The Lions got off to a decent 3-4-1 start last season, but they weren’t as good as their record suggested, ranking 23rd in first down rate differential at -3.00% and things just got worse from there. Quarterback Matt Stafford suffered a back injury that cost him the final 8 games of the season, a big loss as Stafford was arguably playing the best football of his career before going down, completing 64.3% of his passes for an average of 8.59 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, while ranking 9th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.
Without him, their offense that ranked 15th in first down rate through the first 8 games of the season at 36.75% fell to a 31.29% first down rate, most equivalent to the 30th ranked Redskins on the season, while their defense continued to struggle, finishing 23rd in the NFL with a 37.57% first down rate allowed on the season. As a result, the Lions didn’t win a single game the rest of the way, finishing at 3-12-1 and finishing the year 25th in first down rate differential at -3.52%.
Stafford is expected to be back healthy in 2020, but the Lions obviously need to significantly improve around the quarterback to be a contending team, especially since they can’t count on Stafford being quite as good as he was during the first half of last season. Overall, Stafford has completed 63.2% of his passes for an average of 7.32 YPA, 237 touchdowns, and 113 interceptions over the past 8 seasons, while finishing in the top-13 among quarterbacks on PFF in 5 of those 8 seasons, including a career best 7th ranked finish in 2016.
Stafford’s injury history is becoming a concern, as he’s now suffered back injuries in back-to-back years, but last year’s injury was the first injury to cause him to miss any time since 2010 and, in his age 32 season, he’s not over the hill for a quarterback, so he has a good chance to return to form if his back problems are behind him. That being said, it would have been good to see the Lions get a better backup for Stafford this season, as the play of Jeff Driskel (75.3 QB rating) and David Blough (64.0 QB rating) was a big part of why they struggled so much on offense without Stafford. The Lions did sign Chase Daniel to a 3-year, 13.05 million dollar deal in free agency, but he has made just 5 starts in 10 seasons in the league as primarily a professional clipboard holder, so it’s unclear how much better of a backup he is.
Not only was Stafford highly productive in the first half of last season before his injury, but his receivers were as well, as their top-3 wide receivers Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola were on pace for slash lines of 70/1280/14, 84/1070/12, and 66/806/2 respectively through 8 games, while tight end TJ Hockenson was on pace for a a 44/596/4 slash line. Only Golladay came close to reaching what he was on pace for, finishing with a 65/1190/11 slash line to lead the team in receiving by a pretty wide margin.
A third round pick in 2017, Golladay also led this team in receiving in his second season in the league in 2018 with a 70/1063/5 slash line and he was especially productive down the stretch during that season, with 40 catches for 586 yards and 2 touchdowns in his final 8 games of the season, meaning he has a 75/1226/9 in his last 16 games with a healthy Matt Stafford. That’s a reasonable projection for Golladay in his age 27 season 2020 if Stafford and Golladay can both stay healthy all season and Golladay has shown he can be productive even with backups under center as well.
Danny Amendola, meanwhile, finished at 62/678/1, which isn’t bad all things considered. Amendola is a slot only option though and he’s going into his age 35 season with a shaky injury history (two full 16 game seasons played in 11 years in the league), so he’s not necessarily going to be a reliable option again in 2020 and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him miss significant time or have a significant drop off in his level of play. Given that, it’s surprising the Lions did little to add competition or insurance behind him on the roster, only signing mediocre veteran free agent Geronimo Allison and using a 5th round pick on Quintez Cephus.
Marvin Jones and TJ Hockenson, meanwhile, not only saw their production fall off after Stafford got hurt, but they suffered injuries of their own. The 8th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Hockenson had a great debut with 6 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown week 1, but didn’t surpass 56 yards in a game the rest of the season and was limited to 10 catches for 71 yards and no scores in 4 games after Stafford went down. Overall, he had just a 32/367/2 slash line and earned a middling grade from Pro Football Focus on 525 snaps in 12 games. He still has obvious upside though and could easily take a big step forward in his second season in the league if he and Stafford can both stay healthy. The Steelers also have tight end Jesse James as a blocking specialist in two tight end sets and, even though he was overstretched as a starter in Pittsburgh prior to arriving in Detroit, he’s not a bad #2 tight end.
