Detroit Lions 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Lions underachieved in terms of wins and losses in both 2012 and 2013, going 11-21. However, that was largely as a result of a 6-14 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, a -25 turnover margin, and a -10 return touchdown margin. Those things tend to be inconsistent from year-to-year and, in 2014, everything swung the other way with the Lions. They went 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, had a +7 turnover margin, and had a +1 return touchdown margin. As a result, they went 11-5, but ranked 15th in rate of moving the chains differential, after going 7-9 and ranking 6th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013. As weird as this sounds, the Lions were worse in 2014 than 2013, despite their record. There’s a reason why their over/under win total is only 8.5 at sports betting site sportsbook.ag. Many think they’re due for a regression.

One of the big reasons why they weren’t as good in 2014 as they were in 2013 was quarterback Matt Stafford. Stafford, who graded out 7th in 2011, 13th in 2012, and 7th in 2013, graded out below average in 2014, coming in 22nd out of 39 eligible, all rankings from Pro Football Focus. The 1st overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft has shaken off early career injury issues and made all 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and has generally played pretty well, so there’s bounce back potential here. That would go a long way in fixing an offense that was way more the problem than the solution in 2015, finishing 19th in rate of moving the chains. In 2013, they were 10th, which I think is a reasonable goal for this season.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

An offensive line that struggled in 2014, after playing great in 2013, was also part of the problem. In 2013, they ranked 6th in team pass blocking grade and 16th in team run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus. In 2014, those rankings fell to 16th and 18th respectively. The Lions underwent some changes upfront on the offensive line this off-season, letting left guard Rob Sims and center Dominic Raiola go, going into their age 32 and age 37 seasons respectively. Both graded out below average last season, Sims grading out slightly below average and Raiola grading out 37th among 41 eligible centers.

Sims will be replaced by first round rookie Laken Tomlinson, who could be a steal of the first round, after dominating at Duke with, largely with a combination of intelligence and technique. Meanwhile, Travis Swanson will take over for Raiola. He struggled at guard as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 on 277 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse at the position, but he could be better back at his natural position of center. He played decently there in a week 17 start, in place of a suspended Raiola, but he’s obviously hard to trust.

The Lions did not let right tackle LaAdrian Waddle go this off-season or anything, but his status is still in doubt for the start of the season, as he recovers from a week 15 ACL tear. Waddle played well as an undrafted rookie in 2013, making 8 starts down the stretch and grading out 30th among offensive tackles on 553 snaps, but had a little bit of a sophomore slump. Waddle went into the season as the starter this time, but missed 6 games with injuries, including, eventually, that torn ACL. He still graded out above average on 561 snaps, but wasn’t as good as he was in 2013. The Lions are hoping he can be back for week 1, just 9 months after the injury, and that he can play all 16 games and play well, but that might not happen. Cornelius Lucas would be his replacement if needed, but he struggled on 455 snaps in Waddle’s absence last season as an undrafted rookie.

Another player who had a relative sophomore slump was 2013 3rd round pick Larry Warford. Warford had a fantastic rookie year in 2013, grading out 4th among guards and not missing a single snap. However, in 2014, Warford missed 3 games with injury and “only” graded out 16th among guards. That certainly wasn’t bad, but the Lions will be hoping for a bounce back year from a player who is a young building block. He’s much more likely to bounce back than Waddle, simply because he’s not recovering from a torn ACL.

On this young offensive line, Riley Reiff is actually the most experienced one and he’s only going into his 4th season in the league. The 2012 1st round pick flashed on 336 snaps as a backup during his rookie season, but has made 31 out 32 starts over the past 2 seasons. He graded out slightly below average in 2013, but ranked 23rd among offensive tackles in 2014. He’s an ascending player on a young offensive line that has a lot of upside, but that probably won’t reach it for at least a year or two. They’ll probably be better upfront than they were last season though.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Lions also struggled to run the ball in 2014, averaging 3.59 yards per carry as a team, 29th in the NFL. They weren’t a great running team in 2013, when they averaged 4.03 yards per carry, but they were noticeably worse in 2014. You can’t really blame the offensive line here, as they weren’t horrible at run blocking last season, nor were they great at run blocking in 2013. In 2013, Reggie Bush was the lead back, rushing for 1006 yards and 4 touchdowns on 223 carries, an average of 4.51 YPC, while backup Joique Bell rushed for 650 yards and 8 touchdowns on 166 carries, an average of 3.92 YPC.

