Jul 062014
 

Quarterback

The Lions went 4-12 in 2012, but they were much better than their record suggested. They went 3-8 in games decided by a touchdown in 2012 and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 6.5 wins, coming from their -65 point differential. That point differential would have been much better if they hadn’t allowed 10 return touchdowns, while scoring none for themselves. If that was zeroed out, they would have had a +5 point differential and essentially been an 8-8 team.

Going off of that, they had an unsustainably poor turnover margin of -13, largely because of an unsustainably poor fumble recovery rate of 32.56%. Turnover margins (and along with that return touchdown margins) are really unpredictable and inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0. Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins.

Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04. Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to struggle (or have success) the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well. The Lions ranked 16th in DVOA in 2012 despite their record and they were supposed to be a significantly improved team last season.

They were an improved team, going 7-9, but they still missed out on the playoffs and they still were better than their record. They still had a -12 turnover margin, driven by a 42.55% fumble recovery rate. They still went 3-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 8.5 wins. The things that are supposed to even out in the long run (record in close games, fumble recovery, turnover margin) have not been evening out for this team over the past 2 seasons. The Lions fired head coach Jim Schwartz in an effort to fix this.

They replaced him with Jim Caldwell, which was kind of a weird move. The Lions will be hoping that they’re getting the coach who went 24-8 in his first 2 years with the Colts, the coach who was recommended by Peyton Manning, and the offensive coordinator who turned the Ravens’ offense around mid-season in 2012 en route to a Super Bowl victory, rather than the coach who went 2-14 in his only season with the Colts without Peyton Manning, getting fired, and the offensive coordinator who led one of the worst offenses in the league last season in Baltimore.

Either way, the Lions could easily see their poor record in close games and their poor turnover margin even out in their first year under Caldwell. They were 6th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013, with a differential of 5.42%. They moved the chains at a 73.92% rate, 10th in the NFL, and they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 68.50% rate, 9th in the NFL. They have the talent to be one of the best teams in the NFL, which this preview will demonstrate. Almost every season, one team goes from out of the playoffs to a first round bye. I think the Lions have a good chance to be that team, if anyone does. I feel the same way about the Lions as I did about the Panthers before last season, when I predicted them to go 12-4, win the NFC South, and get the #2 seed in the NFC.

Quarterback Matt Stafford is a big part of that talent. His numbers last season weren’t great, as he completed 58.5% of his passes for an average of 7.33 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, a QB rating of 84.2 that ranked 19th in the NFL last season. However, Stafford also had a league high 58 passes dropped for a combined 513 yards in the air. When you look at his adjusted QB rating, which takes into account dropped passes, throw aways, spikes, and yards in the air, he was 15th in the NFL.

Meanwhile, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked quarterback last season and graded out 4th in terms of pure passing grade. He did struggle as a runner, grading out below average in that aspect and rushing for 69 yards on 37 carries, an average of 1.86 YPC. Still, he’s better than his numbers suggest, leading an offense that ranked highly in rate of moving the chains despite consistent dropped passes by his receiving corps.

Stafford, the first overall pick in 2009, struggled in his first 2 years in the NFL, missing 19 games and completing 54.5% of his passes for an average of 5.92 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions. However, he’s played all 48 games over the past 3 seasons, completing 60.6% of his passes for an average of 7.24 YPA, 90 touchdowns, and 52 interceptions. He’s also been better than his numbers, as he had 46 passes dropped in 2011 (most in the NFL), 49 passes dropped in 2012 (2nd most in the NFL), and then, of course, he had the most passes dropped in the NFL last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback in 2011 and 13th ranked quarterback in 2012.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Lions obviously still have Calvin Johnson, who is one of, if not the best wide receiver in the game. He had a “down year” in 2013 with 84 catches for 1492 yards and 12 touchdowns, his lowest catch and yardage totals since 2010. That was really only because he missed 2 games with injury (after playing all 16 games in the previous 2 seasons). His absence was definitely missed as Matt Stafford completed 47 of 73 for 479 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions in the two games Johnson didn’t play as the Lions scored 22 points and lost both games.

