The Lions have been one of the least successful NFL teams in recent memory. Dating back to the turn of the millennium in 2000, the Lions have qualified for the post-season just three times, all three times as a wild card, and they’ve come up short in their first game all three times. You’d have to go back to 1993 for the last time the Lions made the post-season as a division winner, almost a decade before the current divisional alignment, and their playoff victory drought goes back even further, dating back 30 years to their 1991 NFC Championship appearance. Going even further back than that, the Lions haven’t appeared in the Super Bowl ever since its origin in 1967, one of four teams with no Super Bowl appearances in franchise history and the only one who has not done so despite being in existence throughout the Super Bowl era.
The Lions’ last playoff appearance was in 2016 when they qualified at just 9-7. The Lions followed that up with another 9-7 season in 2017, but they didn’t make the post-season that season and both of those 9-7 finishes relied on things that would be unlikely to continue going forward. In 2016, the Lions didn’t beat a single post-season qualifier all year and still managed just one victory by more than two scores. In 2017, the Lions had a few more multi-score victories and beat some tougher teams, but they were reliant on a +10 turnover margin, which is one of the least predictive stats. In both seasons, despite their 9-7 record, the Lions finished the season just 27th in first down rate differential.
The Lions fired head coach Jim Caldwell following that 2017 season, replacing him with former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who oversaw three straight seasons in which the Lions were non-competitive and never won more than six games, culminating in Patricia being let go midway through last season. Patricia was not liked by many of his players and may have been in over his head as a head coach, but I thought he unfairly got too much of the blame for this team’s struggles over the past three seasons, as they were likely to regress significantly after their back-to-back 9-7 seasons regardless, especially with the Lions also suffering a rash of injuries to key players over those three seasons.
With GM Bob Quinn also out the door, the Lions are bringing in yet another new regime to try to finally make this team into a consistent winner. When new regimes take over, they usually have to make some decisions on what direction to take the franchise, to rebuild completely or to try to add pieces to an existing core, but for the Lions’ new regime, that decision was made for them as franchise quarterback Matt Stafford decided he was finally sick of losing and demanded a trade from the team who drafted him #1 overall back in 2009.
Even though it wasn’t really the Lions’ choice to move Stafford, it was arguably their best option given the circumstances. Stafford hasn’t been the problem for the Lions over the years and his play hadn’t slipped in recent years, but he has been accumulating increasing amounts of injuries and he’s owed 43 million on his current contract for his age 33 and 34 in 2021-2022 combined, on a team with no realistic chance of competing for a Super Bowl over that time frame, due to the team’s lack of financial flexibility to add the upgrades needed around Stafford in free agency.
I thought the Lions would send Stafford somewhere for an early second, maybe late first round pick and then would select their quarterback of the future to replace him long-term, either with their 7th overall pick or with a higher pick after moving up. Instead, the Lions took a different approach, sending Stafford to the Rams for a 3rd round pick in 2021, first round picks in 2022 and 2023, and Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who will replace Stafford as the starter under center.
At first glance, that seems to be a bigger haul than I was expecting them to get, but it’s more complicated than that. The Rams already did not have their own first round pick in 2021 from the Jalen Ramsey trade, so the Lions will have to wait two years to see the full value of this deal and, with the Rams looking like contenders over the next two seasons, it’s likely both of those draft picks will fall in the 20s, rather than being premium picks. On top of that, Goff’s contract pays him about 10 million dollars more over the next two seasons than Stafford’s does, even though he’s a noticeable downgrade on the field, and all of that money is functionally guaranteed, locking Goff in at starting quarterback money for the next two seasons.
That might not have been the best approach for a team that was in position to add a potential franchise quarterback on a rookie deal through the draft, with both Justin Fields and Mac Jones ultimately being available to them with their 7th overall pick. Hitting on a pick like that could have allowed the Lions to have a 3-4 year stretch where they are paying significantly below market value at the quarterback position, allowing them to spend more than most teams to fill out the rest of their roster.