Jones, meanwhile, is a veteran going into his 9th season in the league, but he’s not over the hill in his age 30 season. Injuries are the bigger concern, as he’s missed 10 of 32 games over the past two seasons combined. He’s still averaged a 71/936/10 slash line per 16 games over that stretch, more or less in line with his 62/969/6 average slash line per 16 games from the three prior seasons, so he hasn’t shown much drop off and continue easily continue earning above average grades from PFF, something he’s done in 5 straight seasons, but between injuries and age, his best days are likely behind him. There is a lot of upside in this group, but they’ll need to stay healthy, which is far from a guarantee.
The Lions also were without expected feature back Kerryon Johnson for a big chunk of last season, as he was limited to 113 carries in 8 games. In his absence, Bo Scarborough and Ty Johnson combined for a decent 4.28 YPC average on 152 carries (89 for Scarborough and 63 for Johnson), but both struggled mightily as pass catchers, combining for 3.26 yards per target on 35 targets, leaving bottom of the roster talent JD McKissic (34/233/1 on 42 targets) as the primary pass catching back down the stretch.
Kerryon Johnson is expected to be healthy for the start of the 2020 season, but he injuries have been a big concern for him in recent years, as he’s missed 14 of a possible 32 games in two seasons in the league, and he likely won’t be returning to the same role, as the Lions used the 35th overall pick on running back D’Andre Swift. It’s understandable the Lions would want to add more insurance behind Johnson given his injury history, but, given the Lions’ other needs, using such a high pick on a running back doesn’t seem necessary.
Johnson was a second round pick himself just two years ago in the 2018 draft and he’s shown a lot of promise when on the field thus far in his career. As a rookie, Johnson rushed for a 5.43 YPC average on 118 carries and ranked 12th among running backs with a 53% carry success rate and, while his YPC average fell to 3.57 in 2019, that was almost entirely because of his lack of long runs (no carries over 20 yards on the season), as he still ranked 11th in carry success rate at 52%. All in all, he’s averaged 4.52 YPC with 6 touchdowns on 231 career carries in 18 career games, with 3.02 YPC coming after contact. He’s also shown some promise as a receiver, averaging a 37/302/2 slash line per 16 games thus far in his career.
Only in his age 23 season, I wouldn’t rule out Johnson still becoming a feature back at some point in the future, but the addition of Swift, arguably the best running back prospect in the draft, obviously complicates matters. How the carries are split up probably won’t be decided until training camp and may vary through the season, but I like Johnson’s chances of maintaining a role better than most. At the very least, Swift should still have a heavy change of pace role and figures to see significant action in passing situations as well. This is a talented young backfield, but the Lions probably should have used that high second round pick elsewhere given their other pressing needs.
One of those other pressing needs was right guard, where the Lions lost Graham Glasgow to free agency this off-season, a big loss, considering Glasgow was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked guard in 15 starts. The Lions did use a third round pick on a guard, using the 75th overall pick on Ohio State’s Jonah Johnson, but he would likely struggle as a rookie if he had to see action. He’ll compete for the starting job with veterans Oday Aboushi and Kenny Wiggins, who have both been mediocre on 34 and 38 career starts respectively, at a position that figures to be a weakness regardless of who starts.
Right tackle Ricky Wagner is also gone, although that’s because the Lions released him ahead of 9 million owed for his age 31 season in 2020, after a 2019 season in which he ranked 66th out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF, and replaced him with free agent acquisition Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who comes over from the Eagles on a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal. A 5th round pick in 2016, Vaitai has generally fared well as a spot starter at both tackle spots for the Eagles over the past 4 seasons, but it’s worth noting that he has just 20 career starts total and struggled in 2017 in his longest stint as a starter, finishing 72nd out of 92 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF in 10 starts. He’s been better the past couple seasons and could be a solid starter for the Lions, but he’s still a projection to a larger role, so it’s a surprise the Lions were willing to pay him so much.
The rest of this offensive line remains the same from last season. Left guard Joe Dahl could have been upgraded this off-season, but with the Lions not even retaining or replacing Graham Glasgow, Dahl is likely into a starting role for the second straight season. The 2016 5th round pick wasn’t bad in his first career extended starting action in 2019, after flashing on 253 career snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league, but he was still only a middling starter and he’s still relatively inexperienced for his age, in his age 27 season with 17 career starts. He’s not a bad starter, but he’s not a particularly good one either.
