It was a tale of two seasons for the Lions in 2015. Following a 1-7 start and a 45-10 loss to the Chiefs in London week 8, the Lions won 6 of their final 8 games after the bye. It was too late for them to make the playoffs obviously, as they finished just 7-9, but there is a lot to build on following last season’s strong finish, as they try to make the playoffs for the 3rd time in 6 seasons in 2016. The Lions were especially strong on offense over the final 8 games of the season, moving the chains at a 76.14% rate over that stretch, as opposed to 69.02% over the first 8 games of the season.
The one big change the Lions made was firing offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and replacing him with ex-quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter. The Lions struggled in Cooter’s first game as offensive coordinator, that big loss in London, but that was a borderline impossible situation for Cooter, taking over the job the same week the Lions had to travel all the way to London. After the bye the following week, the Lions’ offense was significantly better and Cooter deserves a lot of credit for the turnaround.
Matt Stafford’s numbers were drastically better over the final 8 games of the season. Obviously Stafford deserves a lot of the credit, but so does Cooter. Over the first 8 games of the season, Stafford completed 64.5% of his passes for an average of 6.97 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, as opposed to 70.0% completion, 7.44 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions over the final 8 games of the season. The Lions’ schedule was noticeably easier down the stretch, but that’s still an impressive turnaround. Overall on the season, Stafford finished 21st among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, slightly below average for the 2nd straight season, after finishing in the top-13 in each of his first 3 seasons as a starter from 2011-2013. He isn’t more than a solid starter, but he’s certainly not a bad option either and it’s clear he has an offensive coordinator who is a good fit for him right now.
One thing that really threatens to derail the offensive progress the Lions made down the stretch last season is the sudden retirement of Calvin Johnson, ahead of his age 31 season. Johnson was aging, declining, and hampered with injuries, but Megatron at 80-90% was still Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked wide receiver, actually the lowest the still-likely-future-Hall-of-Famer had finished since 2009. It’s tough to replace a guy like that, but the Lions did not waste any time finding a replacement, signing Marvin Jones, arguably the top available free agent wide receiver this off-season, to a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal.
Jones is obviously not nearly as good as Johnson, but he’s been an impressive wide receiver over the past 3 seasons as long as he’s been healthy. He finished 2013 as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked wide receiver and last season as their 38th ranked wide receiver, with a 2014 season lost to injury in between. Aside from the injury that cost him all of 2014, Jones hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year, so injuries aren’t a long-term concern for him. Still only going into his age 26 season, it’s possible the best football of his career is yet to come. He’s not quite a true #1 wide receiver, but he’s at least a 1B caliber player.
Fortunately, Golden Tate can be 1A for Detroit, as he returns on the other side. Tate finished last season 27th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, slightly better than Jones. That’s actually Tate’s lowest rated season since 2012, as he averaged more than 2 yards per route run in both 2013 and 2014. Even with the Seahawks he was very productive on a per route basis; the Seahawks just did not pass often. In a much pass happier Detroit offense, Tate caught 99 passes for 1331 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2014, before falling to a 90/813/6 in 2015. He has a very good chance to bounce back this season though. He caught 39 passes for 599 yards and 3 touchdowns in 5 games where Johnson was injured in 2014, proving he can be a #1 receiver. Jones will get plenty of targets, especially around the red zone, but Tate should lead this team in receptions and receiving yards in 2016.
Theo Riddick was 3rd on the team with 80 catches for 697 yards and 3 touchdowns last year. He’s a nice option to have, but the Lions probably don’t want to be as reliant on him next season as they were last season, which means they need tight end Eric Ebron to step up. The 10th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Ebron has graded out below average in his first 2 seasons in the NFL. However, he was a lot better from 2014 to 2015, especially as a pass catcher, after a drop-filled rookie year. He still has a lot of room for improvement as a run blocker, but he could take another leap forward in his 3rd year in the league in 2016. The Lions knew he was raw when they drafted him and he’s still only going into his age 23 season. He’s a question mark overall, but there’s plenty of upside here.
Brandon Pettigrew remains as the #2 tight end. A bust as a 1st round pick by the Lions in 2008, Pettigrew is a solid blocker, but little else, catching just 17 passes over the past 2 seasons. Making matters worse, he’s going into his age 31 season and coming off of a torn ACL. He likely would have been released this off-season, if not for the fact that his December injury guaranteed his 2016 salary, per the terms of his contract. Owed a non-guaranteed 3.65 million in 2017, this is likely his final year in Detroit. He could even be pushed for snaps by undrafted free agent tight end Cole Wick and is not a lock to be healthy enough to play by week 1.