At the same time, it’s not a terrible idea for the Lions to be patient with their rebuild. Even though they are future first round picks, they’re still first round picks and the Lions’ situation as a team that is unlikely to compete in the next two seasons anyway means they are less time sensitive to when those picks are delivered. Furthermore, while they still didn’t have much financial flexibility to improve this team this off-season, they figure to have significant flexibility in a couple off-seasons, when they’ll hopefully have a better pipeline of young talent from the extra picks acquired in their trade with the Rams and from their own picks, which seem likely to be high over the next two drafts, given the current state of this roster. The combination of financial flexibility and young talent could cause this team to shoot up in a couple years time, but that’s a long way off at this point.
In the meantime, the Lions will give Jared Goff, a former #1 overall pick, the chance to rehabilitate himself and prove he can be the Lions’ long-term solution at the position. However, his chances of doing so do not seem promising. Goff’s quarterback rating over the past four seasons is just three points behind Stafford’s, but he’s done that in Sean McVay’s quarterback friendly scheme with a lot more talent around him and he’s only ranked higher than Stafford on PFF once in those 4 seasons, with Stafford currently riding a streak of 5 straight seasons in the top-17 among quarterbacks on PFF, while Goff is coming off of a season in which he finished just 22nd.
It’s also worth noting that Goff ranked dead last among quarterbacks on PFF in 2016 in his only season without McVay and, while he was of course a rookie then, it’s concerning that the head coach who helped him out of his early career funk didn’t believe he was a quarterback that could get him all the way, to the point that he was willing to ship away two first round picks to find an upgrade. Goff probably won’t be quite as bad as he was in a rookie, but he’s in a tough situation with an inexperienced coaching staff and a severe lack of talent on this roster around him, on a transitioning/rebuilding team that looks to be playing for the #1 pick more than a playoff spot. I would imagine he would fall short of even his worst statistical season with the Rams.
The Lions are at least confident enough in him to not draft a quarterback at all, but they could say more about how they viewed the middle and late round quarterbacks in this draft than anything about Goff, who the Lions can’t realistically replace for at least a season and probably two. However, they do have a concerning backup quarterback situation and one they should address before the season begins.
Former Packers backup Tim Boyle signed as a free agent this off-season, but he is a 2018 undrafted free agent who has thrown just 4 career passes as Aaron Rodgers’ clipboard holder, while holdover David Blough has been the third quarterback in Detroit over the past two seasons since the Lions signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2019 and his 64.0 QB rating in 5 career starts (all losses) leaves something to be desired. Both would be in a really tough situation if they had to see significant action and would likely struggle mightily with minimal supporting cast help.
Goff won’t even have the benefit of a good receiving corps, which was the one unit that Stafford could count on throughout most of his tenure as the starter. Even last season, the Lions came into the season with a solid receiving corps, but their expected top-three wide receivers for 2020 (Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola) are no longer with the team, among others. Top wide receiver Golladay missed all but five games last season so his loss isn’t as big as it otherwise would have been, but even with Golladay missing most of the season, the Lions still saw a higher target market go out the door this off-season than any team in the league, with a whopping 64.1% of their targets vacated from a season ago.
The Lions also didn’t do much to address the position this off-season, only taking a flyer on a couple veterans in free agency in Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman and not using a draft pick on a wide receiver until taking Amon-Ra St. Brown in the 4th round. Even as a 4th round rookie, St. Brown has a good chance to see playing time, as those three aforementioned players will compete with Quintez Cephez, a 2020 5th round pick and the lone noteworthy holdover, for roles in a very unsettled and underwhelming group.
Cephez only played 365 snaps as a rookie, even with Golladay missing much of the year, and even though he flashed potential with a solid 1.64 yards per route run average and could take a step forward in his second season in the league, the Lions still will likely enter the season with the veterans Perriman and Williams as their starters in two-wide receiver sets, with the less experienced Cephez and perhaps St. Brown seeing playing time in sub packages, though that could obviously change as the season goes on.