With Bush aging, the Lions made Bell the starter in 2014. His YPC didn’t look good in 2013, but he graded out 10th among running backs because of his passing down abilities and he also picked up 43 first downs on those 166 carries, a good ratio. 2014 was a different story for him. He rushed for 860 yards and 7 touchdowns on 223 carries, an average of 3.85 YPC, similar to 2013, but he only picked up 43 first downs on 223 carries. He graded out above average as a pass catcher, but ended up grading out below average overall because he didn’t run well. Though he only missed 1 game with injury, a variety of nagging injuries were blamed as the culprit. Bush, meanwhile, was limited to 11 games by injury and rushed for 297 yards and 2 touchdowns on 76 carries, an average of 3.91 YPC, though he did add 40 catches, 3rd on the team.

Bush signed in San Francisco this off-season, while Bell heads into his age 29 season with a career 4.08 YPC average. He’s been a better runner than that suggests for the most part and he does add value on passing downs, but he’ll have to compete with 2nd round rookie Ameer Abdullah to keep his job. Abdullah has drawn comparisons to Reggie Bush for his speed and pass catching abilities. He should start the season as a complement to Bell, working in rotation, and, like in 2013 when Bush and Bell caught a combined 107 passes, there should be plenty of opportunity for both to get involved in the passing game. Abdullah will eventually overtake Bell as the starter though. It’s just a question of if he’ll do that before this season starts, during the season, or in 2016 and beyond. They’re hoping that the combination of Bell and Abdullah will get them out of the cellar in YPC, where they were last season.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The Lions didn’t have a significant amount of injuries on either side of the ball last season, finishing in the middle of the pack in adjusted games lost, both offensively and defensively. However, they did have some significant injuries to very important players and that definitely had a noticeable effect on this team. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson missed 3 games and was a decoy in another 2 (catching just 3 passes for 19 yards) because of a severely sprained ankle. In the 11 games he played healthy, the Lions moved the chains at a 72.59% rate, as opposed to 68.92% in the other 5 games.

I think we can attribute most of that to Megatron. When healthy, he still put up great numbers, catching 68 passes for 1056 yards and 8 touchdowns in 11 games, which extrapolates to 99 catches for 1536 yards and 12 touchdowns over 16 games. Those are absurd numbers, but Johnson averaged 95 catches for 1564 yards and 11 touchdowns per season from 2010-2013, so those numbers are just another day at the office for him. He “only” averaged 2.29 yards per route run in 2014, but, if you take out the 2 weeks he played hurt, that average becomes 2.46. From 2010-2013, he averaged 2.37 yards per route run, best in the NFL over that time period.

Despite playing two games at significantly less than 100% last season, Johnson still finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked wide receiver on 705 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. If you throw out the weeks he was hurt, he graded out 3rd among wide receivers. Johnson graded out in the top-5 among wide receivers in every season from 2010-2013, something no one else can say, and now he’s graded out in the top-7 in each of the last 5 seasons, again something no one else can say. There are some people who think that, with Johnson going into his age 30 season and coming off of an injury plagued season, that we’re starting to see the beginning of a decline with him. That may be true and guys like Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, and even Dez Bryant may be better than him, but he’s still one of the best players in the NFL and having him healthy all season will be a big boost to this team.

