Detroit Lions 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The 2012 Detroit Lions have one of the weirdest statistical profiles I’ve ever seen. They gained 6540 yards (3rd in the NFL) and allowed 5458 yards (13th in the NFL), a +1082 differential, 2nd in the NFL behind only Denver, but they won just 4 games. And it wasn’t that they were just gaining all these yards against prevent defenses in garbage time. Only 4 of their losses came by more than a touchdown and only 2 came by more than ten points. They were competitive in almost every game.

Their poor record in games decided by a touchdown or less (3-8) should even out this season as that type of thing usually does, but that alone doesn’t explain why they had such a poor record despite outgaining their opponents by so much. It’s very important to figure out why to see if the Lions can bounce back like teams normally do after a big regression in win total (the Lions won 6 games fewer last season than the season before and usually that type of thing is followed up by a win improvement of an average of 3 wins) or possibly even get all the way back to where they were in 2011 (10 wins) or maybe even beyond, to the big time breakout season that at one point looked inevitable for this once promising young team.

As I mentioned, their poor record in close games does not tell the whole story. Sure, their -65 points differential isn’t usually what you see from a 4 win team and they definitely failed to meet their Pythagorean Expectation of 6.5 wins, but even a 6 or 7 win team outgaining opponents by over 1000 yards on the season would be really strange. They ranked 17th in the NFL in points per game (23.3) and 27th in the NFL in points per game allowed (27.3), despite ranking 3rd and 13th in yards and yards allowed. That’s weird.

Well, it wasn’t penalties or poor play in the red zone. The Lions committed 10 penalties more than their opponents on the season, which isn’t what you want, but it’s hardly the reason for the discrepancy. Meanwhile, they actually played better red zone offense (converting 60.0% of red zone attempts for a touchdown) than their opponents (who converted 51.28% of their red zone attempts for a touchdown). They weren’t outplayed in the kicking game, as they nailed 32 of 36 field goals, as opposed to31 of 41 for their opponents.

However, special teams were a big part of the issue. Their opponents punted an average of 5 yards per punt net more than they did and they also allowed 4 special teams touchdowns, while not returning a single one of their own. They were also outgained by 3.3 yards per kickoff return and 1.3 yards per punt return. In terms of special teams DVOA, they were 30th in the NFL last season. However, this is something that tends to be very inconsistent on a year to year basis as special teams personnel tends to be very inconsistent on a year to year basis.

They’ve already switched out the punter and both returners, as 5th round rookie Sam Martin should help turn around a league worst punting game, while talented returner Michael Spurlock replaces Stefen Logan as both kick and punt returner. The rest of their special teams personnel should look largely different as well. I’m not worried about their special teams being as bad as they were last season.

Along with the 4 special teams touchdowns they allowed, they allowed 6 return touchdowns off of interceptions or fumbles. That means, of the 437 points they allowed last season, 70 weren’t even allowed by the defense. Take those 70 points out of the mix and they would have allowed 22.9 points per game last season 19th in the NFL, which is a lot closer to where their yardage defense ranked (13th) than 27th was. Will they cut down on this in 2013? Well, improved special teams play will help and I think they’re unlikely to allow 6 return touchdowns on 33 turnovers again, a ridiculous 18.2% rate. Ordinarily, teams who turn the ball over 33 times allow an average of 2 return touchdowns off of them over the course of the season.

Of course, the Lions could also turn the ball over fewer times, which is something else I think will happen in 2013. The Lions were killed on turnovers in 2012, a big part of the reason why they were winning the yardage battle but not the game. They had 33 turnovers and 17 takeaways, a poor -16 margin. Bad fumble luck had a lot to do with that, as they recovered just 32.56% of fumbles that hit the ground during their games, 2nd worst in the NFL, which led to a -10 fumble margin, a big part of their -16 turnover margin. This type of thing is largely random, however. There is not really such thing as being “good” at recovering fumbles once they hit the ground. For example, there have been 6 teams who have recovered 35% or fewer of their fumbles since 2003. The following season, they recovered on average 53.7% of their fumbles.