Anquan Boldin is another option in the passing game along with Jones, Tate, Ebron, and Riddick, signing a 1-year, 2.75 million dollar deal with the Lions as a free agent this off-season, ahead of his age 36 season. Even though he’s the 2nd oldest wide receiver in the league after Steve Smith, he still finished last season 33rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and could still have another solid season left in the tank as a slot specialist and 3rd wide receiver behind Jones and Tate. It’s definitely not a bad receiving corps, but Johnson will definitely be missed.
One area the Lions really need to improve is on the ground, as that’s been a weakness for two seasons and remained one even after the offense improved in the 2nd half of last season. Stafford can’t maintain those absurd numbers he put up in the final 8 games of the season, especially without Johnson and against a harder schedule, so they’ll need to run the football better, after averaging 3.59 yards per carry in 2014 (29th in the NFL) and 3.77 yards per carry in 2015 (26th in the NFL).
The Lions drafted Ameer Abdullah in the 2nd round in 2015 to try to improve the running game. However, he did not have a good rookie year, grading out 53rd among 69 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus. His overall numbers were not bad, as he rushed for 597 yards and 2 touchdowns on 143 carries (4.17 YPC), but he fumbled 4 times, struggled in pass protection (limiting him to 355 total snaps), and managed just 27 first downs on those 143 carries. The Lions expect more from him this season and he is definitely the favorite to lead the team in carries, but it’s far from a guarantee that he performs well.
His biggest competition for carries is Zach Zenner, a 5-11 222 pounder who will serve as the #2 “big back” behind the 5-9 203 pound Abdullah. Joique Bell served in that role last season, rushing for 311 yards and 4 touchdowns on 90 carries, a very weak 3.46 YPC that got him cut ahead of his age 30 season in 2016; he remains unsigned as of this writing. Zenner didn’t perform well in limited action last season either, rushing for 60 yards on 17 carries (3.53 YPC), but the Lions still like the 2015 undrafted free agent’s upside, after a strong pre-season last year. That’s not enough for me to be confident in him though.
As I mentioned, Theo Riddick returns as the passing down back, after breaking out in that role in 2015. A collegiate running back and wide receiver at the University of Notre Dame, Riddick is useless as a rusher, with just 209 yards and 1 touchdown on 72 carries in 3 years in the league (a 2.90 career YPC), but flashed with 34 catches in limited action in 2014 and then caught 80 passes last season (tied for first in the NFL among running backs). He finished the season #1 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in pure pass catching grade. Another 60-70 catches isn’t out of the question for Riddick. Zenner taking short yardage work and Riddick playing passing downs limits Abdullah’s upside on a team that doesn’t run the ball much anyway. It’s an underwhelming trio overall, particularly on the ground.
The Lions’ running backs aren’t really any better than they were last year, but they could be better on the ground anyway if their offensive line plays better than it did last season. In 2013, the Lions averaged 4.03 yards per carry despite Joique Bell and a declining Reggie Bush splitting carries, in large part because of a dominant offensive line. The offensive line has been anything but dominant since and only two starters from that 2013 offensive line remain right now. The Lions have spent their last two first round picks trying to remedy the problem.
Laken Tomlinson was their first round pick in 2015. A collegiate left tackle at Duke, Tomlinson struggled at left guard last season, finishing 53rd out of 81 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus, but still has a lot of talent and could be a lot better in his 2nd year in the league. The Lions then used the 16th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft to take Taylor Decker out of Ohio State. Though many feel he’s a better fit at right tackle in the NFL, the Lions plan on keeping Decker at his collegiate position of left tackle for now and moving incumbent left tackle Riley Reiff to right tackle. That could certainly change, but that’s the way it looks right now.
Reiff wasn’t bad at left tackle, making 47 starts there from 2013-2015 and grading out around average or above in all 3 seasons, but the Lions feel more comfortable with him at right tackle, as he’s a much better run blocker than pass protector. Reiff is one of those two holdovers from the Lions’ 2013 offensive line; the other is right guard Larry Warford. A 3rd round rookie in 2013, Warford looked like a future All-Pro and was actually my pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year (over Eddie Lacy and Keenan Allen), finishing as Pro Football Focus’ #4 ranked guard and not missing a snap all season. Injuries have really slowed him down over the past 2 seasons though, as he’s missed 6 games with injury, and his ranking has fallen to 16th in 2014 and 37th in 2015. If he can stay healthy and bounce back this season, that would be huge for this team, and huge for him as well, as he heads into his contract year.