Tyrell Williams topped 1000 yards in 2016, serving as Philip Rivers’ top wide receiver in place of the injured Keenan Allen, totaling a 60/1059/7 slash line on the year with average of 1.87 yards per route run in the process, but he hasn’t been able to match that in three seasons since, averaging a 42/677/5 slash line from 2017-2019 with 1.46 yards per route run, before missing all of last season with an injury, leading to the Raiders releasing him 2 years into a 4-year, 44 million dollar contract. Williams is still relatively young, going into his age 29 season, and could get a significant target share on a team that lacks better options, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him improve on his recent season long numbers, but he’s unlikely to be an efficient target.
Perriman, meanwhile, was a first round pick in 2015, but hasn’t come close to topping 1000 yards, maxing out with a 36/645/6 slash line in 2019. A massive bust with the Ravens, Perriman missed his entire rookie season with an ACL and, upon his return, he lasted just two more seasons in Baltimore and averaged just 1.06 yards per route run over those seasons before being let go. He’s been better over the past three seasons since leaving the Ravens, but it’s been largely by default, as his 1.56 yards per route run average is still underwhelming and he’s still never surpassed 651 snaps in a season.
Perriman also now on his 4th team in as many seasons, bouncing from the Browns to the Buccaneers to the Jets before signing in Detroit this off-season. His career 16.5 yards per catch average is impressive and he’s consistently among the league’s leaders in average depth of target, but he is best as a situational deep threat rather than a starter. In a very underwhelming position group, a starter is likely what he’ll have to be unless both of the Lions young receivers can step up in a big way.
Given all that the Lions have lost at wide receiver, they figure to focus much more on tight end TJ Hockensen. The 8th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Hockenson already took a big step forward from year one to year two, going from a 32/367/2 slash line to a 67/723/6 slash line and improving as a run blocker to finish 10th among tight ends on PFF in overall grade, but he could take another big leap forward in 2021. Not only does he have a clear path to a big target share, but he’s also a very high upside player who is going into his age 24 season and his new head coach Dan Campbell is a former tight end and tight ends coach himself, which should work to Hockenson’s advantage. The young Hockenson could easily be seen as one of the best all-around tight ends in the league by season’s end.
Hockenson will be backed up by veteran Darren Fells, a true backup who figures to not factor into this offense significantly unless Hockenson gets injured, in which case the Lions would be in big trouble. Neither an above average run blocker nor pass catcher throughout his career (123 catches in 102 career games), Fells’ 6-7 270 frame makes him a theoretical red zone threat, but his 21 career touchdowns aren’t impressive either. He’s also now heading into his age 35 season and could easily be a below average option, even as a #2 tight end. The Lions will need Hockenson to stay healthy to avoid a completely embarrassing receiving corps, as he is their only real playmaker of the bunch.
To try to mask their issues in the passing game, the Lions figure to become more of a run heavy team than they’ve been in recent years, hiring a run heavy play caller in Anthony Lynn and adding ex-Packer Jamaal Williams in free agency to pair with 2020 2nd round pick D’Andre Swift in the backfield. Swift showed a lot of potential as a rookie, rushing for 4.57 YPC on 114 carries and adding a 46/357/2 slash line as the primary passing down back, but he didn’t take over as the clear feature back until midway through the season, even though the Lions’ other running backs Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson averaged just 3.87 YPC on 156 carries and 3.48 YPC on 52 carries respectively.
Swift looked likely to continue to have a significantly larger role into his second season, after averaging 16 touches per game in his final 6 games of last season, but Williams’ addition on a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal complicates matters. Williams’ career 3.97 YPC is underwhelming, but he’s seen that jump to 4.27 YPC average on 226 carries combined over the past two seasons and he’s been even better than that suggests, ranking 7th in carry success rate at 53% in 2019 and 6th at 57% in 2020, while ranking 11th and 27th respectively among running backs on PFF and picking up 64.6% of his rushing yardage after contact.
Williams’ weakness is his lack of breakaway speed, as he has just 7 carries of 15+ yards over the past two seasons, but if anything that makes his YPC average more impressive, as he’s done it without busting the big runs, consistently helping his team move the chains between the tackles. He’s also a capable pass catcher as well. He and Swift figure to complement each other well, with Swift being a speedy back and Williams being a more powerful runner and both figure to see usage in the passing game as they look to make up for their lack of wide receiver talent, though Swift is definitely the better bet for a big receiving year.