Turnover margins are very consistent in general as well. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.

The Lions should have a much improved fumble margin in 2013, but their interception margin should be improved as well according to the aforementioned trends. Matt Stafford probably won’t throw interceptions less frequently. His 2.3% interception rate from 2012 was right around where it was in his first full season as a starter in 2011, when he threw an interception on 2.4% of his throws. However, they could easily intercept more than the 11 passes they intercepted in 2012. I expect that turnover margin to be much closer to +0 in 2013 and that’s going improve their team’s performance noticeably.

Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect the Lions to not allow any return touchdowns this season and it would also be unrealistic to expect all of those interception returns to turn automatically into punts. It’s definitely possible to allow points off of turnovers without giving up the return. The Lions ran 10.1 plays per game more than their opponents in 2012 and controlled the ball for 52.31% of the game, 6th most in the NFL. Their defense often not getting a chance to even take the field has a lot to do with that and conversely that has a lot to do with why the Lions outgained their opponents by so much.

However, they still outgained opponents on a per play basis (5.6 to 5.5) and they do a good job of maintaining drives with 382 first downs to 76 punts, a 5.0 first down to punt ratio, among the best in the NFL, so they should continue controlling the ball for the larger part of the game and running more plays than their opponents. On top of that, they should be expected to score some points of their own off of returns, something they didn’t do at all in 2012. They were -65 in points differential and -70 in points off return differential. That means their defense actually allowed fewer points per game than their offense allowed. If they can just manage to do that again,. they should be at least a .500 team, but they could be even better.

This team has plenty of talent and should see better injury luck after ranking 24th in the NFL in adjusted games lost last season. The NFC is a very, very tough conference and they play in arguably the toughest division in football so making the playoffs won’t be easy, but they should largely resemble the team they were in 2011. In terms of DVOA, which is more consistent on a year to year basis than win total, the Lions ranked 16th in 2012 (14th in non-special teams DVOA) and 11th in 2011 (8th in non-special teams DVOA). The Lions should be right around that caliber of a team again in 2013 and compete for a playoff spot.

Quarterback

One of the other weird statistical things about the Lions in 2012 was that Matt Stafford set an NFL record with 727 passing attempts, but managed just 20 touchdowns. Well, somehow a running game that ran just 391 times on the season managed to steal 17 touchdowns away from Stafford, while backup Shaun Hill stole another 2 on 13 attempts. The Lions should remain very pass heavy this year so Stafford should throw a higher percentage of the team’s touchdowns.

There should also be more touchdowns to go around on an offense that figures to turn the ball over fewer times. He probably won’t throw the ball 727 times again, for the same reason why the Lions probably won’t run 72.5 plays per game again, but he could throw 30-35 touchdowns, average around the 6.9 yards per attempt he’s averaged for his career on about 650-660 throws, and keep his interception rate right around the 2.3%-2.4% it’s been at in both of his full seasons as a starter, which puts him around 16 interceptions. He’s one of the better young quarterbacks in the NFL and the offense should once again function as such in 2013.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Another one of the other weird statistical things about the Lions in 2012 was Calvin Johnson setting the single season receiving record (surpassing Jerry Rice in week 16 no less), but scoring just 5 times. That total should increase for some of the same reasons that Stafford’s should. He probably won’t have a record setting season again, but he’s by far the best receiver on a team that passes a ridiculous amount, has a good young quarterback, and doesn’t have a lot of other passing options. He’s consistently able to beat double and triple teams and the 96 catches for 1681 yards he had in 2011 now seem like a statistical floor for him. He should have around 1700 receiving yards again and almost definitely break double digit touchdowns again.