Center is the Lions’ biggest weakness, as incumbent center Travis Swanson struggled mightily in his first year as a starter in 2015, finishing 33rd out of 39 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus. The 2014 3rd round pick struggled mightily in limited action as a rookie too. He’ll be pushed for his starting job by 3rd round rookie Graham Glasgow and will be on a very short leash even if he does keep his starting job to begin the season. It’s an overall improved offensive line, but it’s still one with a lot of problems.
Last off-season, the Lions lost defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and CJ Mosley in free agency and had to completely retool the defensive tackle position. The biggest move they made towards that goal was trading for ex-Baltimore defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Ngata graded out as a top-18 player at his position in every season from 2007-2014 with the Ravens (playing 3-4 defensive end, 3-4 nose tackle, and 4-3 defensive tackle), but Ngata was aging and the Ravens had cap issues and were willing to part with him and his non-guaranteed 8.5 million dollar salary.
Ngata wasn’t quite the same player last season as he was in Baltimore, finishing 39th out of interior defenders on Pro Football Focus, but he was still an above average starter and an asset for the Lions. They re-signed him as a free agent this off-season, giving him 12 million over 2 years. Going into his age 32 season, his best days are probably behind him, but he should still have at least a couple more good seasons left in him. He led Lion defensive tackles in snaps played last season with 599 and could easily do so again this season.
Tyrunn Walker was the Lions’ other addition at defensive tackle last off-season. He was obviously a much smaller addition than Ngata and he didn’t pan out for the Lions because he missed the final 12 games of the season with a broken ankle. The Lions decided to bring him back this off-season though, keeping him on a cheap 1-year, 1.6 million dollar deal. Only going into his age 26 season, if he can stay healthy, there’s still breakout potential here.
The 2012 undrafted free agent flashed in 2013 and 2014, grading about above average on 119 and 308 snaps respectively, including 21st among defensive tackles in 2014. He’ll compete for a starting job and, at the very least, will have a significant rotational role. The Lions also added A’Shawn Robinson in the 2nd round of the draft. He’s not much of a pass rusher yet, but the 6-4 307 pounder is probably the favorite for early down snaps next to Ngata, with Walker working in as a sub package pass rusher.
With Suh gone, Ezekiel Ansah has taken over as the Lions’ most dominant defensive lineman. Ansah isn’t as good as Suh, but he’s close. Ansah, the #5 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, is also 2 years younger than Suh. He’s made 44 starts in 3 years in the league and has graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end and their 27th ranked edge defender in 2014 and 2015 respectively. With two years left on his rookie deal, Ansah could come close to Ndamukong Suh money (114 million over 6 years) on his next contract. The Lions will likely try to extend him either this off-season or next.
At the other defensive end spot, Jason Jones left as a free agent, after making 15 starts last season, but the Lions have an obvious internal replacement in Devin Taylor. Taylor, a 2013 4th round pick, struggled on a combined 535 snaps in his first 2 years in the league, 2013 and 2014, but had a mini-breakout year last year, grading out just above average on 551 snaps as the #3 defensive end. Going into his first year as a starter, he could take another leap forward, which could net him a big payday as a free agent next off-season. At the very least, he’s an adequate replacement for Jones.
The Lions also signed veteran Wallace Gilberry as a free agent. He’ll serve as the #3 defensive end, though he’s an underwhelming player at this stage of his career. Going into his age 32 season, Gilberry has graded out below average in 6 of 8 seasons in the league and may be nearing the end. 6th round rookie Anthony Gettel could push him for snaps by the end of the season. Still, it’s an overall solid defensive line led by Ezekiel Ansah and Haloti Ngata, with capable starters like Tyrunn Walker and Devin Taylor also in the mix.
As big as the Ndamukong Suh loss was for the Lions, the loss of outside linebacker DeAndre Levy for most of the season with a hip injury (he played just 17 total snaps) was arguably just as big. Levy finished 9th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013 and 3rd at the position in 2014. Still, even without him, the Lions’ linebackers played well last season, as Josh Bynes and Tahir Whitehead graded out 13th and 14th respectively among linebackers on Pro Football Focus, on 818 and 588 snaps respectively, though middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch struggled, grading out below average in his first season back from a torn ACL.