The one thing that was better for the Lions offensively in 2014 was the addition of Golden Tate, who signed a 5-year, 31 million dollar deal last off-season that looks like an absolute bargain right now. Tate graded out 16th among wide receivers in pass catching grade and caught 99 passes on 136 targets (72.8%) for 1331 yards and 4 touchdowns on 626 routes run, an average of 2.13 yards per route run. He was especially productive when Johnson was out, as Tate routinely beat double coverage to give Stafford at least one option to throw to with Megatron injured. He caught 39 passes for 599 yards and 3 touchdowns in those 5 games. He wasn’t bad in the other 11 games though, catching 60 passes for 732 yards and 1 touchdown, 87 catches for 1065 yards and 1 touchdown over 16 games.

That came as a surprise to a lot of people, as he never had even a 1000+ yard season in his career prior to 2014, but that was because his numbers were kept down by a run heavy offense in Seattle. He averaged 1.80 yards per route run in 2012 and 2.01 yards per route run in 2013, so his 2.13 yards per route run average in 2013 was barely a career high. He also graded out 16th in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus in 2012 and 16th in 2013. He didn’t suddenly become better last season and he’s not a one-year wonder. He’s just finally in a good offense for him. His numbers could take a hit this season with Johnson healthy and stealing targets, but he still produced at a high level with Johnson out last season. He’ll see plenty of single coverage opposite Johnson and should finish in the 1000-1200 yard range. Johnson and Tate are arguably the best wide receiver duo in the NFL.

The problem is the Lions really didn’t have a good 3rd option in the passing game last season, leaving them really top heavy and very vulnerable if an injury like Johnson’s hit. There’s a reason Bush was 3rd on the team with 40 catches, despite only playing 11 games and despite being a backup running back. Jeremy Ross was their #3 wide receiver last season and actually played the 2nd most snaps among Lion wide receivers last season, because of Johnson’s injury.

Ross graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 96th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible on 723 snaps, 107th in pure pass catching grade. The 2011 undrafted free agent played just 190 snaps in his career prior to last season and has never graded out above average. He probably won’t have to play as many snaps this season, as long as Tate and Johnson stay healthy, but he’s a bad insurance option. He’ll have to hold off Corey Fuller, a 2013 6th round pick who graded out below average on 405 snaps last season in his first career action, and TJ Jones, a 2014 6th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, for the job. The 3rd receiver spot remains a serious weakness for the Lions.

By far the Lions’ best option to step up and be a reliable 3rd option in the passing game for them (aside from running backs Bell and Abdullah) is tight end Eric Ebron. Ebron was the 10th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but struggled mightily as a rookie, catching just 25 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown and grading out 45th out of 67 eligible tight ends on 452 snaps. However, the Lions knew he’d be raw when they drafted him and he still has great upside. A young rookie, Ebron is only going into his age 22 season and ran a 4.60 40 at 6-4 250 at the combine. He should take over the starting tight end job from incumbent veteran Brandon Pettigrew and play at least 600-700 snaps this season. The Lions will be happy with 50 catches from him in 2015.

Pettigrew, meanwhile, was horrible last season, in the first year of an ill-advised 4-year, 16 million dollar contract that the Lions re-signed him to last off-season. He graded out 57th out of 67 eligible tight ends on 598 snaps last season and caught just 10 passes for 70 yards, giving him a position worst 0.34 yards per route run. He’s a solid blocker at 6-5 263, but didn’t even play that well in that aspect last season. The 2009 1st round pick has been a bust through 6 seasons, grading out below average as a pass catcher in all 6 seasons and grading out below average overall in each of the last 4 seasons. Already going into his age 30 season, Pettigrew will play a complementary, situational role this season. The only reason he’s on the roster still is because his 2.8 million dollar salary is fully guaranteed. It’s a talented receiving corps, but still not a very deep one.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While the Lions’ offense should be better this season, their defense could be a lot worse, after finishing 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed last season. That’s because they had a ton of losses on the defensive line. Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and CJ Mosley were their top-3 defensive tackles last season and all 3 of them left as a free agent. Also gone is defensive end George Johnson, who played 502 snaps in a situational role last season. They were unable to really do much to replace them.