Left tackle Taylor Decker and center Frank Ragnow are by far their best offensive linemen. A first round pick in 2016, Decker has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons, including a 19th ranked finish in 2019, the second highest rank of his career. Also a former first round pick, Ragnow earned a middling grade as a rookie in 2018 in 16 starts, but took a big step forward in his second season in 2019, finishing 6th among centers on PFF in starts. Ragnow is technically a one-year wonder, but both he and Decker are highly talented players in the prime of their career in their age 24 season and age 27 season respectively. They elevate an otherwise underwhelming offensive line.
The Lions’ defense struggled last season, but free agent acquisition Trey Flowers wasn’t the problem, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked edge defender in the first year of a 5-year, 90 million dollar deal. Flowers only had 7 sacks and has never topped 7.5 sacks in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s consistently been much better than his sack totals have suggested over the past 4 seasons, as he’s added a 12.7% pressure rate and 55 hits to his 28 sacks over that stretch and he also plays at a high level against the run.
Overall, Flowers has finished in the top-43 among edge defenders on PFF in each of those past four seasons, including three seasons in the top-20 and career best 3rd ranked finish in 2018. He also lines up on the interior in pass situations somewhat frequently, making his pass rush stats all the more impressive. Still in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, Flowers could easily have another strong season and it’s only a matter of time before he finally gets a big sack total.
The Lions will need someone else to step up as a pass rusher though, as they had the second fewest sacks in the league last season with 28 and, aside from Flowers, the only Lion with more than 2 sacks on the season was fellow starting edge defender Devon Kennard, who signed with the Cardinals this off-season. Kennard wasn’t a spectacular player, but he was a snap eater (58.4 snaps per game) and the Lions don’t have a good replacement for him.
Veteran Romeo Okwara has played 42.1 snaps per game over the past two seasons and has been a solid run stuffer, but he doesn’t get much pass rush, lining up either inside or outside in passing situations. His 7.5 sacks in 2018 were not indicative of his pass rush consistency (9.3% pressure rate) and he saw that total fall to 1.5 in 2019 with a very similar pressure rate (9.0%) on a similar snap total.
For Okwara’s career, he has just a 8.2% pressure rate and, while he’s still young in his age 25 season, it seems likely he’ll top out as an above average run stuffer who isn’t a consistent pass rush option. He’ll likely continue seeing snaps for lack of a better option though. The Lions also added Romeo’s brother Julian Okwara in the 3rd round of the 2020 NFL Draft and he figures to compete for a role as a rookie as well, as will 2019 4th round pick Austin Bryant, who played 133 mediocre snaps as a rookie. None are particularly exciting options.
The Lions’ big off-season addition in the front seven was linebacker Jamie Collins, who figures to see some snaps off the edge as a pass rusher in sub packages. Collins was PFF’s 13th ranked off ball linebacker last season in New England, but the 3-year, 30 million dollar deal the Lions gave him in free agency could easily prove to be an overpay. Collins also finished 6th and 7th at his position in 2014 and 2015 respectively in his first stint with the Patriots, but was only a middling player in two and a half years with the Browns after leaving New England and, now going into his age 31 season, there’s definitely concern that Collins will once again regress after leaving the Patriots.
The Lions run a similar scheme to the Patriots, led by head coach and former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, which should help ease Collins’ transition, but that hasn’t necessarily always led to good results for former Patriots who have reunited with former Patriots assistants on other teams, so there’s a good chance Collins fails to match last year’s level of play. He should play a similar role to last season, when he had 189 pass rush snaps to 343 coverage snaps in passing situations, but he could easily not be as effective in coverage or as a pass rusher (16.9% pressure rate) and his run play and tackling (16 missed tackles) already left something to be desired in New England last season. With Collins likely to regress and only being a part-time pass rusher, it’s still pretty unclear where the Lions are going to get consistent pass rush besides from Trey Flowers.
With Trey Flowers capable of rushing from the interior, the Lions seemed to have a very strong group on the interior going into last season, with Flowers as a situational player and A’Shawn Robinson, Damon Harrison, Da’Shawn Hand, and Mike Daniels all coming off of strong 2018 seasons, the latter of whom came over from the Packers as a free agency. However, Hand and Daniels were limited to 110 snaps and 203 snaps respectively by injury and all four players struggled compared to 2018 when on the field. This off-season, Daniels and Robinson were set to hit free agency and, not only were they not retained, but the Lions also moved on from Harrison, rather than paying him 9.25 million non-guaranteed for 2020. Da’Shawn Hand remains and will compete for a role, but otherwise they’ve completely remade this position group.