As I mentioned, the Lions don’t have a ton of receivers after Megatron, but Stafford should have more to work with than the end of last season, when he was limited to the likes of Kris Durham, Brian Robiskie, and Will Heller after Johnson. Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles, and Brandon Pettigrew all return from various injuries, while running back Reggie Bush, coming over from Miami, gives Stafford a deadly weapon out of the backfield.

Broyles will probably start opposite Johnson. Broyles was an incredibly productive collegiate receiver at the University of Oklahoma, catching 349 passes for 4586 yards and 45 touchdowns, but a torn ACL suffered late in his final collegiate season, along with a lack of elite size or speed, dropped him to the Lions in the 2nd round of the 2012 NFL Draft. However, he plays better than his measurables on tape and is a remarkably hard worker and quick healer.

He made his debut week 3 last season and eventually became a starter down the stretch, catching 22 passes for 310 yards and 2 touchdowns on 30 targets on 190 routes run, before tearing the other ACL. Once again, Broyles did a fantastic job recovering from that injury and has been practicing in Training Camp and is on pace to play week 1. Obviously, he’s an injury risk and he might not be 100%, but there’s some intriguing breakout potential for him as a secondary receiver opposite Johnson.

Broyles will move to the slot, his natural position, on passing downs, with Nate Burleson coming in during 3-wide receiver sets. Burleson is also coming off a season ending injury, a broken leg. He’s a marginal receiver coming off of a serious injury and going into his age 32 season so he’s not great, even as far as #3 receivers go, but he’ll be better than what the Lions were trotting out down the stretch last season.

Pettigrew, meanwhile, returns from an ankle injury that limited him to 31 snaps in the final 4 games of the season. He struggled mightily last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd worst ranked pass catching tight end last season, catching 59 passes for 567 yards and 3 touchdowns on 95 targets, with 9 drops. He averaged just 1.18 yards per route run on 479 routes run, 28th out of 37 eligible tight ends. The 2009 1st round pick is a good run blocker, but has largely been a disappointment since the Lions drafted him.

He’s had better years and it’s possible the ankle injury he played through most of the season was part of why he struggled so much, but he’s never been much better, so I don’t see a big improvement. Tony Scheffler is the #2 tight end and a pass catching move tight end who often likes up on the slot, but he wasn’t great last season either. Still, while their receiving corps isn’t great, it should be better than it was last season.

As I mentioned, Reggie Bush’s presence is also a big part of that. Bush is a perfect fit for their offense because of his pass catching abilities. The Lions plan to utilize him the way the Saints utilized him, when he averaged 4.9 catches per game. That’s 78 catches over a 16 game season. That sounds like a lot, but he’s capable of doing so in this offense. The Lions have said they want to get him 80 catches. The inferior Joique Bell caught 52 passes in a part time role last season and Jahvid Best averaged 62 catches per 16 games during his short time as the Lions’ pass catching back before he got hurt. The only thing stopping Bush from getting 80 catches could be injuries. He missed 20 games in 5 seasons with the Saints and, though he only missed 1 in 2 years with the Dolphins, he’s now going into his age 28 season and his 8th year in the league. Still, he’ll be an asset.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Bush will probably also be their leading rusher, but he won’t get a ton of carries. For one, the Lions don’t run the ball very often. Two, Bush has never had more than 262 touches in a season and the Lions probably don’t want to go over that. They’ll prefer him to see his touches in the air (maybe 170 carries, 75 catches). Three, they do have two other backs capable of carrying the football. Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure will see carries behind him.

Leshoure was a 2nd round pick in 2011, but has largely been a disappointment to this point in his career. He might not even win the #2 running back battle this year, as Bell averaged 5.0 yards per carry to Leshoure’s 3.7 last season. Leshoure is also not near the pass catcher that Bell is and if Bush were to get hurt, Bell would probably take over his role. Leshoure will see some carries as an inside runner, but Bell will probably be 2nd among Detroit running backs in touches.

