The Lions made the playoffs last season, but they were arguably the worst team to make the playoffs. Their 9-7 record was tied for the worst among playoff teams (with Houston) and they were the only team to make the playoffs that didn’t defeat another playoff team, going 0-5 against playoff opponents in the regular season. Despite all 9 of their wins coming against teams that didn’t make the playoffs, only one of them came by more than a touchdown. They made the playoffs, but they did so unimpressively, by squeaking out close victories against unimpressive opponents.
In terms of first down rate differential, they had the worst of any playoff team at -1.90%, which was actually the 5th lowest of any team in the league last season. That’s a bit misleading, as the difference between the 28th and 29th best team in that metric was larger than the difference between the 28th and 14th best team in that metric; last season the NFL had a bunch of mediocre teams, but only a few truly bad ones (Jets, 49ers, Browns, Rams). Still, the Lions were a very underwhelming playoff qualifier and this showed in the first round, when they got bounced by the Seahawks 26-6 in a game where the Seahawks won the first down battle 24-13.
Even though the Lions managed just 182 yards passing in that game, it’s hard to put the blame for the Lions’ mediocrity last season on the passing game, considering it was really the only part of this team that played at an above average level. Quarterback Matt Stafford once again played all 16 games, for the 6th straight season, as he’s turned into a bit of an Ironman despite being plagued by shoulder injuries in the first 2 seasons of his career, and he played at a high level once again. He completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 7.29 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions and finished 9th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.
This is pretty much par for the course for Stafford, who has completed 62.3% of his passes for an average of 7.21 yards per attempt, 168 touchdowns, and 87 interceptions in his 6 full seasons as the Lions’ starting quarterback. He was a top-13 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in 4 of those 6 seasons and has never ranked lower than 21st in any of those 6 seasons. With Stafford going into the final year of a 3-year, 53 million dollar extension, the Lions are working to get him signed long-term on another extension before the season starts.
The Lions will likely have to pay upwards of 20 million annually, making him one of the highest paid players in the league, but the Lions don’t really have a choice because quarterbacks like Stafford don’t grow on trees. He’s not spectacular, but he’s an above average starter. Unfortunately, he’s not the type of player who can lead a team to a Super Bowl by himself though, so the Lions will need better play around him this season if they are going to have any chance of making a deep run into the playoffs. If they continue to play like they did last season, there’s a good chance they don’t even make the post-season, given how they snuck into the post-season with close wins over mediocre teams in 2016.
Stafford isn’t going it completely alone, as he did get solid play from his receiving corps last season, even with Calvin Johnson surprisingly deciding to retire last off-season. Johnson’s replacement Marvin Jones and holdover Golden Tate both topped 900 yards in 2016 and both graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. Neither player was spectacular, as Marvin Jones was the highest rated of the two at #45, but they both were reliable targets for Stafford and, based on their age and history, it would not be surprising at all if they continued that into 2017.
Tate came over to the Lions from the Seahawks three off-seasons ago on a 5-year, 31 million dollar deal. Tate’s numbers improved significantly from Seattle to Detroit, but that was largely as a result of the fact that he went from one of the run heaviest teams in the league to one of the more pass heavy teams. Even though he didn’t put up huge numbers in Seattle, he still played well. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 6 seasons, making 81 starts over that time period. In fact, his #57 finish in 2016 was his lowest since his rookie year in 2010. From 2013-2015, he was a top-23 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus, so, in that sense, he actually has some bounce back potential in 2017, still just his age 29 season.
Jones was a little bit more expensive to sign, coming over on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal from the Bengals last off-season. He’s also a couple years younger, going into his age 27 season, and less experienced, with 3 years of starting experience. Still, he’s a very solid receiver who has ranked 14th, 38th, and 45th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2013, 2015, and 2016 respectively, with a 2014 season lost to injury in between. Aside from 2014, he’s only missed 1 game in 3 seasons as a starter, so injuries have not been a consistent issue for him.