Overall, when you include catches, there should be enough touches for both backs to see significant usage, but the Lions may not get to use their running back duo as much as they would like if they are trailing frequently and the presence of both backs should prevent the other from producing too big of a statistical season. Still, this position group is one of their few obvious strengths and one they will have to lean on if they are going to move the ball consistently.
In support of their new run heavy approach, the Lions used their 7th overall pick on Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, passing on Heisman winner Devonta Smith, who could have stepped in instantly and been their #1 receiver. Sewell will take over at right tackle for the Lions and projects to be an above average starter long-term, even if he has some growing pains as a rookie. The Lions signed Halapoulivaati Vaitai to a 5-year, 45 million deal in free agency last off-season to be their right tackle, but he missed the start of the season, leaving swing tackle Tyrell Crosby to start in his absence, and, when Vaitai returned, he spent most of the year at guard, only moving over to right tackle when Crosby went down for the season in week 13.
Vaitai is locked into a 9 million dollar guaranteed salary and Crosby was a capable starter last season, but both will have to play guard if they want to see action in 2021, barring injuries. Vaitai’s salary likely locks him into the right guard job, but his contract has looked like a mistake from the start and has only gotten worse since. A 5th round pick in 2016, Vaitai was never a regular starter with the Eagles and was never better than a capable spot starter in 20 starts over 4 seasons, but the Lions felt that justified paying him above average starter money. In his first season in Detroit, Vaitai wasn’t even an average starter, finishing slightly below average on PFF. He could be better in 2021, but he doesn’t seem to have the high upside the Lions are paying him like he has.
If Crosby remains a starter, it will likely be at left guard, but the Lions are reportedly shopping Crosby in trades and are likely to stick with 2020 3rd round pick Jonah Jackson as the starter. Jackson earned a below average grade as a rookie, but could be better in his second season in the league, though that’s not a guarantee and it’s arguable that Crosby would be a better option. If Crosby is not traded, he’ll likely remain in a depth role, which is what the 2018 5th round pick did in his first two seasons in the league, when he played just 527 snaps total, before making 11 starts in 2020.
Left tackle Taylor Decker and center Frank Ragniow remain as the Lions’ top-two offensive linemen and arguably the best two players on this whole roster. Both are former first round picks who have panned out, two of their rare recent smart draft choices, getting drafted in 2016 and 2018 respectively. Decker burst onto the scene by finishing 16th among offensive tackles on PFF as a rookie and has made 71 starts over the past five seasons, with five season long above average grades from PFF and three finishes in the top-18 at his position, including a career best 11th ranked finish in 2020.
Raginow, meanwhile, has gotten better in every season of his career, earning a middling grade as a guard as a rookie before finishing 6th among centers in 2019 and 3rd among centers in 2020. Going into their age 27 season and age 25 respectively, both are still very much in the prime of their careers and I wouldn’t expect anything different from either of them this season. With Sewell being added to give this group a third talented first round pick, this is a solid group that should be improved over last season, but guard could be a bit of a problem, even if the Lions do have some intriguing options.
While the Lions were actually a solid offensive team last season, ranking 10th in schedule adjusted first down rate at +1.37%, they were a horrendous defensive team, not only ranking dead last in first down rate allowed at +4.31%, but by a significant amount, with the 2nd worst team finishing at +3.05%. They were especially bad in coverage, allowing a 112.4 QB rating that would have been the second best in the league by a quarterback, meaning the Lions made the average passer they played last season look better than anyone with the exception of MVP Aaron Rodgers.
The Lions almost definitely will be worse offensively this season, possibly by a significant amount, due to their downgrade at quarterback and the loss of most of their key pass catchers, so they will need to be better on defense if they’re even going to be competitive. Fortunately, defensive performance tends to be much less consistent year-to-year than offensive performance and it wouldn’t be hard for the Lions to be significantly better by default, given how bad they were last season. There are still a lot of concerns on this unit, but there are actually some reasons to be optimistic.