If Bush is Darren Sproles/Bell is Pierre Thomas, who has averaged 152 touches in the last 2 seasons. Bell showed well in his first season seeing real action in 2012, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 12th ranked running back, with no back grading out higher than him and playing fewer snaps. He was 2nd only to Ray Rice in pass catching grade, but also graded out above average as a runner, averaging 3.0 yards per carry after contact and breaking 11 tackles on 82 carries.

Grade: B

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Offensive Line

While Stafford should have an improved receiving corps and likely running game supporting him, that should be cancelled out by the losses the Lions suffered on the offensive line. They’ve been an excellent offensive line in pass protection in the last 2 seasons, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked pass blocking offensive line in each season, while ranking 4th in pass block efficiency in 2011 and 6th in 2012. They haven’t been very good in run blocking, but given the way the Lions operate offensively, pass protection is much more important and the Lions have recently done a great job on holding up in pass protection time and time again.

This off-season, they lost 3 starters on the offensive line and it’s really a downgrade. Left tackle Jeff Backus retired. He would have been in his age 36 season this year, but he still was a decent starter on the blindside, even in his later years. He struggled mightily run blocking last year, which brought his overall grade down below average, but he was great in pass protection, which, again, is what really matters for this team.

He’ll be replaced by 2012 1st round pick Riley Reiff, who was drafted for this purpose. Reiff graded out above average on 336 snaps as a rookie, but did so largely as a 6th offensive lineman on the right side of the formation. In 2 games at left tackle in place of an injured Backus, he struggled, which is a concern. He fell in the draft to the Lions at #23 because of his short arms and a number of teams felt his future position would be at right tackle or guard. The Lions will try him at left tackle to start and we’ll see if he holds up.

Gosder Cherilus is gone at right tackle. He was massively overpaid on a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal from the Colts, even before you consider his injury problems, but the Lions will definitely miss what he became in his contract year last season. He graded 8th among offensive tackles on ProFootballFocus, 2nd among right tackles and excelled in pass protection, grading out 5th in pass protection and 1st among right tackles. They made the right move not paying for a one year wonder, but they will miss him.

Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard will compete for the right tackle job. Fox was a 4th round pick in 2010 and is very often injured. He hasn’t played a snap since 2010, when he played all 26 of his career snaps in a meaningless week 17 game against the Vikings, in which he struggled. Hilliard, meanwhile, has been a career backup since the Lions took him in the 6th round in 2007. He didn’t play a snap in 2012 and struggled mightily on 154 snaps in 2011. He’s more experienced than Fox, but might not be better. He’s currently the 2nd string right tackle.

At right guard, Stephen Peterman is gone. The aging veteran was a decent run blocker, but by far their worst pass protector and overall graded out below average last season. The Lions have a three way battle for the starting job going on between Dylan Gandy, Larry Warford, and Jake Scott. Gandy is a career backup going into his age 31 season, who is somehow leading the battle right now. Warford is a 3rd round rookie. Scott, meanwhile, is going into his age 32 season and struggled in limited action on an incredibly thin Eagles offensive line last season, only getting the call off the streets mid-season when so many injuries struck. Warford has the most upside of the bunch, but you can’t count on any of these guys as even average starters.

Dominic Raiola remains at center, where he’s been a fixture since the Lions drafted him in the 2nd round in 2012. He graded out above average last season, ranking as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked center and excelling in pass protection, but he’s going into his age 35 season and was forced to restructure his deal down to the veteran’s minimum this off-season so he could be on his last legs. Plus, last season was the first year he graded out above average since 2009. There’s a strong possibility he struggles this season. He could be pushed by natural center Gandy if Gandy doesn’t win the right guard job.