Suh will be the biggest loss as he was Pro Football Focus 3rd ranked defensive tackle last season and one of two defensive tackles (Gerald McCoy) to grade out in the top-4 among defensive tackles in each of the last 3 seasons. He signed a 6-year, 114 million dollar deal with the Dolphins, the richest contract ever given to a defensive player. The losses of Fairley, Mosley, and Johnson will hurt though too. Fairley and Mosley graded out 18th and 26th respectively among defensive tackles on 297 and 503 snaps respectively, while George Johnson graded 24th among 4-3 defensive ends (including 15th in pure pass rush grade) on 502 snaps.

The Lions brought in Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker at defensive tackle. They’re not bad players, but they’re a clear downgrade. Ngata comes over in a trade from Baltimore for a 4th and 5th round pick and will make 8.5 million dollars in the final year of his contract in 2015. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014 and he’s graded out as a top-18 player at his position in every season since Pro Football Focus’ inception in 2007. He’s played in both 3-man and 4-man fronts in his career and both stops the run and rushes the passer well, even at 6-4 340, so he’ll fit in well in Detroit. His age is a concern, as he goes into his age 31 season, but he should have another strong season.

Walker isn’t nearly as established as Ngata, getting non-tendered by the Saints this off-season as a restricted free agent, rather than being paid 1.54 million, but he’s flashed in limited action thus far in his career and could be a steal for the Lions on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal. The 2012 undrafted free agent didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but graded out above average on 119 snaps in 2013 and then 308 snaps last year, grading out 21st among defensive tackles last season, despite the limited action.

The 6-3 294 pounder played both defensive end and defensive tackle in New Orleans and will be a pure 3-technique defensive tackle in Detroit. It’s unfair to assume that he’ll definitely have a breakout season in his first season as a starter, because he’s so unproven, but he has potential and he could be a big time steal. The Saints could be kicking themselves for letting him go. Also in the mix for snaps at defensive tackle are 4th round rookie Gabe Wright, 2014 5th round pick Caraun Reid, who struggled on 112 snaps as a rookie last season, and starting defensive end Jason Jones, who has the size to play inside on passing downs.

Jones and fellow starting defensive end Ezekiel Ansah remain. Ansah was the 5th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and has made 28 starts in 2 seasons in the league. He graded out slightly below average as a rookie, but broke out in his 2nd season in the league in 2014, finishing 5th among 4-3 defensive ends. The Lions are obviously hoping that he can, not only continue that strong play, but become even better in his 3rd season in the league in 2015. With so many losses along the defensive line, he becomes even more important to this team.

Jones, however, is not nearly as good. He was signed to a 3-year, 9.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago by the Lions, but he was limited to 87 snaps in 2013 by a torn patellar tendon and then graded out 47th out of 59 eligible this season as a starter. He played the run pretty well, but didn’t offer anything as a pass rusher. The Lions could have cut him to save 3.15 million in cash and cap space this off-season, but opted to bring him back, largely because they couldn’t afford to lose more experience on the defensive line. He’s had more career success at defensive tackle than defensive end so the Lions could use him more inside more on passing downs this season, with an opportunity open. In his career as a defensive tackle, the 6-3 274 pounder has graded out above average on limited snaps inside in both 2009 and 2012 and also graded out 6th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in his only season as a starter at defensive tackle in 2010.

As a defensive end, he hasn’t been nearly as good, including 2011 season in which he graded out 62nd among 67 eligible and last year’s poor play. Regardless of whether or not he moves inside in sub packages, he won’t be seeing many sub packages, if any, at defensive end, so the Lions will need someone to step up into George Johnson’s old spot. The candidates aren’t great. They include Devin Taylor, a 2013 4th round pick who has struggled on 535 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, and Larry Webster, a 2014 4th round pick who didn’t play a single snap as a rookie.