Last season was actually the best season of Johnson’s career in terms of yards per route run, as he averaged 2.72 yards per route run. He’s averaged 2.55 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons since Stafford broke out as a starter. Even in 2011, when the Lions had poor quarterback play, he averaged 1.87 yards per route run and graded out 3rd at his position. He’s been a top-5 wide receiver in the NFL on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 4 seasons, the only receiver in the league to do so.

The Lions clearly needed to upgrade the receiving corps around Johnson this off-season. They really needed a #2 wide receiver opposite Johnson and they definitely needed someone who could step up as a #1 receiver if Johnson does miss some games. To fix this issue, they signed Golden Tate to a 5-year, 31 million dollar deal with 13.25 million guaranteed. Golden Tate has never had a 1000 yard season, but he’s been stuck on a run heavy team in Seattle, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010. He caught 45 passes on 65 attempts (69.2%) for 688 yards and 7 touchdowns on 378 routes run (1.80 yards per route run) in 2012. In 2013, he caught 64 passes on 93 attempts (68.8%) for 898 yards and 5 touchdowns on 447 routes run (2.01 yards per route run).

He’s also dropped just 5 passes to 109 catches, which has to be music to Matt Stafford’s ears. Tate will see plenty of single coverage opposite Calvin Johnson and could run 500-600 routes in a pass heavier offense. He won’t see any downgrade in terms of his quarterback’s passing ability going from Russell Wilson and Matt Stafford and he could easily have 1000 receiving yards. He and Calvin Johnson instantly give the Lions one of the best wide receiving duos in the NFL.

That’s a big difference compared to last season when Kris Durham led Lion pass catchers in routes run with 586. Durham was Pro Football Focus 2nd worst ranked wide receiver last season, catching 38 passes on 82 targets (46.3%) for 490 yards on 568 routes run (0.86 yards per route run). He also dropped 10 passes. Durham will be no higher than the 4th wide receiver this season. He’ll have a minimal role, if he has any at all, and he’s on the roster bubble. Aside from Calvin Johnson, of the 7 wide receivers who played a snap for the Lions last season, 6 of them graded out below average.

In addition to Golden Tate coming in, Ryan Broyles is coming back from injury. Broyles is tough and a fast healer, but it’s easy to be skeptical about his recovery. Broyles is a talented player who was a 2nd round pick in 2012 and he could have gone in the first round if he didn’t tear his ACL in his senior season at Oklahoma. However, he’s missed 16 games over the past 2 seasons combined, tearing his other ACL in 2012 and then his Achilles in 2013. That’s an intense injury history. He’s expected to be ready for the start of next season, but he’s an unproven, playing 476 snaps over the past 2 seasons respectively and he’s already admitted he’s not as explosive as he once was, which is definitely understandable. He’s also a serious re-injury risk.

Running back Reggie Bush will also be a big part of their passing game and line up in the slot from time to time. He caught 54 passes for 506 yards and 3 touchdowns last season on 303 routes last season, an average of 1.67 yards per route run. He’s not a fantastic pass catcher (grading out right about average as a running back in pass catching grade), but he could see more pass catching production this season with Joe Lombardi coming in as offensive coordinator from New Orleans, where he was the quarterbacks coach from 2009-2013. He’s expected to utilize Bush the same way that the Saints utilized Darren Sproles, who caught an average of 77 passes over the past 3 seasons.

Eric Ebron, the 10th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, will also line up in the slot from time to time. He’ll play a bunch of different roles as a move tight end and the #2 tight end as a rookie. Brandon Pettigrew was brought back as the starting tight end on a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal. He’ll be primarily a blocking tight end. I think that deal was a mistake, not just because it means that Eric Ebron won’t have a bigger role, but also because Pettigrew was one of the inefficiencies in this offense last season. He’s not worth that kind of money and the cap strapped Lions could have easily used that money elsewhere. The Lions also have 2nd year tight end Joseph Fauria, who graded out above average as a pass catcher and a run blocker on 312 snaps, as an undrafted rookie last year. He’ll have a much smaller role this season, even though he’s probably better than Pettigrew.