The only reliable offensive lineman who returns for the Lions is left guard Rob Sims, who happens to be one of the best in the NFL at his position. He’s graded out above average in all 4 seasons as a starter, starting with the Seahawks in 2009. He’s been a top-12 guard in each of the last 2 seasons and had his best year in 2009, when he graded out 9th at his position. Otherwise, it’s a pretty weak and thin offensive line.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Lions also had losses on the defensive line, losing their starting defensive ends and top reserve, but they could actually be a better defensive line this season. Cliff Avril was a perennially horrendous run stopper, grading out 11th worst, 12th worst, and 3rd worst among 4-3 defensive ends against the run in 2010, 2011, and 2012 respectively and he also saw his pass rush grade fall from well above average to above average to just average last season. As a result, he was ProFootballFocus’ 7th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end overall last season. His 10 sacks look great, but he managed just 5 hits and 19 hurries.

Kyle Vanden Bosch definitely figures to be addition by subtraction. There’s a reason he remains a free agent going into his age 35 season. He graded out 3rd worst and dead last at his position on ProFootballFocus in 2011 and 2012 respectively, grading out dead last by a fairly wide margin last season. He was done. Lawrence Jackson was their top reserve, but he too graded out below average last year, doing so on 401 snaps.

The defensive end group they’ve been replaced is an upgrade. Ziggy Ansah was the 5th pick of the draft. He’s incredibly raw, but should have some impact as a rookie. Jason Jones and Israel Idonije were cheap free agent signings. It’s unclear how they plan to use both tweeners. Jones has been great as a situational interior pass rusher in his career, but struggled whenever he’s been forced into an outside role. In 2011, as a defensive end, he graded out 6th worst at his position, 2nd worst in pass rush grade, but in 2010, as a defensive tackle, he graded out 6th best overall and 2nd best in pass rush grade. He was also well above average on 332 snaps inside with the Seahawks last year.

Idonije has had success in both positions, so they should use him as a starting defensive end and use Jones as a reserve defensive tackle. Last year, he split time at defensive end and defensive tackle, but his composite grade would have been 8th among 4-3 defensive ends and 6th among defensive tackles. The only issue is he’s going into his age 33 season, which is why he remained unsigned until late June. Willie Young, a decent, but inconsistent reserve defensive end, would then be the #3 defensive end. They also have 4th round rookie Devin Taylor at the mix at defensive end.

Lining up Jones at defensive end would be a mistake, but they might make that mistake. CJ Mosley was signed to presumably be the #3 defensive tackle, after signing him to a 2 year, 2.75 million dollar deal this off-season. He excelled as a run stuffer in Jacksonville, grading out 14th in that aspect last season, so he’ll be an asset, but it’s unclear where they’re putting Jones, so I fear it’ll be defensive end. Either way, the Lions should have an improved defensive end group this season, but if they were to utilize their personnel properly and give Idonije the first crack outside, it would be a big plus.

On top of an improved defensive end group, the Lions should get even better play from their defensive tackles. I’ve already mentioned Mosley’s addition, but they also have arguably (actually not really arguably, it’s not close) the best starting defensive tackle duo in the NFL. Everyone knows about Ndamukong Suh. He was the 2nd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and he was a deadly pass rusher in his first two years in the league, grading out 12th and 8th in that aspect in 2010 and 2011 respectively. However, 2012 was his best year in the league as he finally became a well-rounded player, grading out 4th overall at his position. He should continue being one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL.

However, Nick Fairley, drafted in the first round a year later, 13th overall, is the one that should really get Lions fan excited. As a rookie, Fairley had some injuries and off the field troubles that limited him to just 274 snaps in a backup role, but when he did play, he impressed, grading out above average both against the run and as a pass rusher on ProFootballFocus. In 2012, he once again entered the season as a backup behind veteran Corey Williams, but he wouldn’t stay one for long as he made 7 starts on the season.