Tate and Jones are both above average receivers who are younger than 30 and they should remain options 1a and 1b in this passing offense. Tate is an underneath option who caught 91 of 135 targets (67.4%), but only averaged 11.84 yards per catch. Jones, meanwhile, is a deep threat who caught just 55 of 103 targets (53.4%), but averaged 16.91 yards per catch. They go to Tate more often because of the type of routes he runs, but Jones is a the big threat and was actually more efficient on a per target basis last season. They complement each other well.
Tight end Eric Ebron also remains as the 3rd option in the passing game. The 10th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Ebron came into the league with a ton of potential, but has been a bit of a disappointment thus far in his career. Ebron had easily his best receiving year in his 3rd year in the league in 2016, catching 61 passes for 711 yards (8th in the NFL among tight ends) and 1 touchdown, but graded out below average on Pro Football Focus for the third straight year because of his complete inability as a run blocker.
There are reasons to be optimistic with him. Ebron was regarded as raw coming out of North Carolina. He is still only going into his age 24 season and has improved as a receiver in every season in the league. He has the frame to become a better blocker at 6-4 253 and he has outstanding athleticism for his size, as he showed when he ran a 4.60 at the combine, an incredible time for a tight end of his size. However, so far in his career he’s been an injury prone, one-dimensional player, never playing more than 14 games in a season and being limited by injuries in countless others, so the Lions’ patience might be wearing thin with him.
The Lions were linked to tight ends in both free agency and the draft this off-season and reportedly made an offer to free agent tight end Jared Cook this off-season, but ultimately ended up with just 4th round pick Michael Roberts, who is more of a blocking complement than a replacement for Ebron. He could play right away in 2-tight end sets because he’s an NFL ready blocker, but he isn’t a threat to Ebron on passing downs. Roberts’ primary competition for the #2 tight end job is veteran Darren Fells, a 4th year player who is also primarily a blocker.
The Lions picked up Ebron’s 5th year option for 2018, which would pay him around 8.25 million, the average of the top-10 tight end salaries in the league, but that’s guaranteed for injury only, so the Lions could cut him next off-season if they feel he’s not worth that salary. Because of his youth and upside, he still has the potential for a breakout season in his 4th year in the league in 2017 if he can stay healthy, but if he doesn’t have that breakout year, this could be his final season in Detroit.
Slot receiver Anquan Boldin and running back Theo Riddick were the Lions’ 4th and 5th best receivers in 2016, putting up 67/584/8 and 53/371/5 slash lines respectively. Boldin remains unsigned as a free agent ahead of his age 37 season, but the Lions haven’t ruled out bringing him back in the same role because he was decent last season. For the time being, it’s unclear who their 3rd receiver is. Keshawn Martin is the only other wide receiver on the roster with more than 15 career catches and he was basically out of the league completely last year, playing just 1 game for the 49ers and not catching a single pass. The Lions did use a 3rd round pick on Northern Illinois’ Kenny Golladay, but it’s unclear if he’ll be ready for a big role as a rookie.
Riddick, meanwhile, remains as the passing down back and he’s one of the better pass catching running backs in the league. Even though he “only” had 53 catches last season, he did it in 10 games, missing 6 with injury. The year before he caught 80 passes for 697 yards and 3 touchdowns in 16 games, meaning he’s averaging about 5.12 catches per game over the past 2 seasons. He’s finished as the #1 and #3 ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus in the last 2 seasons respectively. If he can stay healthy, another 70-80 catches seems likely for him. Aside from the uncertainly at the slot receiver position, this is a solid receiving corps.
In addition to having a solid receiving corps last season, Matt Stafford also had a solid offensive line. Even though they lost two starters in free agency, they have a chance to be even better upfront this season. Things looked bleak when right guard Larry Warford and right tackle Riley Reiff signed with the Saints and Vikings respectively on big contracts (4 years 34 million and 5 years 58.75 million respectively), but the Lions signed ex-Packer TJ Lang and ex-Raven Ricky Wagner to big contracts to replace him.