One reason is they should be healthier, as not only did they have the 11th most adjusted games lost to injury on defense last season, but those injuries disproportionately affected their most important players. One of their most important players is defensive end Trey Flowers, who they gave a massive 5-year, 90 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, a deal that guarantees him 54 million over the first three seasons, including 14.375 million for 2021. Flowers played well in the first year of that deal in 2019, finishing the season as PFF’s 20th ranked edge defender on 705 snaps, but was limited to just 309 snaps in 7 games in his second season in 2020.
Flowers has never had a sack total that has jumped off the page, with his career high being just the 7.5 sacks he had in 2019, but he’s been better than that suggests, totaling 28 sacks, 55 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate over the four seasons prior to last year’s injury plagued year, while playing at a high level against the run and finishing in the top-20 in overall grade among edge defenders on PFF in 3 of those 4 seasons. Only going into his age 28 season with just 4 games missed due to injury in 4 seasons prior to last, Flowers is a great bet to bounce back and, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was, he’ll still be a welcome re-addition for a Lions team that largely got poor edge defender play in Flowers’ absence and that totaled just 24 sacks on the season, 6th fewest in the NFL.
The one exception for the Lions at the edge defender position last season was Romeo Okwara, who broke out in Flowers’ absence, leading the team with 10 sacks, which really puts into context the lack of pass rush from the rest of this roster, which combined for just 14 sacks. Okwara didn’t just post a big sack total either, as he also added 9 hits, and a 14.4% pressure rate, earning him PFF’s 10th highest ranked edge defender pass rush grade.
Okwara struggled mightily against the run, ranking 114th out of 124 eligible edge defenders on PFF, and is a complete one-year wonder as a pass rusher, entering last season with 10 sacks, 20 hits, and a 8.3% pressure rate in 67 games for his career, since going undrafted in 2016, so he could easily regress in 2021 and go back to being the middling player he was prior to last season. At the same time, he’s still very young, only in his age 26 season, and may have permanently turned a corner as a pass rusher. The Lions are betting on the latter, locking him up for 39 million over 3 years as a free agent this off-season, but that’s far from a guarantee.
Flowers and Okwara are locked in as the starters at edge defender, but depth is still a bit of a concern, as the Lions will likely be relying on young, unproven players. Julian Okwara is the other Okwara brother the Lions have and, while he saw just 69 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in a very thin position group in 2020, he still has the upside to develop long-term. Austin Bryant, meanwhile, is a 2019 4th round pick who has struggled on snap counts of 133 and 221 over his first two seasons in the league respectively.
The Lions also signed former first round pick Charles Harris this off-season and, even though the 2017 1st round pick is still only heading into his age 26 season, it’s unlikely he has a sudden breakout and he’s not guaranteed to make this final roster, after totaling just 6.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 9.1% pressure rate across 54 games in his first four seasons in the league. Both Bryant and Okwara have upside, but it’s very possible they struggle in extended action, so the Lions will have to hope that their starters can both stay healthy and play up to their potential in an otherwise thin position group. Flowers’ return should make this group better than they were a year ago by default, even if Romeo Okwara can’t repeat by far the best pass rushing season of his career, but there are still concerns.
The Lions also should be better at defensive tackle this season, as they added veteran Michael Brockers in a trade, used 2nd and 3rd round picks on the position, taking Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike and NC State’s Alim McNeill, and could get a healthier season from holdover Da’Shawn Hand, who was limited to 353 snaps in 10 games last season. Holdovers Nick Williams and John Penisini remain as well, after playing 537 snaps and 576 snaps respectively last season, but Williams struggled and had to take a pay cut down from 5 million to about the league minimum and is not guaranteed a significant role, while Penisini was even worse last season, finishing 130th among 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF on 576 snaps, unsurprising given that was a 6th round rookie. He will likely have to earn any playing time he gets in a deeper group in his second season in the league.
