Detroit Lions 2023 Preseason Report

A longtime Lions fan attended the team’s minicamp for ’Hour.’ Here’s his 2023 preseason report.
Photograph by Sal Rodriguez

In early June, I was invited to attend the Detroit Lions’ three-day minicamp for the very first time. Each day, I attended Dan Campbell’s press conferences and then watched the team run through its practice sessions for a couple of hours.

Seeing the team in person and looking back on my 50-plus-year history as a Detroit Lions fan, I have to say that this year just feels different. Naysayers will accuse me of jumping on the Honolulu blue bandwagon, but what we’ve all witnessed from this team over the last nine months has set my expectations high for the upcoming season.

With the 2022 season ending on such a high note (a winning record!), the team being strengthened through several free-agent acquisitions, and a draft class that ranks at least as a solid B, how could you not be at least a little optimistic? This team appears to have assembled the pieces to contend in 2023.

The hype isn’t all from metro Detroiters. Sports Illustrated, USA Today, and Fox Sports, among others, are predicting an NFC North title for this team. And the NFL itself gave the Lions a nod by pitting them against the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, in the Thursday night season opener.

Predictions are one thing, but as we enter the third year of the building process under Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes, this team still has something to prove to its fans and to the football world in general.

Back in early 2021 when Holmes and Campbell first took the reins, they were leading a team that had ended the 2020 season with a 5-11 record and a last-place division finish, setting franchise records for both points and yards allowed. Holmes and Campbell immediately began taking the steps necessary to transform the identity of this team and to begin establishing a winning culture.

Just days into their tenure, they pulled off a blockbuster trade, shipping Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for quarterback Jared Goff and three draft picks. Due to some skillful draft day maneuvering the last two years, those three picks were eventually parlayed into six, helping the Lions to acquire more of the pieces that a successful franchise could be built on.

To understand this team and the energy surrounding it, let’s talk a little bit about minicamp. While Campbell didn’t reveal much in his press conferences, his confidence in the process and in his players was evident. During the practice sessions, he was front and center, not on the sidelines observing. He actually gets in there and coaches, and his enthusiasm is contagious.

From the day he was hired, Campbell has stated that he wants to build this team with character and grit. As outlined on Hard Knocks, he established four simple rules for his players: Don’t be late, keep your weight in check, don’t disrespect your teammates, and don’t disrespect the game.

Through the ups and downs of his first two seasons, he has remained consistent with his message, and the team is where he expects it to be. In one of his minicamp press conferences, he outlined the steps that he and Holmes have taken to build this team.

Cornerbacks Will Harris (left) and new recruit Cameron Sutton practice blocking and receiving. // Photograph by Sal Rodriquez
  • Year 1 (2021): Figure out what they have and what was left from the previous coaching staff.
  • Year 2 (2022): Hone the process and start to fit the pieces together.
  • Year 3 (2023): Acquire more pieces and strengthen areas of weakness.

As we approach the 2023 season, it’s time to see how this process has worked and how it translates to success on the field.

This year’s team looks to build on the late- season success of that 2022 team, but it will look quite a bit different, especially on the offensive side of the ball. With the departure of last year’s top two running backs, Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift, there’ll be some gaps to fill and 22 rushing touchdowns to account for. Newcomers free agent David Montgomery from the Chicago Bears and 2023 No. 12 overall pick Jahmyr Gibbs appear well poised to take on the challenge.

In addition to Gibbs, 2023 draftees Jack Campbell (linebacker), Sam LaPorta (tight end), and Brian Branch (defensive back) expect to see significant playing time this season. Other key additions are free agents C.J. Gardner-Johnson (defensive back), Cameron Sutton (cornerback), and Emmanuel Moseley (cornerback) on defense.

Offensively, wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. rejoins the team he played for from 2016 to 2020 after spending the last two seasons in Jacksonville.

In a few short months, we’ll know how these 2023 Lions measure up, but I do see similarities between this current team and other Detroit teams that have had success, won championships, and become beloved by this city, such as the ’84 Tigers, the Red Wings of the late ’90s and early 2000s, and the Pistons teams of both the Bad Boys era of 1986-92 and the Goin’ to Work era of the early 2000s.

In their own ways, each of these teams adopted the persona of the city they represented. Detroit has long had a reputation for hard work, determination, and the ability to rise above our circumstances. Most of the teams listed above were teams in the truest sense of the word, built from pieces that fit together perfectly, teams that we as Detroiters could identify with and be proud of.

These were teams built on their work ethic, built with many very good players but not many who were considered to be superstars. What those teams did contain were players who were heroes to us as fans, players who had hustle. With these teams, you never knew from one game to the next who was going to be the hero, but someone — like a Vinnie Johnson or a Tom Brookens — always found a way to step up.

This Lions team has the potential to fit that mold and an opportunity to establish a franchise that this city can be proud of. Is our patience going to be rewarded this season, or are we fated to be disappointed once again?

As Campbell is fond of saying, you have to trust the process.

This story is from the August 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.