Not only did they save a little bit of money overall, signing Lang for 28.5 million over 3 years and Wagner for 47.5 million over 5 years, they actually upgraded both spots as well. Lang has made 91 starts over the past 6 seasons, finishing in the top-15 among guards on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 4 seasons. For comparison, Warford finished last season 20th among guards. Lang is a little bit older, going into his age 30 season, but interior offensive linemen tend to age pretty well so he should remain an effective player throughout his 3-year deal. Signing him away from division rival Green Bay, where he was dominant for years, is a huge signing for the Lions.
Wagner, meanwhile, has had his ups and downs in 3 years as the starting right tackle in Baltimore (45 starts), but is coming off of a season in which he finished 18th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Wagner also ranked 16th among offensive tackles in 2014, with an underwhelming 2015 season in which he was hampered by a foot injury in between. As long as he’s healthy, he should have another strong year in 2017. Reiff got more money because he has experience on the left side, while Wagner is a pure right tackle, but he’s one of the best pure right tackles in the game, while Reiff finished 48th among 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus last season on the right side.
The Lions will only need Wagner to be a pure right tackle because they appear to have found a gem in the first round of last year’s draft in Taylor Decker. The 16th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Decker won Reiff’s left tackle job, moving him to the right side, and made all 16 starts on Stafford’s blindside last season. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked offensive tackle. He’s still pretty unproven, but he looks to have a bright future ahead of him. He could take another step forward in his 2nd year in the league in 2017.
At left guard and center, the Lions have three players who will compete for two spots. Laken Tomlinson was their first round pick in 2015, but he’s struggled in 24 starts in 2 seasons in the league, grading out 53rd out of 81 eligible guards as a rookie and 64th out of 72 eligible guards last season. He was benched in week 7 of last season for rookie Graham Glasgow, but ended up getting his job back later in the season when Glasgow moved to center in place of the injured Travis Swanson. Glasgow didn’t really play much better than Tomlinson and Tomlinson’s draft slot should help him win this job, but he’s running out of chances to prove himself.
Glasgow is also an option to start at center because he was a little bit better at center than he was at guard last season, which makes sense, considering center was his best collegiate position. Swanson is probably the favorite for the job though, as he was pretty solid last season before getting hurt, finishing 17th among 37 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus. His history isn’t good, as the 2014 3rd round pick struggled mightily in the first two seasons of his career, including a 2015 season in which he finished 33rd out of 39 eligible centers, but it’s possible he’s turned a corner. Going into his 4th season in the league, his job is probably the more secure of the three. Even with uncertainty at left guard and center, this line is improved over last season’s solid line.
Despite good production in the passing game, the Lions’ offense ranked just 12th in first down rate last season because of their inability to run the ball, as they averaged 3.74 yards per carry, 27th in the NFL. Their improved offensive line should help matters a little bit, but the offensive line wasn’t the problem last season. The problem was the guys running the football. The Lions had high hopes for second year running back Ameer Abdullah, but his season was ended after 2 games and 18 carries by injury.
In his absence, passing down back Theo Riddick actually led the team in carries with 92, even though he’s a 5-9 201 converted college wide receiver who entered the season with a career 2.90 YPC average. Riddick predictably struggled as a runner, rushing for 357 yards and 1 touchdown on those 92 carries, an average of 3.88 YPC. Dwayne Washington (90 carries) and Zach Zenner (88 carries) also struggled, averaging 2.94 yards per carry and 3.80 yards per carry respectively.
Getting Abdullah back from injury should help, though it’s still unclear what the Lions have in him. He was a relatively high pick for a running back, going in the 2nd round in 2015, and has a solid 4.34 YPC average on 161 carries, but he’s coming off of a major injury and has looked lost on passing downs, struggling mightily as a blocker and averaging just 5.45 yards per target on 44 career targets. By default though, he should be an upgrade over what they had last season in his absence and there’s definitely upside here with him still only entering his age 24 season.
Riddick will continue to work as the passing down back and I mentioned his success in that aspect of his game over the past 2 seasons. He probably won’t be any higher than 3rd in line for carries though and could go back to around his 2015 level of carries (43). Zach Zenner is currently penciled Abdullah’s primary backup on early downs and their short yardage back, though the 2015 undrafted free agent is an underwhelming option and has averaged just 3.75 yards per carry on 105 career carries. The Lions didn’t draft a running back at any point, so they seem relatively confident in Zenner behind Abdullah.