Kyle Van Noy, a 2014 2nd round pick, is also in the mix. The 6-3 252 pounder was supposed to be a starting outside linebacker/defensive end last season, playing the Von Miller role, outside linebacker in base packages and defensive end in sub packages. However, he was limited to 51 snaps in 8 games by injuries. Even when he was healthy, he didn’t play much because he hadn’t gotten the system down (thanks to a lot of missed practice time with injury) and there were other guys ahead of him for snaps that were playing well. This season, with guys gone, he could see snaps on passing downs at defensive end. It’s certainly not the same defensive line as it’s been in recent years, but there is still talent here, though the depth is weak.

Grade: B

Linebackers

On offense, the major injury was to Calvin Johnson. On defense, it was to talented middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who looked on his way to another strong season before tearing his ACL week 3, which ended his season after 130 snaps. Tulloch graded out 2nd among middle linebackers in 2013, 6th among middle linebackers in 2011, and has graded out above average in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. He could bounce back, but he’s going into his age 30 season, coming off of a serious injury, and he’s had problems with his knee before (in 2012, the only season he graded out below average, it was because he played through a serious knee problem). Given that, him bouncing back is not such a sure thing, but it will be good to have him back.

Tahir Whitehead played middle linebacker in his absence and played pretty well, struggling in coverage, but doing a good enough job against the run to grade out above average overall. He was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked middle linebacker against the run. With Tulloch gone, Whitehead will move to his natural position of outside linebacker and compete for the pure base package outside linebacker role with Van Noy, which better fits his skill set, as it’ll allow him to focus on the run and not have to drop in coverage as often. Even though he’s unproven, going undrafted in 2012 and never playing a single defensive snap before last season, he should be considered the heavy favorite for that role.

At the other outside linebacker spot, the every down spot, DeAndre Levy remains and might be the Lions’ best defensive player now, with Suh gone and Tulloch coming off of an injury. Levy has been a starter since the Lions drafted him in the 3rd round in 2009, making 82 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but he graded out below average in each of his first 4 seasons. The Lions re-signed him two off-seasons ago anyway, bringing him back on a 3-year, 9.75 million dollar deal, and that’s been an absolute steal as Levy has broken to be a late bloomer.

He’s graded out 9th and 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers in the last 2 seasons respectively and is one of the best in the game at his position. I don’t expect anything else from him in 2015, still only his age 28 season. Levy is going into his contract year and the Lions would obviously like to lock him up ahead of that. Whether he gets paid now or next off-season on the open market, you can bet someone will pay a lot more money for his services than the Lions did two off-seasons ago. He and Tulloch make a great pair of every down linebackers, while Whitehead fits well in the two down role, meaning this is one of the most complete set of 4-3 linebackers in the NFL.

Grade: A

Secondary

While all of the Lions’ losses on the defensive line will hurt them, the defensive line wasn’t the only area where the Lions had success defensively last season, as evidenced by their strong linebacking corps. They also had a strong secondary last season, as both starters at both cornerback and safety graded out above average. We’ll see if they can do that again this season as they have a pair of aging veterans in the secondary. Safety James Ihedigbo heads into his age 32 season, while cornerback Rashean Mathis heads into his age 35 season.

Mathis is in the more precarious position age wise. Rashean Mathis looked done 2 years ago, after the 2012 season, as he graded out below average in 2012, missed 11 games with injury in 2011 and 2012 combined, and was going into his age 33 season. He didn’t get signed until mid-August in 2013, but he’s turned back the clock in Detroit over the past 2 seasons, making 29 starts and grading out 26th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 12th in 2014. We’ll see how long that lasts, but he’s a nice stopgap starter and is once again a bargain on a 2-year, 3.5 million dollar deal the Lions gave him this off-season.

