For years, the Lions have had a solid offense held back by a struggling defense. In 2016, they finished 12th in first down rate and 29th in first down rate allowed and they followed that up by finishing 15th in first down rate and dead last in first down rate allowed in 2017. In 2018, it looked like the Lions were off to a similar start, ranking 15th in the NFL in first down rate through week 10 at 37.15% and 27th in first down rate allowed at 40.69%. However, from there things kind of switched. The Lions’ offense had just a 32.51% first down rate in their final 7 games of the season, while their defense only allowed a 33.97% first down rate.
I’ll go into detail about this defense later, but on offense the problem was significant personnel losses. The Lions traded Golden Tate, Matt Stafford’s long-time favorite target, at the trade deadline, while fellow starting wide receiver Marvin Jones went down for the season with a knee injury week 10. Lead back Kerryon Johnson also went down for the season with injury, suffering a knee injury week 11, as did talented right guard TJ Lang, who missed the final 8 games of the season with a neck injury.
Stafford himself suffered an injury down the stretch, playing most of the second half of the season through a significant back injury, which likely limited his effectiveness. After completing 67.8% of his passes for an average of 7.30 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the first 8 games of the season, he closed the season with a 64.3% completion percentage, 6.26 YPA, and 7 touchdowns to 5 interceptions in the final 8 games of the season. Personnel losses around him obviously played a part in that, but Stafford didn’t look right either.
Assuming he’s healthy, Stafford should bounce back, still only in his age 31 season. In the past 8 seasons, he’s completed 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.24 YPA, 218 touchdowns, and 108 interceptions, while finishing in the top-13 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 5 of those 8 seasons. Perhaps most importantly, he hasn’t missed a start during that stretch, giving him the 3rd longest active quarterback starts streak behind Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan. If Stafford ever were to get hurt, the Lions would be in trouble, as they’d be forced to start failed Texans starter Tom Savage (72.5 career QB rating in 9 career starts). If Stafford can avoid injury, he should have a solid season again.
Whether or not the right parts are around Matt Staford is a question. Golden Tate was his favorite receiver for years, averaging a 94/1068/5 slash line per 16 games during the 4+ seasons they were together. The Lions are getting outside receiver Marvin Jones back from injury, but they’re replacing Tate on slot with free agent addition Danny Amendola, which is an obvious downgrade. Amendola had some signature playoff moments with Tom Brady and the Patriots, but is more name than game at this point, going into his age 34 season, coming off of a 59/575/1 season in Miami. Even though he spent 5 seasons in New England, Amendola has never topped 689 receiving yards in a season and he’s had trouble staying healthy as well, playing all 16 games just twice in ten seasons in the league. His 5.5 million dollar salary locks him into the slot receiver role, but I wouldn’t expect much from him.
With Tate gone, Stafford will likely focus more on the downfield passing game to outside receivers Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay. Jones had a 35/508/5 slash line in 9 games last season, which is a 62/903/9 slash line extrapolated over 16 games. He’s only once topped 1000 yards in 7 seasons in the league though, and Kenny Golladay, who led this team with a 70/1063/5 slash line last season, will likely remain their top receiving option. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Golladay took a big step forward from year 1 to year 2 and could easily continue getting better.
The Lions also figure to use the tight end in the passing game more in 2019, after their tight ends had just 43 catches combined last season. They signed ex-Steeler Jesse James to a 4-year, 22.6 million dollar contract in free agency and then used the 8th overall pick on Iowa tight end TJ Hockenson. Hockenson has a big long-term upside, but could be kind of raw as a rookie and may split snaps with James. The Lions also figure to run a lot of two tight end sets to compensate for their lack of wide receiver depth.
James spent last season splitting snaps with Vance McDonald in Pittsburgh, but still managed a career high 423 receiving yards and had an above average 1.52 yards per route run. Ironically, James played a much bigger role in 2016 and 2017, playing 856 snaps and 906 snaps respectively, but only managed slash lines of 39/338/3 and 43/372/3 and averaged a combined 0.85 yards per route run, one of the worst in the league over that stretch. James is a solid run blocker, but it’s fair to wonder how much of his passing game production last season in Pittsburgh was because of the offense he played on and the talent around him. He’ll likely be overtaken by Hockenson by season’s end, if not sooner. This receiving corps isn’t as good as it has been, but it’s better than it was down the stretch last season.
