Tough and nasty: Penei Sewell, 2021 draft class signal culture shift for Lions

“Yessir, we in The D!” said Penei Sewell, as he flashed an enormous smile and flexed his massive muscles.

That’s how Detroit’s second-highest pick on an offensive lineman in the common draft era signed off from Saturday’s introductory press conference, two days after being taken seventh overall in the 2021 NFL draft.

That joy and passion to join the Lions exuded throughout the room, particularly from the new regime, which put a stamp on its first draft by focusing on tough, nasty players.

After making the initial draft-day call to Sewell, new general manager Brad Holmes embraced coach Dan Campbell with a tight hug before yelling out “Wooooo!” and refusing to contain his excitement -- same as Sewell.

“I can’t wait to put the helmet on, the pads on and run through somebody,” Sewell said. “I’m ready.”

More important than stats or on-field production, that attitude is just what Holmes and Campbell wanted in their new additions.

As Detroit approaches the 2021 season, many consider the Lions to be in rebuild mode, and the new regime was drafting more so from a culture fit, regardless of scheme.

“Obviously, it’s termed often 'not as sexy' when you go with a big lineman,” Holmes said. “Sometimes they say it’s safe and it’s sound, but I think that it will be very, very, I guess the sexy, attractive pick when he’s rolling with our offensive line during the season and making an impact in both phases, running and passing.”

Defensive tackles Levi Onwuzurike (Washington) and Alim McNeill (NC State), CB Ifeatu Melifonwu (Syracuse), WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (USC), LB Derrick Barnes (Purdue) and RB Jermar Jefferson (Oregon State) round out the remainder of the Lions’ 2021 draft class. All of them possess a tough-nosed demeanor.

Onwuzurike already has "bad" intentions.

“I like f---ing people up. I like to get off the line and just put my helmet or my hands on an offensive lineman and f--- up an offense’s scheme pretty much,” Onwuzurike said with a big smile on draft night. “I like pushing them back 2, 3 yards and just making them feel like s---.”

Former “Last Chance U” running back Rakeem Boyd was among the 13 undrafted free agents who agreed to terms with the Lions on Monday, further making it clear what type of guys the new front office was targeting, starting with Sewell.

“We are getting players that embody everything that we’re about. And it really starts with this big man here. We identified him early in the process. Ultimately, Brad and I wanted to walk the talk,” Campbell said of Sewell. “We said what kind of players we were looking for and what we wanted to build this team around, what we were looking for from a cultural standpoint.

“This young man meets all of that criteria. It’s not every day you can find an athlete that is his size and has his temperament. Alright, this is a tough dude that knows how to play nasty, and he can protect the quarterback. That’s what you’re looking for when you’re trying to build a foundation on the O-line. He’s going to fit like a glove.”

Detroit could have gone in a number of different directions in the draft, but decided to build from the inside out, starting in the trenches -- unlike past years when skill positions were the priority.

The reconstructed roster -- with key adds in quarterback Jared Goff, wide receivers Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman, plus running back Jamaal Williams and tight end Josh Hill -- still has a number of question marks. But Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson told ESPN, “We’re moving in the right direction.”

“That’s just another piece to our puzzle that we can use,” Hockenson said of Sewell. “I think you ask anybody on this team, I think we’re all ready to get this thing rolling.”

Sewell passed on the NFL draft green room to hold a viewing party with family, friends and old coaches in a rental at the Arcadia resort in Santa Clara, Utah.

His former Desert Hills High School coach Carl Franke attended, watching from the living room as Sewell’s name was called in the opening round. Franke said Lions fans will “never have to second guess his heart” because he is “100% going, no matter what it is.”

Oregon offensive line coach Alex Mirabal was also there, sharing similar sentiments, while describing Sewell as a “generational talent” at his position.

“He can do things, he can feel things, he can see things that other people don’t,” Mirabal told ESPN. “He’s got a sixth sense about him. I would say, ‘Hey, Penei, why did you do that?’ and he’s like, ‘Well, coach, I just saw it.' And that’s what elite players have. Either you got it or you don’t. You can’t train it.”

Sewell comes from humble beginnings, which has him deeply rooted in family -- the same thing the Lions are trying to build.

He grew up in a shack with his four siblings and parents on the small island of Malaeimi (a village in American Samoa) before moving to Utah ahead of his pre-teen years to seriously pursue football.

“Every time I think about this moment, I go back to the kid on that island in the shack I was talking about with all my family. I had that same group when we were all in the living room sleeping on the floor in that shack and now look at us,” Sewell said. “I’m in a position to really change my family dynamic and also play at the level I wanted to play at my whole life, the NFL. To be a part of the NFL and the Detroit Lions organization is nothing but a dream come true.”

Now the Lions are expecting him to come in and contribute right away.

So much so that one NFL head coach called Sewell “the one surefire Hall of Famer in this draft class,” according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Hearing high praise like that doesn’t faze the 20-year-old just yet, though. He has to live up to the hype, but he seems happy and appreciative for the opportunity in Motown.

“At the end of the day, I haven’t played a snap, and I have a lot to prove in this league,” Sewell said. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and talk like that, again, is appreciated. But it has to go in one ear and out the other. I’m ready to work; I’m ready to prove everything that I need to prove to everyone. Just excited to get on that field with the players.”