The problem is the Lions don’t really have any good depth behind him. It’s unclear who the 3rd cornerback will be, as youngsters Nevin Lawson and Alex Carter, along with journeymen veterans Josh Wilson and Chris Owens will compete for that job. Lawson is a 2014 4th round pick who struggled on 63 snaps as a rookie, before dislocating his ankle, while Carter is a 3rd round rookie. Owens was Pro Football Focus’ 87th ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible last season in Kansas City on 500 snaps, though he has been better in the past, grading out above average in both 2012 and 2013. He’s graded out above average in 3 of 6 seasons since he was drafted in the 3rd round in 2009 (2010 was the other season), though he’s maxed out at 545 snaps. He’s a decent depth cornerback at best.

Wilson, meanwhile, comes over from Atlanta. It’s hard to believe that Josh Wilson was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked cornerback in 2010. Wilson has never done anything like that other than that season, but he did grade out above average in each of the first 6 seasons of his career, from 2007-2012. However, he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons and is arguably coming off of the worst season of his career in 2014, grading out 75th among 108 eligible cornerbacks on 458 snaps. That’s not a good trend, as he goes into his age 30 season. Like Owens, he’s a decent depth cornerback at best. It’s not a horrible quartet of cornerbacks, but there isn’t a clear good choice for the 3rd cornerback job (Nevin Lawson is reportedly the favorite) and some of these guys won’t even make the roster.

While Mathis is heading nearing the end of his career, fellow starting cornerback Darius Slay is just going into his prime and coming off of a strong season. The 2013 2nd round pick really struggled on 353 snaps as a rookie, but had a breakout year in 2014, making all 16 starts and grading out 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Only going into his age 24 season, the Lions are hoping that Slay can continue his development, become a true #1 cornerback, and one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. He certainly has the potential and, even if that doesn’t happen this season, he’s still the Lions’ best cornerback and a real asset to this team.

Ihedigbo is also locked into a starting job, despite his age. A late bloomer, Ihedigbo only graded out above average once from 2007-2012, after going undrafted in 2007, and never made more than 12 starts in a season during that time period. However, he’s made 29 of 32 starts over the past 2 seasons, grading out 15th among safeties in 2013 in Baltimore and 14th among safeties in 2014 in Detroit, who signed him to a 2-year, 3.15 million dollar deal last off-season. Unhappy with his contract (owed just 1.6 million in 2015), Ihedigbo skipped some voluntary workouts this off-season, sensing that, given his age, this was the best chance he was going to get to cash in. He came gave up on that pretty quickly though and will be on the field this season. If he can continue his strong play, he could get a decent amount of money on a short-term deal next off-season, but that’s not necessarily going to happen, given his history and his age.

At the other safety spot is Glover Quin, who is probably their best defensive back. Quin, a 2009 4th round pick, has graded out above average in each of the last 5 seasons, 1 at cornerback (2010), and the last 4 at safety. He’s been especially good since signing a 5-year, 23.5 million dollar deal with the Lions two off-seasons ago, grading out 10th and 3rd respectively among safeties in those 2 seasons and making all 32 starts. He hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year. He’s a one year wonder in terms of being the type of dominant safety he was last season, but he’s still one of the best players on a defense that won’t be as good as it was last season thanks to off-season losses, but that will still be a solid unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

In 2012 and 2013, the Lions were significantly better than their record. In 2014, they were significantly worse than their record and worse than they were in 2013, when they won 4 fewer games. This season could be a case of the team playing better, but winning fewer games. The offense definitely has bounce back potential (thanks to Matt Stafford’s bounce back potential and a presumably healthy Calvin Johnson) and could be closer to the top-10 offense they were in 2013.

However, the defense sustained a lot of losses on the defensive line and probably won’t be as good as they were in 2014, when they ranked 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed. They’ll probably be better than 15th in rate of moving the chains differential, where they were last season, but that might not translate to another playoff appearance. They’re one of the teams that will be in the mix for a wild card spot, but they’re squarely behind Green Bay in the division. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Lions after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 9-7 2nd in NFC North

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