Despite still limited playing time, Fairley had 5 sacks, 8 hits, and 21 hurries on 302 pass rush snaps, an 11.3% pass rush rate that’s absurd for a defensive tackle. He also stopped the run very well as well, allowing him to grade out as ProFootballFocus’ 5th rated defensive tackle despite playing just 511 total snaps. That 5th place finish put him just one spot behind Suh and if Fairley hadn’t missed the final 3 games of the season with injury, he looked poised to surpass Suh as Detroit’s highest rated defensive lineman. The only area he needs to clean up is his position leading 11 penalties, something that should improve with age. Fairley just turned 25 in January.

Before getting hurt, Fairley was on an absolute tear, making 5 starts in a row and recording 4 sacks, 4 hits, and 15 hurries, while holding up against the run. In 7 total starts, he had 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 19 hurries, a glimpse of what he can do in 2013 if he starts all of most or the team’s 16 games. He’s heading into his 3rd season in the season as an undisputed starter and it would not surprise me at all if Fairley’s 2013 season is better than Suh’s. Either way, the Lions have the league’s best 4-3 defensive tackle duo with the combination of Suh and Fairley, their 2010 and 2011 1st round picks. The sky is the limit for this duo. There is plenty of talent on this defensive line. Hopefully they utilize it correctly, but either way, there’s a lot of talent.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Lions also lost at starter at linebacker, as Justin Durant signed with the Cowboys. Durant was just a two-down run stuffer that would come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, so it ordinarily would not be a big loss, but Durant was great in that role. He’s not much in coverage, but in the last three years, he’s graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 1st (2010), 7th (2011), and 8th (2012) ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. Mediocre veteran career backup Ashlee Palmer will be taking over, with 2012 5th and 7th round picks Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis possibly pushing him.

Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy both return as every down linebackers, but both graded out below average last season. Tulloch has a good chance to bounce back. He had graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons as a starter before last season and he’s only going into his age 28 season so it’s not like he’s washed up or anything. He played last season through knee tendinitis that limited his range so that’s probably the reason for the fluky poor year.

Levy, however, has graded out below average in all 4 seasons as a starter since the Lions took him in the 3rd round in 2009. Last year, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 4th worst rated 4-3 outside linebacker and he should remain one of the worst starting outside linebackers in the NFL. He was a free agent this off-season and the Lions really should have used that opportunity to upgrade that spot. Instead, they gave him a 3-year, 9.75 million dollar contract, rather than locking up Durant. He’s alright in coverage, but has a lot of trouble getting off blocks in the run game.

Grade: C+

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Secondary

The Lions made upgrading their secondary a big focus of their off-season and for good reason. They had a whopping 11 defensive backs plays at least 150 snaps last season, but only 3 graded out above average. They drafted cornerback Darius Slay in the 2nd round, signed veteran Ronald Bartell, and gave a big contract to safety Glover Quin to try to fix matters. We’ll see how much that helps.

Chris Houston is the bright spot in the secondary. Once a frequent burn victim in the early part of his career in Atlanta and somewhat with the Lions, Houston has turned in back-to-back above average seasons essentially operating as Detroit’s #1 cornerback over the last 2 seasons. He was ProFootballFocus’ 23rd ranked cornerback last season overall in 2012, allowing 53 catches on 94 attempts for 629 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 4 penalties. He should once again be an above average starter.

The Lions have a bunch of options for their #2 cornerback. Ronald Bartell is working with the 1st team right now, but 2nd round rookie Darius Slay could eventually be the starter. He’s behind the 8-ball as a rookie dealing with injuries though. 2012 5th and 6th round picks Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green are also in the mix. Bill Bentley could also be an option, but the 2012 3rd round pick seems to have settled in as a slot specialist.

If Bartell is forced to start, it could be trouble. He was once a solid cornerback with the Rams, but age and injury seem to have caught up with him. Going into his age 31 season, Bartell has played in just 8 games due to injury over the past 2 seasons and he hasn’t played well. The Raiders cut him late last season, before the Lions snatched him up. It would be for the best if someone could beat him out.