Pettigrew has graded out above average as a run blocker in 4 of the last 5 seasons, but he’s graded out below average as a pass catcher in every season he’s been in the league, since being drafted in the first round in 2009. He was Pro Football Focus’ 58th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible in 2012, including 61st as a pass catcher as he averaged 1.18 yards per route run and dropped 9 passes. In 5 years in the league, he’s averaged 1.28 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end in pass catching grade last season and averaged 0.98 yards per route run. The Lions should phase him out of the offense over the next 2 seasons in favor of the incredibly athletic, but still raw Ebron. With the additions of Tate and Ebron, it’s a much improved receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the Lions use Reggie Bush in the passing game a lot. Bush has gotten over his early career injury problems, playing 45 out of 48 games in the past 2 seasons as a starter in Miami and Detroit. However, he still hasn’t been the type of running back he was supposed to be when the Saints took him 2nd overall in 2006. He’s averaged 4.62 YPC over the past 3 seasons as a starter, doing so on 666 carries, but he hasn’t been as good as that suggests.

He graded out below average in run grade in 2011 and 2012 and about average in 2013 and he’s fumbled 13 times over the past 3 seasons. He’s going into his age 29 season so he’s not getting any better. The Lions are planning on scaling back Bush’s role as a runner, as new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi comes over from the Sean Payton coaching tree in New Orleans and plans to use Bush as they did with Darren Sproles in New Orleans. Sproles caught an average of 77 passes over the past 3 seasons. Reggie Bush has caught an average of 44 over the past 3 seasons and could catch 60 passes this season. At the same time, he could see his carries drop down from 223 to the 140-160 range.

Any loss in carries by Bush will be the benefit of Joique Bell, which Bush has said publicly he is fine with. The Lions have been a pass happy, 3-wide receiver team over the past 3 seasons, averaging 680 pass attempts over the past 3 seasons. Now they will be more of a traditional offense. They used their first round pick on Eric Ebron, which means they’ll use more two-tight end sets (though they obviously still have the ability to throw out of two-tight end sets). They signed a traditional fullback in Jed Collins, who comes with Lombardi over New Orleans, where he’s graded out above average in 2 of the past 3 seasons as a starter, including a 2011 season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked fullback.

They also gave a 3-year, 9.3 million dollar extension to restricted free agent Joique Bell, who figures to lead the team in carries in their new more traditional offense. The 5-11 220 pounder is their best traditional runner. He doesn’t have as many breakaway runs as Bush, but he had 65 first downs on 219 touches last season, while Bush had 68 first downs on 277 touches. The Lions could easily be getting a steal with that 3-year deal.

Over the past 2 seasons, Bell has been one of the more important backup running backs in the NFL. Last season, he played 562 snaps, 23rd most in the NFL among running backs. A former undrafted free agent, Bell graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked running back in 2013 and 12th ranked in 2012. In the past 2 seasons, he’s averaged 4.29 yards per carry, while serving as a valuable goal line back (11 touchdowns) and receiver out of the backfield (105 catches).

Bell’s pass catching ability might actually be better than Bush’s (though the Lions don’t split him into the slot nearly as often) and his pass catching ability allows the Lions to pass out of traditional running formations, as does Ebron. Bell was actually 2nd on the team in receiving yards, catching 53 catches for 547 yards last season. Bush is owed 3.25 million non-guaranteed in his age 30 season in 2015 so Bush could be gone next off-season and Bell could be a three-down feature back that season.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As good as Calvin Johnson is, the best unit on the Lions’ offense is their offensive line. The Lions allowed 23 sacks last season, 2nd fewest in the NFL, which is even more impressive when you consider that they passed 634 times, 5th most in the NFL. Part of that is how quickly Matt Stafford gets rid of the ball and how strong his pocket presence is. Stafford averaged 2.41 seconds from snap to throw last season, 8th fastest among eligible quarterbacks, and he was sacked on 11.9% of pressured snaps, 3rd most infrequently among eligible quarterbacks. This isn’t a new trend. In 2012, he was sacked on 13.3% of pressured snaps, 4th most infrequently among eligible quarterbacks, even though he got rid of the ball in 2.56 seconds from snap to throw on average.