A 4th round pick in 2018, Hand flashed a lot of potential as a rookie, finishing 17th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus across 455 snaps in 13 games, dominating against the run and adding 3 sacks and a 9.5% pressure rate. He had an injury ruined season in 2019, his rookie year ended with an injury as well, and he’s still an unproven player who wasn’t that highly drafted, but he was a highly touted recruit who has always had a huge upside. He’s hardly a reliable option and he’s obviously a projection to a larger role, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he had a breakout third season in the league in close to an every down role. The raw talent is there.
In free agency, the Lions added veterans Danny Shelton and Nick Williams on deals worth 8 million over 2 years and 10 million over 2 years respectively and both figure to have significant roles as well. Shelton is only a two down player, consistently grading above average against the run on PFF, but managing just 4.5 sacks and a 5.2% pressure rate in 75 career games in 5 years in the league since being selected in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Browns. Shelton is still only in his age 27 season and coming off of arguably the best year of his career with the Patriots last season, something Matt Patricia and the Lions are hoping can continue into 2020 in a familiar scheme, but he would be overstretched if he had to play more than the 33.8 snaps per game he’s played in his career.
Williams, meanwhile, was a much more head scratching signing. He wasn’t bad on 532 snaps for the Bears last season, but the 2013 7th round pick has actually just played 312 snaps total in his career besides last season and he’s already going into his age 30 season. It’s possible he could be a capable rotational player again, but that’s probably his ceiling and he comes with a pretty big floor, so it’s unclear why the Lions felt the need to pay him so much. He’ll likely begin the season in a big role, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he fell out of the rotation entirely by the end of the season, even though this is an underwhelming position group.
With so many injuries at the position last season, 2018 undrafted free agent John Atkins was forced into a significant role, playing 409 snaps in 12 games. He struggled mightily, finishing 119th out of 125 qualifying interior defenders on PFF, but could still earn playing time in this group, given how thin they are. This position group has some upside because of Da’Shawn Hand’s breakout potential, but they also have a pretty big floor and are an underwhelming group overall.
Jamie Collins figures to see significant action at one linebacker spot, even if he lines up on the edge somewhat frequently in passing situations, but the other roles in this linebacking corps are up for grabs. Jarrad Davis led this group with 654 snaps played last season, but he struggled mightily, finishing 95th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Davis was a first round pick back in 2017, but last year’s struggles were nothing new for him, as he’s finished in the bottom-20 of off ball linebackers on PFF in all three seasons in the league. Despite his experience and his first round pedigree, he shouldn’t be locked into a role, even in a questionable linebacking corps overall.
Christian Jones played the second most snaps at this position last season with 609 snaps, essentially playing the role Jamie Collins will play this season (though Collins figures to see more snaps), dropping into coverage on 64.2% of his pass snaps and rushing the passer on the rest. Jones wasn’t particularly good in any aspect of his game last season though, finishing 92nd out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF. Jones wasn’t a good fit for the role he was in and he’s been better in the past, but only by default as the 6-year veteran has been middling at best in his career on an average of 527 snaps per season. He also shouldn’t be locked into a role.
Jahlani Tavai has the most promise of any returning linebacker, as the 2019 2nd round pick was capable across 597 rookie year snaps and could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league. He’s the best bet of this group to play every down as a traditional off ball linebacker, with Collins playing a hybrid role and Jones and Davis competing primarily for base package snaps, as the Lions like to use three safeties together frequently in sub packages to mask their lack of coverage linebackers. This isn’t a great group, but Collins’ addition should help even if he’s not quite as good as he was last season and Tavai has some breakout potential.
The Lions figure to use three safeties together in sub packages again this year, although who those three safeties will be slightly different, with Tavon Wilson not being re-signed as a free agent this off-season and being replaced by another former New England Patriot in Duron Harmon, who comes over via trade for a swap of late round picks. Tracy Walker and Will Harris remain and all three figure to see significant action, regardless of who the nominal starters are.
Wilson was solid on 840 snaps last season, but Harmon should be an adequate replacement, as he’s earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in each of the past 5 seasons, on an average of 38.8 snaps per game, including a 24th ranked finish on 657 snaps last season. Harmon could play every down in Detroit and he’d be a slight projection to that role because he’s never topped 701 snaps in a season, but he’s still in his age 29 season and should be able to be at least a solid starter.