The Lions’ diminished receiving corps might not be as much of an issue if the Lions become a better running team, after finishing last season 28th in the NFL in yards per carry with 4.11. Second year head coach Matt Patricia wants to run a run heavy offense, something they didn’t really do last season under since fired offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter (615 pass plays to 404 run plays). With new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell coming in and the defense improving down the stretch last season, it seems likely the Lions will become more run oriented on offense in 2019.
They have the running back talent to do so effectively. Second year running back Kerryon Johnson returns from injury, after missing the final 6 games of last season, and he averaged 5.43 yards per carry on 118 carries before going down. He might not maintain that average, but he also ranked 12th in carry success rate at 53%, and the 2018 2nd round pick has the talent to develop into a feature back if he can stay healthy over a full season. On a run heavier team, he should exceed the 11.8 carries per game he had last season, possibly by a significant amount.
The Lions are likely to still be a two back team, but they’re replacing LeGarrette Blount, who ran like he was stuck in the mud with a 2.71 YPC average on 154 carries last season, with free agency addition CJ Anderson. Anderson was out of the league for part of last season, but he averaged 4.40 YPC on 693 carries in his first 5 seasons in the league prior to last season and proved himself again with the Rams down the stretch last season, averaging 5.48 YPC on 89 carries in 5 games, between the regular season and post-season. He doesn’t do much in the passing game, but he’ll likely get about 7-10 carries per game and provides good insurance in case Johnson gets hurt again.
Pass catching back Theo Riddick is also still on the team, although reportedly that might not be the case for much longer. Riddick has averaged 61.8 catches per season over the past 4 seasons and it would make sense that he’d continue having a role as an underneath pass catcher with Golden Tate gone, but he averaged just 6.3 yards per catch last season, has just a 3.55 YPC average on 288 carries in his career, and the Lions might not view him as worth it at a 3.45 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. Kerryon Johnson had 32 catches in 10 games last season and will likely play a bigger passing down role in his 2nd season in the league. Already on pace for 51 catches last season, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Johnson exceed 60 catches in 2019, especially if Riddick is let go. Even with Anderson spelling him, Johnson has breakout potential if he can stay healthy.
The Lions didn’t address the offensive line this off-season, even though right guard TJ Lang opted to retire due to a neck injury. Lang was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard before getting hurt last season, so he’ll be a big loss. Injury replacement Kenny Wiggins will likely remain the starter, due to a lack of a better option. He has 35 starts over the past 4 seasons, but the 2011 undrafted free agent has been middling at best and finished 61st out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF in 2018. He’s also in his age 31 season, so he’s unlikely to improve going forward. He could face competition from 2018 5th round pick Tyrell Crosby, who played 130 snaps at tackle as a rookie, but Wiggins will likely be the week 1 starter.
One change the Lions seem to be making upfront is flipping incumbent center Graham Glasgow and incumbent left guard Frank Ragnow. Glasgow has played both positions in his 3-year career (18 starts at left guard, 25 starts at center), while Ragnow was viewed as primarily a center coming out of the University of Arkansas. The Lions’ 20th overall pick, Ragnow was passable as a rookie and could be better in his 2nd season in the league at a new position. Glasgow has also been a passable starter in his career, since the Lions took him in the 3rd round in 2016. He’s already in his age 27 season and could be maxed out as a player, but he should remain a capable starter for years to come and his versatility is a plus.
At tackle, Taylor Decker and Ricky Wagner remain the starters on the left and right side respectively. Decker made all 16 starts in 2018, after an injury plagued 2017 season in which he played just 471 snaps. Seemingly healthy all year, Decker also played at a higher level in 2018 than 2017, finishing 34th among offensive tackles on PFF, after falling to 45th in 2017. The 2016 first round pick still hasn’t matched his rookie season, when he was PFF’s 16th ranked offensive tackle, but he’s still only in his age 25 season and has plenty of upside going forward.
Wagner, meanwhile, is getting older, going into his age 30 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, finishing in the top-33 among offensive tackles on PFF in each of the past 3 seasons. He’s made 73 starts in the past 5 seasons and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 5 seasons. He may begin to decline in the next couple years, but he should remain an above average starting right tackle in 2019. This is a solid starting offensive line, except for right guard.
As mentioned, the Lions got significantly better on defense down the stretch last season. The biggest reasons for that are twofold. For one, they added defensive tackle Damon Harrison at the trade deadline and he’s arguably the best run stuffer in the league. They also got significantly better play down the stretch from young defensive tackles A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand. Those three should remain their top interior defenders in 2019 and they have the potential to be a very impressive trio.