Slay has the ability to, but he’s hurt and it’s tough to rely on rookies anyway. Jonte Green graded out about average in limited action as a rookie, so he could be an option. Greenwood is more of a long shot, as he missed his entire rookie season with an injury. Bentley, meanwhile, struggled as a rookie, grading out well below average on just 177 snaps. If he had been eligible for ProFootballFocus’ rankings, he would have been 99th out of 113 eligible, despite such a limited snap count. No cornerback played fewer snaps and graded out worse, as he allowed 17 catches on 20 attempts for 165 yards and committing 5 penalties. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league on the slot, but nothing is certain. Cornerback still remains a question after Houston.

Glover Quin presence does solidify one spot at safety, however. That was the bigger need spot as the Lions tried 6 different players there last season.         Quin is only around an average starter and was overpaid on a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal, but they desperately needed someone like him. Louis Delmas was re-signed to possibly solidify the other safety spot, but he’s never been able to do that because of injuries. He’s missed 13 games in the last 2 seasons combined and, once a promising safety, he has graded out below average even when in the lineup as his chronic knee problems seem to have sapped his abilities.

The Lions gave him a 2 year, 7.715 million dollar contract this off-season, but he’s unlikely to play in the pre-season and he’s missed a lot of practice. It’s unlikely he’ll play even close to all 16 games and he might not be what he once was even when he’s on the field. Don Carey and Amari Spievey, veterans with a history of struggling when counted on to start, are their top insurance options. For what it’s worth, both actually played alright in limited action last season, but Spievey was ProFootballFocus’ 75th ranked safety out of 87 eligible in 2011, the last time he was a starter. Meanwhile, Carey ranked dead last in 2010, the last time he was a starter. It’s an improved group that should have more stability, but there are still plenty of problems.

Grade: C+

Head Coach

Only 9 Head Coaches have been with their current team longer than Jim Schwartz. All 9 have multiple division titles. 6 have Super Bowl rings. 7 made the playoffs last season. Schwartz and Rex Ryan are the only two holdovers from the 2009 Head Coaching class and both are on the hot seat and could lose their jobs with another poor season, even if only because of the lack of patience front offices have demonstrated with Head Coaches in today’s NFL. Schwartz took a lot of the blame for last season’s poor on the field record and for the embarrassing number of arrests the team accumulated off the field. Unlike Ryan, I like Schwartz chances of turning the team around and keeping his job. Remember, prior to last year, he improved this team’s win total in each of his first 3 seasons with the team. Of course, he was starting at 0, but still.

Grade: B-

Overall

The Lions won’t rank 3rd in points scored and 13th in points allowed next season like they did with yards in 2012, but only because that was largely the result of the ridiculous amount of return touchdowns they allowed last season, which allowed the Lions to run significantly more plays than their opponents. They’ll be much better than the 17th in points scored and 27th in points allowed they were at in 2012 for a number of reasons and they should also have a better record in games decided by a touchdown or less. They should have a top-10 scoring offense and the defense will be good enough for their offense to win some games. They might not make the playoffs, but only because the NFC is loaded. They’ll win noticeably more games.

I don’t think they’re as good as the Packers, but they’re better than the Vikings and on the same level as the Bears, so I think 3-3 in the division is reasonable. Outside of the division, they host Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Baltimore, and the Giants. It’s a tough slate, but I don’t think any of those teams are definitely better than them. They should beat Tampa Bay and at worst split the other 4, but I could see them going 4-1 in those games. They also go to Arizona, Washington, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. Arizona, Cleveland, and Philadelphia are pretty easy games so they should go 3-2 in this bunch. They’re as likely to lose one of those 3 as they are to pull an upset in the other 2. 9 or 10 wins is definitely possible. They were closer to winning that many last year than their record would have suggested, as their 2012 season consisted of numerous fluky things causing them to lose close games.

Projection: 10-6 2nd in NFC North

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