Walker and Harris, meanwhile, are recent third round draft picks, in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Walker’s career has gotten off to a good start, as he flashed on 268 snaps as a rookie, before finishing 25th among safeties on PFF on 843 snaps in a larger role in his second season in the league. He could easily take another step forward in his third season in the league in 2020, but even if he doesn’t, he should remain an above average starter at the very least.
Harris, on the other hand, struggled as a rookie, finishing 85th out of 100 qualifying safeties on 667 snaps. He could be better in his second season in the league, but that’s not a given. He would be best as the 3rd safety, with Walker and Harmon starting. Tavon Wilson was the one who primarily played linebacker in sub packages last season, but even with him gone they should be able to make that formation work with their current personnel, with Walker probably being the most likely candidate to drop down to the line of scrimmage.
At cornerback, the Lions made significant changes this off-season. Darius Slay and Rashaan Melvin played 858 snaps and 870 snaps respectively last season, primarily as outside cornerbacks, but Slay was traded to the Eagles for a 3rd round and a 5th round pick, while Melvin was let go as a free agent and signed with the Jaguars this off-season. Both struggled last season, Slay surprisingly so, finishing 99th and 104th respectively out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF, so it wouldn’t be hard for the Lions to have better outside cornerback play this season.
Slay has been much better in the past and was still only going into his age 29 season, but he was owed 10.5 million in the final year of his contract and wanted a more expensive extension, so it’s understandable the Lions would want to move him, especially since they were able to get decent compensation and much needed draft picks in return for him. The Lions used the money freed up by moving Slay to sign Desmond Trufant to a 2-year, 20 million dollar deal and he figures to be an upgrade over anyone they had outside last season.
A 7-year veteran, Trufant hasn’t been the most consistent cornerback and he’s had injury problems in recent years, missing 17 games over the past 4 seasons combined, but he’s finished above average on PFF in all 7 seasons in the league, including a 12th ranked finish in 2013, a 10th ranked finish in 2014, and a 20th ranked finish in 2017. Given that Trufant hasn’t played as well in recent years and that he’s had injuries, it’s likely his best days are behind him, but he’s still only going into his age 29 season and should at least be an above average cornerback again.
The Lions also used the 3rd overall pick on Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah, who will also start outside and should also be an upgrade over anyone who played outside last season, even if he does have some rookie growing pains. He also has the upside to be one of the top cornerbacks in the league long-term if he can develop. The Lions also have good depth outside because 2019 5th round pick Amani Oruwariye flashed in limited action on 215 snaps as a rookie as an injury replacement and could easily remain a solid spot starter if needed in 2020.
Justin Coleman remains locked in on the slot, in the 2nd year of a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal that the Lions signed him to in free agency last off-season, making him one of the highest paid pure slot cornerbacks in the league. Coleman seemed to be worth that salary when he signed, as he was one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league in 2017 and 2018, but with Slay and Melvin both missing time last season, Coleman had to lead this position group with 963 snaps played and he had play outside more than he was used to, playing outside 28.6% of the time, as opposed to 10.1% of the time in 2017 and 2018. Coleman has always been better inside than outside, allowing 1.05 yards per snap on the slot in 2017 and 2018 and 1.89 yards per snap outside, but he actually struggled in both aspects in 2019, allowing 1.45 yards per snap on the slot and 1.61 yards per snap outside.
Overall, Coleman finished 84th among 135 qualifying cornerbacks in coverage grade on PFF in 2019, after finishing 31st in 2017 and 19th in 2018, making him hardly worth his large salary. Coleman has some bounce back potential, still only in his age 27 season, but he’s proven he’s a slot only option. Still, between Coleman’s bounce back potential, improved outside cornerback play, and a solid pair of projected starting safeties in Tracy Walker and Duron Harmon, this is a pretty solid position group.
The 2019 Lions’ season was derailed by injury, most notably the injury that cost Matt Stafford the final 8 games of the season, but they also ranked 9th in the NFL in adjusted games lost to injury overall. They should be healthier in 2020, at least at the quarterback position, which matters the most, but even with better health, it’s hard to see this team making the post-season in the NFC, even with three wild card spots available this year. It’s possible, but a lot of things would have to go right, so I wouldn’t expect it. That being said, they should at least be a competitive team and they should benefit from playing in a division where every other team looks likely to come short of their 2019 win total. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.
Final Update: Not much has changed for the Lions with the season about to begin. They’ll be a competitive team and could sneak into the post-season, though it’s unlikely.
Projection: 8-8 (3rd in NFC North)