Zenner’s only real competition right now is 2016 7th round pick Dwayne Washington, but he averaged just 2.94 yards per carry as a rookie and isn’t even a lock for the final roster., Zenner should be considered the favorite for the complementary back role. Given his size advantage over Abdullah (5-11 221 vs. 5-9 203), he could be their goal line back and vulture a few touchdowns. Getting Abdullah back helps this running back group, but there’s still plenty of uncertainty at the position.
Despite a weak running game, the Lions’ offense was still pretty good last season thanks to their passing game. However, as I mentioned earlier, their passing game was their only real strength in 2016. The running game was a problem, but the bigger problem was on defense, both stopping the run and the pass. While their offense ranked 12th in first down rate, their defense ranked 29th in first down rate allowed, which is why the Lions were the lowest ranked team playoff team in first down rate differential last season. If they aren’t noticeably improved defensively this season, it’s going to be tough for them to make the playoffs again.
Fortunately, there are some reasons to be optimistic. The biggest one is defensive end Ezekiel Ansah’s bounce back potential. In 2014 and 2015, Ansah combined for 22 sacks and finished in the top-15 among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. In 2016, he plummeted to 26th and got to the quarterback just twice. The obvious culprit is the fact that he played most of the season with a bad ankle, so, assuming he’s healthy in 2017, there’s no reason why he couldn’t bounce back. The 5th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Ansah is going into his age 28 season, so he’s still in the prime of his career. With Ansah going into the final year of his rookie deal, the Lions might try to lock him up long-term this off-season. That would be a little bit risky coming off the down year, but it could be worth it if they can get him relatively cheap.
If Ansah can bounce back to pre-2016 form, that will be a big boost for this defense. On the other side of the defense line, Devin Taylor, who made 16 starts in 2016, is no longer with the team, but that’s probably going to prove to be addition by subtraction, as Taylor was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd lowest ranked 4-3 defensive end in the league last season. There’s a reason he remains unsigned as of this writing, despite his starting experience and his relative youth (he will turn 28 this season).
In Taylor’s absence, second year player Kerry Hyder will probably have a bigger role at defensive end. Hyder actually had a pretty big role last season too, even though he only made 2 starts, playing 709 snaps. The 2016 undrafted free agent both played inside and outside, finishing above average on Pro Football Focus and leading the team with 8 sacks. This season, the 6-2 270 pounder will probably be more of a pure defensive end out of necessity. It’s hard to trust a still unproven player that no one wanted to draft a year ago, especially since he had just 3 sacks in the final 12 weeks of the season, but he’s certainly been a pleasant surprise for the Lions and could continue to play well for this team.
The Lions will need both Hyder and Ansah to play at a high level this season because their depth at the defensive end position is very suspect. It’s very surprising that they did not address the position in the draft until the 7th round, when they took Patrick O’Connor, who likely won’t be able to contribute as a rookie and is far from a lock to even make the final roster. The Lions’ other depth options at the position include Anthony Zettel, Armonty Bryant, and Brandon Copeland. Copeland is a 2013 undrafted free agent who didn’t make his NFL debut until 2015 and has spent the last 2 seasons as a reserve linebacker, playing just 140 snaps in 2016. The 6-3 260 pounder is a tweener linebacker/defensive end. Zettel is a 2016 6th round pick who played just 224 snaps as a rookie. Bryant might be their best option because he’s flashed pass rush ability in the past, but he has just 4 career starts since being drafted in the 7th round in 2013 by the Browns and was limited to 5 games with the Lions last season by multiple suspensions and an injury.
At defensive tackle, the Lions have a pair of solid run stuffers in A’Shawn Robinson and Haloti Ngata, but lack a good interior pass rusher and also have depth issues. Robinson is only going into his 2nd season in the league, so the 2016 2nd round pick could take a leap forward in 2017, but the 6-4 320 pounder has always been more of a base package run stuffer than a sub package interior rusher. He played respectably on 446 snaps as a rookie and should push for 500-600 snaps in 2017 if he can stay healthy.
