2023 Detroit Lions awards: Breakout Player of the Year (2024)

Now that the 2023 season is completely over for all 32 teams, it’s time to look back at the Detroit Lions season that was. It was a historic season for so many reasons and one that likely will never be forgotten for both the good reasons and the heartbreaking end.

But for now, let’s celebrate the good with our 2023 Pride of Detroit Awards. Here’s how it works: 10 awards to hand out in 10 different categories. They are the following:

  • Breakout Player of the Year
  • Special Teams Player of the Year
  • Rookie of the Year
  • Coach of the Year
  • Game of the Year
  • Offensive Player of the Year
  • Defensive Player of the Year
  • Play of the Year
  • Pride of Detroit Moment of the Year
  • MVP

Throughout the next 10 days, our staff will make their picks for each of the awards. However, the true “winner” will be decided by you, the reader, with a poll at the end of each article.

So let’s kick things off with our first award: Breakout Player of the Year. Here are our nominations:

Brandon Knapp: Ifeatu Melifonwu

Melifonwu has been dealing with injuries for most of his NFL career and never has had a chance to break out and have some big moments. This year, he has been healthy and has made use of his time on the field. He isn’t just a coverage safety or a run stopper, he can do it all, which this defense needs. Playmakers at every level can make a team difficult to stop.

John Whiticar: Sam LaPorta

The Lions have no shortage of candidates, and ideally, I’d nominate a non-rookie, but I have to give the nod to LaPorta. Not only did LaPorta set a Lions tight end single-season receiving record (by over 100 yards to boot), but he did so as a rookie. Rookie tight ends simply don’t perform like he did. The only recent comparison is Kyle Pitts, a fourth-overall selection who played more snaps as a receiver than he did inline. Many of us were excited about LaPorta, none of us predicted he’d develop so quickly.

Morgan Cannon: Ifeatu Melifonwu

It took a bit for him to get going, but Melifonwu was one of the most important players on the Lions defense late in the season. He possesses all of the physical measurables that make for a great safety in today’s NFL, and he showed his chops against both the run and pass once he started seeing the field as a starter. And the crazy thing about Melifonwu? He may just be scratching the surface of his potential as a safety.

Hamza Baccouche: Jahmyr Gibbs

I gotta go with Jahmyr Gibbs here. Even though he had lofty expectations due to his draft status, Gibbs got off to a slow start, and the coaching staff eased him into his role as the Lions’ lead back. It was only once expectations had settled close to the season’s midway point that Gibbs burst onto the scene and finished the year as one of the best running backs in the league.

Erik Schlitt: Ifeatu Melifonwu

Melifonwu’s career had been marred by injury, and a position switch from corner to safety further delayed his development. When he finally got an opportunity to showcase what he had learned, he burst onto the scene in impressive fashion. Not only did he earn a starting role, but he was arguably the Lions’ best defensive back at the end of the season.

Ryan Mathews: Ifeatu Melifonwu

Melifonwu went from a distant memory of Brad Holmes’ first draft class in 2021 to coming up huge over the final month of the regular season. Without his emergence, do the Lions wrap up the division in Minnesota? Do they win the NFC North at all? 7 pressures, 3.0 sacks, and two interceptions over the final four weeks of the regular season was quite the breakout performance from a guy whose spot on the roster wasn’t a certainty in August.

Meko Scott: Alim McNeill

There are a number of deserving players when it comes to this award, which really speaks to how much this team improved from last year. But with that said, I have to go with Alim McNeill over everyone else because I think his performance and growth meant the most to that defense. His transformation to an explosive force in the middle was much more consistent, and if not for a knee injury, I think McNeill could have very well made the Pro Bowl this year.

Jeremy Reisman: Derrick Barnes

In the summer, Kelvin Sheppard warned us that Barnes was coming, and I think we largely ignored him—especially after the Lions drafted Jack Campbell. And while his play may not have been as flashy as my runner-up Ifeatu Melifonwu, Barnes was able to hold off Campbell from a starting gig all season with his consistent play—and unlike Melifonwu, he did it for the entire season. To cap off his breakout season with the game-sealing INT that sent Detroit to the NFC Championship made for a remarkable year for Barnes.


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2023 Detroit Lions awards: Breakout Player of the Year (2024)
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