Harrison is going into his age 31 season and could start to decline, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down thus far, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked interior defender against the run in 4 straight seasons. The massive 6-3 353 pounder isn’t just a space eater, as he leads all defensive linemen in tackles (315) by a significant margin over those past 4 seasons (Khalil Mack is second with 275). He’s also the only defensive lineman in the past 5 seasons to top 80 tackles in a season and he’s done it twice (2016 and 2018).
He’s not much of a pass rusher, but gets enough pass rush to stay on the field in some sub packages. He has a career 5.0% pressure rate and has averaged 623 snaps per season over the past 4 seasons. Even if he’s getting up there in age, he was still a steal for the price of a 5th round pick in a trade with the Giants that amounted to a salary dump. The 16.25 million dollars he’s owed over the next two seasons is entirely reasonable and not guaranteed for injury, so it’s tough to figure out why the Giants would let him go. The one concern with Harrison is that he held out of mandatory minicamp in search of a long-term deal with more guaranteed money, something the Lions seem unwilling to give him at his age.
While Harrison is getting up there in age, Robinson and Hand are ascending young players. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Robinson is primarily a run stuffer, but finished last season as PFF’s 5th ranked interior defender against the run and wasn’t a bad pass rusher in limited pass rush situations either, with a 9.3% pressure rate (though just 1 sack and 3 hits). Robinson is a one-year wonder, as he was underwhelming in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he’s still only going into his age 24 season and could continue developing into one of the best run stuffers in the league. Hand, meanwhile, was primarily used as a sub package interior rusher as a rookie and he fared well, with 3 sacks and a 9.5% pressure rate, but he also showed well against the run. He could easily exceed the 455 snaps he played last season.
Harrison and Robinson figure to start in base packages, with Hand playing primarily in sub packages. Free agent acquisition Trey Flowers could also see action as a sub package interior rusher. He’s nominally a defensive end, but he’s played 50.1% of his pass rush snaps from the interior over the past three seasons and figures to see a similar role in 2019, now rejoining former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in Detroit. His sack numbers over the past 3 seasons are underwhelming (21 sacks), but he’s added 41 hits and a 12.2% pressure rate, despite playing half of his pass rush snaps on the interior. The Lions have dominant interior defenders for all situations.
It also helped this defense that edge defender Ezekiel Ansah was able to play down the stretch, after suffering an injured shoulder week 1, although he did eventually get hurt again week 14 and miss the rest of the season. Ansah only played 7 games on the season, but he had 4 sacks, 3 hits, and an 18.2% pressure rate, so even having him back for a stretch was helpful. Ansah wasn’t re-signed this off-season though, due to long-term durability concerns, with the Lions opting to bring in Trey Flowers instead. Flowers will primarily play defensive end in base packages and he plays the run as well as he rushes the passer. He finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked edge defender overall and has earned an above average grade as both a run stuffer and pass rusher in each of his 3 seasons as a starter.
In Ansah’s absence last season, Romeo Okwara and Devon Kennard were their primary edge defenders and played 716 snaps and 864 snaps respectively. They’ll continue playing significant roles on the edge, especially when Flowers lines up in the interior. Both are pretty underwhelming players though. They led the team with 7.5 sacks and 7 sacks respectively last season, but that was mostly because of the volume of snaps they played and they had just a 9.3% pressure rate and a 8.5% pressure rate respectively.
Kennard is at least a solid run stuffer and he has the versatility to play both linebacker and defensive end, though his career 9.5% pressure rate is underwhelming. Okwara, on the other hand, is a complete one-year wonder, even as underwhelming as he was last season. The 2016 undrafted free agent played just 452 snaps in 2 seasons in the league with the Giants and was released by them at final cuts last off-season, before joining the Lions. He has just a 7.8% pressure rate for his career. He could continue giving them decent play, but he could also regress. The Lions’ depth at edge defender is concerning too, though they did use a 4th round pick on Clemson’s Austin Bryant.
Devon Kennard will also see action at outside linebacker in base packages, where he’s at his best as a situational run stuffer. The rest of this linebacking corps struggled last season though. Second year player Jarrad Davis broke out as an impressive blitzer, with 6 sacks and a 23.7% pressure rate on 127 blitzes, but the 2017 21st overall pick struggled in coverage and against the run for the 2nd straight season and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked off ball linebacker out of 96 qualifying. He’ll likely remain in an every down role for lack of a better option and could be better, still only in his age 25 season, but that’s far from a guarantee.