Ngata, meanwhile, is in the opposite part of his career, going into his 12th season in the league and his age 33 season. He’s clearly on the decline, grading out below average last season for the first time in Pro Football Focus’ history, after finishing in the top-18 at his position in every season from 2007-2014. The 6-4 335 pounder isn’t anything more than an adequate run stuffer at this point in his career and could see fewer than the 577 snaps he saw last season. Going into the final year of his contract, Ngata has hinted that this will be his final season in the NFL. He also reportedly strongly considered retirement this off-season.
Given that, it’s surprising that the Lions didn’t add a defensive tackle in the draft until 6th round pick Jeremiah Ledbetter, as they lack depth and a long-term starter inside next to Robinson. Free agent acquisition Cornelius Washington will probably be their primary reserve and play a significant role in sub packages. The 6-4 295 pound converted defensive end has some pass rush ability, but the 364 snaps he played last season were a career high, so it’s unclear how he’ll transition to a bigger role. A 2013 6th round pick, Washington played in just 16 games combined (0 starts) in his first 3 seasons in the league prior to last season.
Washington will be one of the Lions’ two primary interior pass rushers in sub packages, but it’s unclear who will be the second one. A’Shawn Robinson may have to play more sub package snaps out of necessity, even though he’s completely unproven as a pass rusher. The Lions would probably like to line Hyder up inside in passing situations with regularity, but their lack of depth at defensive end will likely prevent that. Their other reserve defensive tackles who could earn a significant role are Khyri Thornton, Jordan Hill, and Akeem Spence.
Hill is the most proven of the three, but he played just 42 snaps with the Jaguars last season, after the Seahawks made him a final cut with an injury designation. Injuries have always been the issue for him, as he played just 27 games in his first 3 seasons with the Seahawks, who drafted him in the 3rd round in 2013. He’s flashed when healthy though, grading out above average in both 2013 and 2015. If he’s healthy, he could carve out a role as an interior pass rusher, but that’s a big if.
While Hill is at least somewhat proven, both Thornton and Spence have both struggled throughout their careers and would be underwhelming options. Spence has made 30 starts in 4 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2013 by the Buccaneers, but he has been among the worst defensive tackles in the league in all 4 seasons. In 2016, he was especially bad, finishing the season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd lowest ranked eligible defensive tackle on 362 snaps. Thornton, meanwhile, was their 5th lowest ranked eligible defensive tackle on 328 snaps in 2016. Thornton was originally a 3rd round pick by the Packers in 2014, but he never played a snap for them because of injury and has struggled in 2 seasons with the Lions. On top of that, he’s going into his age 28 season, so it’s not like he’s some bright young prospect anymore. The Lions have some good players on the defensive line and should be better than they were last season upfront, but their lack of depth is a major problem.
While the Lions largely ignored the defensive line in the draft, they did use their first round pick to fill a big need at linebacker, selecting Florida’s Jarrad Davis 21st overall. The Lions cut ties this off-season with former All-Pro linebacker DeAndre Levy, who had played just 5 games (248 snaps) the past 2 seasons thanks to injury. After he finished 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2014, the Lions re-signed him to a 4-year, 33.75 million dollar deal and paid him 18.25 million dollars over the past 2 seasons for basically nothing. His absence really hurt this linebacking corps.
Davis will play middle linebacker rather than outside linebacker, but he’ll move Tahir Whitehead from middle linebacker to outside linebacker, where he is a more natural fit anyway. Ideally, the Lions would have another good three down linebacker to go with Davis because Whitehead is best off as a pure base package player, but the Lions had a lot of holes to fill this season and it would have been tough to fill them all. A collegiate defensive end who played primarily special teams in his first 2 seasons in the league, Whitehead has been forced into 39 starts over the past 3 seasons because of injury, but has generally played well against the run. He’s been lost in coverage though and is coming off of easily his worst season, finishing dead last among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Perhaps a move back outside will help him, but he’s a liability in coverage regardless of where he lines up.