However, much of that low sack number had to do with how well the Lions’ offensive line played. The biggest addition to the unit was rookie right guard Larry Warford, a 2013 3rd round pick, who I argued should have been Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. Warford played every snap one of Detroit’s 1158 offensive snaps as a rookie. Warford didn’t allow a single sack from the right guard spot and only allowed 5 quarterback hits and 10 hurries, while committing just 4 penalties this season. That’s insane, regardless of how quickly his quarterback gets rid of the ball and how good his quarterback’s pocket presence is.

Warford played every snap over a 16 game season and only allowed his man to even get close to the quarterback 15 times. In fact, he only allowed more than 2 quarterback pressures in a game once and that was against Cincinnati, when he was frequently matched up with all-everything defensive tackle Geno Atkins, before Atkins’ injury. On top of that, the right guard gap produced 4.77 yards per carry for the Lions, a team that averaged just 4.04 yards per carry overall. As a result, Warford was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked guard and was an obvious Pro-Bowl snub. He’s obviously still a one year wonder, as he was a rookie last year, but I’m confident he can have another dominant year.

Warford wasn’t the Lions’ only talented rookie last season, as undrafted free agent LaAdrian Waddle played very well as a rookie, taking over as the starter at right tackle in week 8 and playing 553 snaps on the season. He played much better than veteran Corey Hilliard, who graded below average to start the season on 459 snaps. Waddle graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked offensive tackle, despite the limited playing time. He’s expected to enter the season as the starter again. He could easily have another strong season, possibly even stronger now that he’ll be the starter for the full season, though the fact that he was only an undrafted free agent in 2013 is still a concern. About 14 months ago, no name in the NFL believed he was worth being drafted.

On the flip side, the Lions have an aging player at center in Dominic Raiola. He’s going into his age 36 season, and he looked done as recently as 2010-2011, when he graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons, including 5th worst among centers in 2010. However, he’s put together back-to-back strong seasons over the past two seasons, grading out 13th and 2nd among centers in 2012 and 2013 respectively. At his age, he doesn’t have much time left, but he could easily have another strong season left in the tank, so credit the Lions for keeping him at a very reasonable rate (1.5 million over 1 season) this off-season.

Warford didn’t miss a snap all last season. Raiola missed 2 snaps all last season. On top of that, left guard Rob Sims didn’t miss a snap all last season either. Sims did have a down season, grading out only about average. However, he was awesome from 2009-2012. He graded out well above average in each of those 4 seasons, grading out 10th in 2009, 33rd in 2010, 13th in 2011, and 11th in 2012. He’s going into his age 31 season so the fact that he had a down season last year is a concern, but he could bounce back.

Riley Reiff at left tackle, meanwhile, only missed 31 snaps all of last season, though he did struggle last season, grading out below average. The 2012 1st round pick was in his first year as a starter, though he impressed on 336 snaps as a rookie. Going into his 3rd year in the league, the talented offensive lineman could be better and show some of the talent that flashed in his rookie season. It’s a very strong offensive line overall either way.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Lions have a pretty weak secondary, but so did the Panthers going into last season. The Lions also had a weak secondary last season and their defense actually still played pretty well, ranking 9th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains allowed. That’s because their defensive line played so well, getting consistent pressure on the quarterback, as they graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked team in terms of pass rush grade last season.

Much of that was powered by a fantastic year by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked defensive tackle last season. He’s had a strong career since being drafted 2nd overall in 2010, but last season was arguably the best season of his career. He’s never matched the 10 sacks he had as a rookie, but he’s become a much better run stopper and gotten much more consistent pass rush since then.

He actually graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in the first 2 seasons of his career in 2010 and 2011 because of his poor run play. In fact, last season was the first time in his career that he had graded out above average as a run stopper. However, he’s been Pro Football Focus’ 4th and 2nd ranked defensive tackle in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He and Gerald McCoy are the only two defensive tackles to grade out in the top-3 in each of the last 2 seasons. Aside from McCoy and maybe the versatile Kyle Williams (who can play 3-4 defensive end, 4-3 defensive tackle, and 3-4 nose tackle), Suh is probably the best defensive tackle in the NFL.