Christian Jones was the other starting linebacker last season, but he isn’t more than a run stuffer, so the Lions had to compensate by frequently using 3 safeties in passing situations, with one around the line of scrimmage as a linebacker. Now in his 6th season in the league, Jones is unlikely to get any better and could lose his starting job to second round rookie Jahlani Tavai, though he was a bit of a reach at 43rd overall and wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. Unless he or Jarrad Davis have a breakout year, this looks like an underwhelming group again.
The Lions will likely continue using 3 safety looks frequently in sub packages, to mask their lack of depth at linebacker. Long-time starter Glover Quin was let go this off-season, even though was a capable player last season in 16 starts, but the Lions added Boston College’s Will Harris in the 3rd round of the draft and have last year’s 3rd round pick Tracy Walker in line for a larger role in his 2nd season in the league, after flashing on 268 rookie year snaps. Tavon Wilson is also in the mix for snaps, but he played just 304 snaps last season and may play primarily as a coverage linebacker in 2019.
The Lions also still have Quandre Diggs, who started 16 games opposite Glover Quin last season. He will remain in that role in 2019. A converted slot cornerback, Diggs is undersized for a safety at 5-9 200, but he was solid in his first full season at safety, primarily playing as a deep cover safety. The 2015 6th round pick is still only going into his age 26 season, so it’s conceivable he could continue getting better at his new position. His versatility to play the slot, in addition to covering deep, is valuable.
Diggs likely won’t see much action on the slot though, with the Lions splurging for ex-Seahawks slot cornerback Justin Coleman on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal in free agency. Coleman is now one of the highest paid slot cornerbacks in the league, but could easily be worth it, especially for a team that really lacked cornerback depth in 2018. Coleman didn’t do much in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he finished 30th among cornerbacks in coverage grade in 2017 and then 19th last season, while finishing 9th in the NFL in yards per slot coverage snap with just 0.94 on 384 slot coverage snaps (6th most in the NFL).
Top outside cornerback Darius Slay is also one of the better cornerbacks in the league, though like Damon Harrison he sat out mandatory minicamp in search of a long-term deal. Owed 23.5 million over the next 2 seasons already, in the final two years of a 4-year, 48 million dollar deal, Slay is unlikely to be extended, as he’s likely asking to be paid among the top few cornerbacks in the league and he’s not quite on that level. Slay was PFF’s 23rd ranked cornerback last season, actually his lowest rank in 4 seasons (60 starts), though he’s never finished higher than 10th. Assuming he shows up for training camp, Slay should have another solid season and, still only going into his age 28 season in 2019, he would have a much stronger case for an extension in a year.
The biggest weakness in this secondary is the other outside cornerback spot. Tevin Lawson, who struggled in 14 starts last season, is no longer with the team, but they might not necessarily get better play at that spot this season. They signed veteran free agent Rashaan Melvin, who struggled last season on 604 snaps with the Raiders. He was better in 2017, but he’s largely a one-year wonder and has just 28 career starts, despite already going into his age 30 season.
Melvin’s biggest competition will be 2017 2nd round pick Teez Tabor, who theoretically has upside, but has been horrible on 466 career snaps, and 2018 undrafted free agent Mike Ford, who played ahead of Tabor down the stretch last season, but struggled mightily, finishing 125th among 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF on 316 snaps. Fifth round rookie Amani Oruwariye has a good chance to exceed his draft slot, so he could end up in the starting lineup by season’s end. Cornerback depth could be a problem and they have some unproven players at safety, but this is a better group than last season.
Matt Stafford’s play dropped off significantly down the stretch last season without his favorite receiver Golden Tate, but he still has a solid receiving corps, with Marvin Jones returning from injury and a pair of capable receiving tight ends added this off-season, and this is arguably as balanced of a team as he’s ever had around him. They should be able to run the ball effectively with CJ Anderson coming in as a free agent and Kerryon Johnson returning from injury and their once troubled defense now has a stout defensive line that should be able to mask some of their flaws in the back seven. The NFC might be too loaded for them to sneak into the post-season, especially with three other tough teams in their division, but the Lions won’t be an easy opponent.
Prediction: 9-7, 3rd in NFC North