on, I knew he was a smart, special dude.”
Of St. Brown’s Lions rookie record 90 grabs, 63 came while Johnson was more involved in the offense. The North Carolina alum was a walk-on quarterback from 2004-07, double-majoring in mathematics and computer science, so he’s obviously a heady guy. Hockenson praised Johnson’s ability to incorporate the opinions of players into his game plans.
Being on the younger side of things and coming up as an NFL coach in Joe Philbin’s system, which was a West Coast-based offense, look for flexible designs. Presumably, we’ll see staples of this system with a modified approach that not only fits today’s NFL but is tailored to his player’s skill sets. In that scenario, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him install something closer to a Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan offense — run-based, play-action passing with RPO elements thrown in to keep defenses guessing. The days of a prototypical West Coast offense are likely dead and gone as most teams utilize it as a foundation on which to build using modern architecture, if you will.
The Lions currently have $20.1 million in cap space heading into free agency, but that number could improve through restructuring or extending some players. The team is young — like really young. Only Cincinnati (24.46) has a younger average age than Detroit’s 25.49. That means the offense doesn’t have many free agents, especially of consequence. Pass-rushing outside linebacker Charles Harris and safety Tracy Walker are the only UFAs on defense who’ll be addressed with priority.
Key areas of need include wide receiver, linebacker, safety, quarterback, and edge rusher. With a solid crop of a midrange WRs available in free agency, in addition to a few true No. 1s, the Lions have plenty of options to help build around St. Brown.
Expect the No. 2 overall pick to be spent on a pass rusher, and either the 32nd or 34th picks can be used on a receiver, if desired.
Fantasy football takeaway
Jared Goff returns as the starting quarterback for Year 2, although he could serve as a bridge if Detroit snags a replacement in this weak draft class. Even with a bolstered receiving corps and more continuity along the offensive line, Goff’s physical limitations keep him soundly locked into the lower half of fantasy backups in traditional formats.
The 2021 tandem of Swift and Jamaal Williams should return intact, but it won’t be a total shock if the Lions explore replacing the latter. His contract is fair, so both likely come back to man the backfield’s one-two punch. Swift has durability concerns but electrifying attributes and offers RB1 potential. Williams is more of an insurance policy and/or roster depth with TD-centric deployment in mind.
Unless the Lions spend huge money for someone like Davante Adams, Chris Godwin or Allen Robinson, St. Brown should be the primary target among the receivers as a chain-mover who can play all over the field and specializes in precision route running. Another year building chemistry with Goff — as the NFL slows down around the USC product — cannot hurt St. Brown’s chances of picking up where he left off. His ultimate draft stock comes down to how the team addresses the glaring positional need.
Hockenson is entrenched as the starter but needs to stay healthy and find ways to overcome extra defensive attention. If all works as planned, he should be a top-flight fantasy option in PPR scoring.