Next to Suh, the Lions have another defensive tackle who has the potential to be one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL like Suh, but he’s yet to show the consistency necessary for him to be one. Nick Fairley, the 13th overall pick in 2011, flashed as a rookie on 236 snaps, grading out above average, and then was dominant in 2012 on 511 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle, one slot below Suh. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher.

He looked poised for a breakout year in a bigger role in his 3rd year in the league in 2013, but he graded out just about average on 693 snaps. The Lions have had issues with his discipline and his weight and he’s also committed 22 penalties over the past 2 seasons. The Lions are putting the pressure on him going into his contract year. They didn’t pick up his 5th year option on his rookie deal so he’s going into his contract year. He’s reportedly responded by slimming down to 295 pounds from 322 and he could have a big year with financial motivation on the line. However, he’s had motivational issues dating back to his collegiate days at Copiah-Lincoln Community College and then at Auburn University, so there are no guarantees.

The Lions also have talented reserve CJ Mosley in the mix at defensive tackle. Mosley was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked defensive tackle on just 333 snaps last season, excelling against the run. This is nothing new as Mosley has graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, doing so as a reserve in 2011 and 2013 and as a starter in Jacksonville in 2012. The Lions also have Jason Jones coming back from injury. He’ll play defensive end in base packages and move inside on passing downs and rush the passer occasionally.

Jones is coming back from a torn patellar tendon he suffered week 3 of last season, which cut his season to 87 snaps. He’s expected to be ready for the start of the season, but that’s a tough injury to come back from. The 6-5 274 pounder has played both defensive end and defensive tackle in his career. He’s played well inside, grading out above average on limited snaps inside in both 2009 and 2012 and grading out 6th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus as a starter in 2010. However, he’s struggled whenever he’s played defensive end, grading out 62nd out of 67 eligible among 4-3 defensive ends as a starter in 2011 and then struggled before going down last season. Now coming off of a serious injury, I expect him to continue struggling as a base defensive end.

Devin Taylor could also get snaps at defensive end, as the Lions attempt to replace Willie Young, who played 801 snaps and graded out above average last season, but who is now in Chicago. Taylor graded out about average on 308 snaps as a 4th round rookie last season and could see a bigger role this season. The Lions also drafted Kyle Van Noy in the 2nd round and they are expected to use him in a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker role, playing him in a base role at outside linebacker and a sub package role at defensive end, essentially the Von Miller role. He should lead the left end spot in pass rush snaps played.

At the right end spot, Ezekiel Ansah is expected to be an every down defensive end in his 2nd year in the league. The 5th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Ansah graded out slightly below average on 581 snaps as a rookie. He’ll have a bigger role and he could easily play better. The 6-5 271 pounder was regarded as extremely raw coming out of BYU, as he only started playing football in 2010, and he played his best football of the season down the stretch last season. The Lions’ defensive line still has the ability to be one of the better pass rush teams in the league, which will help their defense play well in spite of their secondary.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Lions also have a strong linebacking corps, which helps their defense play well in spite of their secondary. I already mentioned Kyle Van Noy will be play outside in a base package role. He’ll replace Ashlee Palmer, who graded out below average on 367 snaps last season, playing primarily as a run stopper. Van Noy should be an upgrade in that regard in addition to providing pass rush in sub packages from the defensive line.

Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy return in every down roles, roles they excelled in last season. Tulloch graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked middle linebacker, while Levy graded out 9th among 4-3 outside linebackers. Tulloch has done this kind of thing before, as he graded out above average as a starter in every season from 2008-2011, maxing out at 6th overall in 2011. He struggled in 2012, grading out below average, but only because he was playing through a serious knee injury. He bounced back in a huge way in 2013 and should continue to play really well in 2014.

Levy, however, has never really done this kind of thing before as the 2009 3rd round pick graded out below average in each of his last 4 seasons as a starter from 2009-2012, playing both middle linebacker and outside linebacker. He had a strong season last year, particularly in coverage, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in coverage (Tulloch was dominant in coverage too, which helped their secondary). However, he’s still a one year wonder and I’m skeptical he can do this again based on his history, but he can definitely prove me wrong.