Whitehead was re-signed for 8 million over 2 years this off-season as a free agent, a great deal considering how well he’s played over the past 2 seasons. The 2012 5th round pick has played 722 and 588 snaps over the past two seasons respectively, thanks to injuries to Stephen Tulloch in 2014 and DeAndre Levy in 2015. He’s graded out 13th among middle linebackers and 16th among linebackers respectively in those 2 seasons in run stopping grade on Pro Football Focus and he was noticeably better in coverage between 2014 and 2015, leading to that #14 overall finish among linebackers.
Bynes is a little bit less proven, as he had just 9 starts in 4 years in the league prior to 2015, when he started 11 games. Even with Levy coming back, there will still be a role for Bynes in the Lions’ linebacking corps in 2016, as the Lions let veteran middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch go this off-season, owed 5.5 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season in 2016. Bynes will play primarily as a base package run stuffer outside, coming off the field in sub packages for a 5th defensive back. Levy and Whitehead, meanwhile, will start at outside linebacker and middle linebacker respectively and play essentially every down. With Levy returning, it’s a strong group.
The Lions really struck gold in the first 2 rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft. I already mentioned Ansah, the 5th overall pick that year, but cornerback Darius Slay, their 2nd rounder that year, is arguably just as valuable to this defense. There’s a reason the Lions just locked him up long-term for 50.2 million over 4 years, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2016. That’s very reasonable considering Slay finished last season 2nd in the NFL among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being that kind of a high level player, but he’s made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and also finished 19th among cornerbacks in 2014. Still only going into his age 25 season, Slay has a very bright future and present.
Along with Slay, safety Glover Quin is a very valuable asset in the defensive backfield for the Lions. Quin was a steal on a 5-year, 23.5 million dollar contract three off-seasons ago, coming over from Houston. Quin has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons, dating back to 2010, and has finished 10th, 3rd, and 38th among safeties in 3 seasons in Detroit. He also hasn’t missed a game with injury in 6 seasons. Going into his age 30 season, coming off of a bit of a down year, it’s possible his best days are behind him, but he remains an obvious asset in the Lions’ secondary.
The other two starting spots in the secondary are much shakier though. Veteran starter Rashean Mathis retired this off-season. Even though he was going into his age 36 season and missed 9 games with injury last season, he’ll still be missed, as 2014 4th round Nevin Lawson struggled mightily in his absence last season, finishing 101st out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, in the first significant action of his career. Lawson is penciled into the starting job to begin the season, largely for lack of a better option.
Meanwhile, at the other safety spot, the Lions lost James Ihedigbo and Isa Abdul-Quddas to free agency this off-season, so it’ll be a three way competition between free agent acquisitions Rafael Bush and Tavon Wilson, as well as 4th round rookie Miles Killebrew. None are good options. Killebrew is probably not ready to start in the NFL. Wilson was a 2nd round pick by the Patriots in 2012, but made just 4 starts in 4 years in New England and played just 83 snaps last season. He’s best off as a reserve. Bush has the most starting experience with 16 starts. The 2010 undrafted free agent has never played more than 520 snaps in a season though and missed all but 21 snaps last season with injury. That being said, he’s flashed in limited action and is probably the favorite here. Bush and Lawson would both be weaknesses in this secondary.
There is one more positive for the Lions in the secondary though, as 2015 6th round pick Quandre Diggs broke out as a solid slot cornerback as a rookie, finishing 33th among cornerbacks on 484 snaps. At 5-9 193, Diggs is a slot cornerback only and isn’t a serious candidate for the starting job outside opposite Slay, but he’s very valuable to them covering slot receivers in obvious passing situations; 333 of his 484 snaps played last season came on pass snaps. Like most of the team, there’s some talent here, but also noticeable issues.
The Lions finished last year on a run offensively. Losing Calvin Johnson hurts and it’s unclear if they could keep that kind of play up over a 16 game season anyway, especially since their schedule wasn’t too hard down the stretch last season, but this team still has solid talent on both sides of the ball. They still have issues at running back and on the offensive line, which will make their offense one-dimensional again, but, even without Johnson, quarterback Matt Stafford has plenty of options to throw to, with Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin coming in and Eric Ebron possibly poised for a breakout year. This team should be in the playoff mix in the NFC.
Prediction: 9-7 2nd in NFC North