Free agent acquisition Paul Worrilow is also a liability in coverage, but he’ll play primarily a base package role as the other outside linebacker in Detroit’s 4-3 defense. Worrilow wasn’t bad as a reserve linebacker for the Falcons last season, but he only played 167 snaps and he struggled mightily as a starter in 42 starts from 2013-2015. An undrafted free agent in 2013, Worrilow was wildly under-qualified for a starting job and it showed on the field, as he finished in the bottom-10 among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. He might be alright in a situational role, but he’s an underwhelming player. Adding a talented rookie linebacker in Jarrad Davis will help, but if a rookie is your best linebacker, it’s probably not a good group.
While the Lions’ front 7 play was pretty terrible in 2016, they actually got some solid play in the secondary. With Ezekiel Ansah having a down year, #1 cornerback Darius Slay was easily the Lions’ best defensive player. A 2013 2nd round pick, Slay has made 45 starts over the past 3 seasons and finished in the top-19 among cornerbacks in all 3 seasons. Only going into his age 26 season, his strong play should continue in 2017. He was a smart re-signing on a 4-year, 48.15 million dollar extension last off-season. He’s just the 10th highest paid cornerback in the NFL.
Opposite him, Nevin Lawson had a mini-breakout season in his first full season as a starter in 2017, finishing 37th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus and making all 16 starts. He’s still a one-year wonder who finished 101st out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in his first season of significant action in 2015, so it’s tough to trust him, but he could have another solid season opposite Slay. Working against him is his size at 5-9 195, which is why he fell to the 4th round in 2014. The Lions used a 2nd round pick on Florida cornerback Teez Tabor, but he’s more of a candidate for the #3 job than a threat to Lawson’s starting job. However, with Lawson going into the final year of his rookie deal, this could be his final season in Detroit.
The #3 cornerback job was the only real weakness in the secondary for the Lions last season, as Quandre Diggs finished 95th among 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 423 snaps. Diggs flashed as a rookie in 2015, finishing 33rd among cornerbacks on 484 snaps, but was only a 6th round pick and will be pushed for the #3 job by both Tabor and free agent acquisition DJ Hayden. Hayden isn’t much of an upgrade on Diggs, so Tabor could see time down the stretch, but Hayden is probably the week 1 favorite. A massive bust as the 12th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Hayden has missed 19 games with injury in 4 seasons in the league and has ranked 87th and 96th among cornerbacks in the last 2 seasons respectively.
At safety, Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson both played well last season, finishing 23rd and 21st respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Quin has been one of the more dependable defensive backs in the league over the past 7 seasons, making 112 starts in 112 games, first at cornerback in 2009 and then at safety for the past 6 seasons. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 7 seasons. Going into his age 31 season, his days of finishing in the top-10 of safeties like he did at his peak in 2013 and 2014 are probably behind him, but he’s still an above average starter.
Tavon Wilson, on the other hand, is far less proven as 14 of his 18 career starts came last season. A 2012 2nd round pick, Wilson was primarily a backup in New England for the first 4 seasons of his career, but he always played well in limited action. Even though he’s a one-year starter, because of how he played as a reserve in New England and because he was a 2nd round pick, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had another strong season as a starter in 2017. He’s still only going into his age 27 season, so he should be in the prime of his career. The secondary is the strongest part of this defense.
As I mentioned in the introduction, the Lions made the playoffs last season with 9 wins over non-playoff teams, with 8 of them being decided by a touchdown or less. If they are going to make the playoffs again this year, they are likely going to have to play significantly better, particularly defensively and in the running game. If they can be healthier, that should be a boost, but it’s not like they had an inordinate amount of injuries last season. Injuries are just part of the game and will likely remain an issue for them this season. There’s talent on this roster, but they have big question marks at running back, left guard, slot receiver, slot cornerback, linebacker, and on the defensive line. On paper, this roster looks average at best.
Update: The Lions will be without left tackle Taylor Decker for the first half of the season at least, after he suffered an off-season shoulder injury. That hurts their projection significantly.
Prediction: 6-10, 3rd in NFC North