Grade: B+

Secondary

I mentioned the issues the Lions have in the secondary multiple times, but it’s not all bad. Glover Quin was one of the best safeties in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked safety. The 2009 4th round pick has graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons, playing cornerback in 2010 and then safety in 2011-2013. Last year was a career year for him so he might not repeat that kind of season, but he could easily have another above average season for a secondary that needs it.

The Lions lost Louis Delmas this off-season, cutting him rather than paying him 6 million. The formerly injury plagued safety played all 16 games last season and graded out above average, but the Lions didn’t feel he was worth his salary and let him go. They brought in veteran journeyman James Ihedibgo to be his replacement, paying him 3.15 million on a 2 year deal, which is obviously cheaper than Delmas. Ihedibgo graded out higher than Delmas did last season, grading out 15th among safeties, while Delmas graded out 25th.

However, much of that was because Ihedigbo was dominant against the run, grading out 2nd at his position against the run. He really struggled in coverage, grading out 15th worst at his position in that aspect. He’s also going into his age 31 season and joining the 4th team of his career. He had a strong season last year, but that’s not the type of player he’s been in the past. Prior to last season, he had only once played more than 294 snaps in a season, doing so as a starter with the Patriots in 2011, when he graded out below average. He could easily regress this season, especially at his age, and he’s a downgrade compared to Delmas.

Things are worse at cornerback, where the Lions will be counting on an aging veteran to keep it together and two youngsters to step up. That aging veteran is Rashean Mathis, who is going into his age 34 season. Mathis looked done going into last season, as an aging cornerback who had graded out below average in 2 of the previous 3 seasons and missed 11 games in the previous 2 seasons. As a result, he was still available into mid-August, when he was snatched up by the Lions, and only played a combined 161 snaps in the Lions’ first 4 games.

However, he ended up making 13 starts, playing in 15 games, and playing 799 snaps. He was a big time contributor, allowing opponents to complete 48.9% of their passes against him and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked cornerback. It was a vintage year for the veteran. The Lions brought him back on another one-year deal, but considering his recent history and his age, as he’s now going into his age 34 season, it’s fair to be skeptical that he can be as good as he was last season.

With the injury plagued Chris Houston getting cut this off-season (he graded out well below average last season), Mathis is locked into a top-3 cornerback role on this team, along with Bill Bentley and Darius Slay, both of whom graded out well below average last season. Slay was a 2013 2nd round pick and the natural talented 6-0 192 pounder could have a better year in his 2nd year in the league. It’s tough for rookie cornerbacks to adjust to the NFL and Slay showed that, grading out 92nd out of 110 eligible cornerbacks on just 353 snaps.

Bentley, meanwhile, was a 2012 3rd round pick. He’s graded out well below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the NFL, doing so on 177 snaps as a rookie and 498 snaps last season. The Lions also used a 4th round pick on Nevin Lawson and he could push for a significant role at cornerback down the stretch if things are bad. The secondary is easily the Lions’ weakest unit on the team, but they have an explosive offense and we’ve seen teams play well defensively even with a weak secondary if they have strong front 7 play. We saw the Panthers do it last year. We’ve seen the 49ers do it recently. We even saw the Lions do it last year, as they ranked 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Lions are one of the top-10 talented teams in the NFL and the numbers agree with me, as they were 6th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential. They’ve had serious issues with turnovers and losses in close games over the past 2 seasons, which has stopped them from reaching the win totals they are capable of reaching. Both of those things usually even out in the long run. It might not seem like they will for the Lions because they’ve had so many issues in those aspect over the past 2 seasons, but that’s just because it hasn’t happened yet.

Replacing Jim Schwartz with Jim Caldwell could easily help even those things out, which would help the Lions become one of the better teams in the NFL. With essentially the same core, the Lions went 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had a +11 turnover margin in 2011, en route to a 10-6 season. I think they’re now more talented than they were then, but they’ve gone 6-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less and has a -25 turnover margin over the past 2 seasons. I think this team has the best chance to be this year’s team who goes from out of the playoffs to a first round bye. I’ll have an official wins prediction after I do every team’s preview.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in NFC North

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