NFL young talent rankings: No. 13 Lions facing high expectations that will only grow

Which NFL teams have the best young cores? FOX Sports took a deep look at every team’s core of players drafted between 2019 and 2023 to ascertain which franchises have the most promising base of young talent. Our writers ranked all 32 individually, and the final result is an aggregate of all those lists. We’ll count them down for you before the start of the 2023 NFL season, starting with the worst (No. 32) all the way up to No. 1.

The Detroit Lions carry great expectations for the 2023 season — including winning the NFC North for the first time, well, ever, in its current iteration. The Lions have sold out of season tickets, and that’s a first without qualification. 

These expectations also hinge on a young team. Offensively, the Lions do have a significant veteran presence, at least by our definition. But a ton of players fit our ‘young talent’ criteria of being within the first five years of their NFL careers. 

Young core

RB Jahmyr Gibbs

TE Sam LaPorta

WR Jameson Williams

RT Penei Sewell

WR Amon-Ra St. Brown

G Jonah Jackson

RB David Montgomery

DB Brian Branch

ILB Jack Campbell

ILB Malcolm Rodriguez

LB James Houston

DE Aidan Hutchinson

S Kerby Joseph

S CJ Gardner-Johnson

DT Alim McNeil

DE Isaiah Buggs

NFC Preview: These are not the same old lions


RT Penei Sewell: Now that Tampa’s Tristan Wirfs has moved over to the left side, Sewell should be the best young right tackle in the league. He’s definitely a top-three player at the position and will likely take another step forward this year — especially as part of one of the top offensive lines in the NFL.

Sewell and the rest of the Lions’ offensive linemen helped quarterback Jared Goff to 4,438 passing yards and Detroit’s running backs to 2,179 rushing yards.

WR Amon-Ra St. Brown: St. Brown went above and beyond last season, helping himself to the third-most receptions and the sixth-most yards. Not too shabby for a slot receiver. But St. Brown has become so much more than that for the Lions. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has split St. Brown out in all different kinds of alignments and has had him run all sorts of routes. St. Brown’s 1,161 yards led Detroit by a long shot last season— almost 500 yards. He was also the Lions’ first 1,000-yard receiver since Kenny Golladay did it in 2019.

St. Brown will continue to be a big part of Detroit’s offense, especially while they wait for Jameson Williams to serve a six-game suspension. So while he was a standout last season in a breakout year, he should be again in 2023. 

[Vitali: Why the Lions will have a top-10 offense in 2023, despite a lack of hype]

Potential breakout: RB Jahmyr Gibbs

Another huge weapon for Detroit’s offense this year should be first-round pick Jahmyr Gibbs. Yes, he’s classified as a running back, but all reports out of Lions camp this preseason, and limited preseason play, have shown that Gibbs will factor into the receiving game as much if not more than he will as a rusher.

As Ben Johnson comes up with new offensive wrinkles, the Lions offense should look even more creative than we saw last year with the addition of Gibbs. Keep in mind, this was already an offense that averaged the fifth-most points in th league last year with 26.6. If they keep that up, the defense will only have to be average for Detroit to end up fulfilling their current expectations of winning the division. 

Contracts to Consider 

S CJ Gardner-Johnson: The Lions signed Gardner-Johnson to a one-year, $6.5 million contract this offseason. It comes after a Super Bowl appearance with the Philadelphia Eagles. But Gardner-Johnson has wasted no time assimilating to his new team, becoming a veteran leader (at the ripe old age of 25) for a young secondary, and his teammates are already benefitting.

But while Gardner-Johnson is only 25, he hasn’t played a full season since his rookie year in 2019 with New Orleans. He also had an injury scare within the first couple days of camp opening up. Gardner-Johnson is fine now, but if he plays the way he did last season, he’d well worth a long-term extension.

LG Jonah Jackson: Jackson is one of the best young guards in the league. His rookie contract is coming up and the Lions would be wise to reinvest in their homegrown talent. To crack the top five in contract AAV among guards, Jackson would be owed north of $16 million. The good news is, the Lions are projected to have the eighth-most cap space in the NFL in 2024 at over $42 million, according to Spotrac. They don’t have a ton of core players who will need to be paid next offseason, so they should have money for both Jackson and Gardner-Johnson, provided both want to stay. 

Key stats 

  • Amon-Ra St. Brown recorded six straight games with 50-plus receiving yards and one receiving touchdown, the longest such streak by a Lions player in the Super Bowl era. Of receivers drafted in 2021, has the most receptions in that span.
  • Last season, Penei Sewell recorded a run block grade of 83.0, the sixth-highest among all tackles (per PFF). He also recorded an overall offensive grade of 80.6, the 11th-highest among all tackles. He’s given up seven sacks in two seasons.
  • Aidan Hutchinson started all 17 games in his rookie season, recording 9 sacks, 3 interceptions, 52 total tackles (34 solo), 9 TFL and 15 QB hits. He was the only player last season with at least 5 sacks and three interceptions.

‘This feels special’ — Aidan Hutchinson speaks on the Lions’ ‘dominant’ victory over the Bears

Inside info

Kerby Joseph: Joseph has better speed than most safeties and he can handle single-high coverage. And you love the hands and body control in the air to contest passes. But part of the reason the Lions were in shootouts last year is because he missed too many tackles. That needs to improve.  —NFL evaluator

“CJ [Gardner-Johnson] is the best thing to ever happen to Kerby. Kerby just doesn’t know it yet.” —NFC position coach

Sam LaPorta: Like George Kittle and TJ Hockenson at Iowa before him, LaPorta plays with more physicality and passion than his frame suggests. Cat-quick and a polished route-runner with excellent hands — and a real weapon after the catch. That’s critical because Jared Goff is at his best in the short to intermediate zones. —NFL evaluator

Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.

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