Brockers is the only one likely locked into a starting role, as the Lions gave him a new 3-year, 24 million dollar deal as part of that trade, to acquire a player who has consistently been a solid starter since entering the league in 2012 (136 starts in 138 games). Brockers has always been a solid run stuffer and he hasn’t been a terrible pass rusher either, totaling 28 sacks, 42 hits, and a 5.9% pressure rate for his career, but he’s going into his age 31 season and there is some concern he is on the decline, earning the worst run stuffing grade from PFF of any single season in his career in 2020 and the worst overall grade for a season since his 2nd season in the league. He could remain a capable starter, but he doesn’t have a high upside and there is significant downside with him if his abilities fall off noticeably.
As I mentioned, holdover Da’Shawn Hand should see playing time if healthy, but that’s becoming a big if. Not only did he miss significant time with injury last season, but the 2018 4th round pick has missed 22 of a possible 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, maxing out at 13 games played in 2018 and playing just 918 snaps across his three seasons in the league. Hand is a former five star recruit who showed a lot of potential as a rookie on 455 snaps, particularly flashing against the run, but also impressing as a pass rusher.
However, he hasn’t been able to live up to that due to all of the injuries he’s dealt with since and it’s possible at this point that he either remains injury prone for the rest of his career and/or that all of his injuries have diminished him and he’ll never show the potential he showed as a rookie. In total, he has 3 sacks and a 6.4% pressure rate in his career and is a solid run stopper, but he’s been noticeably worse over the past two seasons and might not turn it around in 2021. This group should be better by default in 2021, but it still lacks high end talent and will be relying on two rookies for key snaps.
At linebacker, the Lions have replaced outgoing free agents Reggie Ragland and Jarrad Davis with 4th round rookie Derrick Barnes and free agent acquisition Alex Anzalone, but that might not make a noticeable difference and there are still concerns for the Lions at a position group that was also a weakness last season. The Lions will be counting on better years from top holdovers Jamie Collins and Jahlani Tavai, who led this group with 829 snaps and 624 snaps played respectively last season and will likely see similar snap counts in 2021.
The Lions made a big investment in Collins last off-season, signing him to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal after he finished the 2019 season as PFF’s 13th ranked off ball linebacker as a member of the New England Patriots. However, Collins once again proved incapable of repeating that level of play away from Bill Belichick and company, falling to 28th among off ball linebackers on PFF, similar to how he went from 6th and 8th ranked finishes with the Patriots in 2014 and 2015 to earning middling at best grades from 2016-2018 with the Browns, before returning to New England and picking up where he left off in 2019. Collins is also going into his age 32 season in 2021 so, while he could remain a solid starter in an every down role, he comes with considerable downside and his best days are almost definitely behind him.
The Lions also made a pretty big investment in Tavai, selecting him in the 2nd round in 2019, but he has yet to develop. He’s played an average of just 39.4 snaps per game in his career as primarily a base package linebacker who comes off the field in sub packages and, while he wasn’t bad in 2019 as a rookie, his play significantly fell off in his 2nd season, especially in coverage, where he had the 2nd worst QB rating allowed of any linebacker in the league, allowing 10.1 yards per target and 3 touchdowns while never even getting his hands on a pass. Also struggling against the run, Tavai finished last season 96th among 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF and was a big part of the problem for this league worst defense.
Tavai will face significant competition for playing time from Anzalone, who is a significant upgrade in coverage. However, Anzalone also struggled against the run throughout his 4 seasons with the Saints, who selected him in the 3rd round in 2017, and he has serious durability concerns, missing 26 of 64 possible games in his career and never topping 525 snaps in a season. He should see at least a sub package role and has the opportunity to set a new career high in snaps per game and snaps for a season if he can stay relatively healthy in a thin position group, but his durability issues date back to his collegiate days, so there is plenty of reason to expect him to miss at least some time. The rookie Barnes may factor into this group down the stretch, but it’s unclear how much of a positive impact he can make as a rookie, so this is still a questionable group.
The Lions used three safeties together in sub packages last season quite often, to try to mask their lack of depth at linebacker, but that isn’t as likely this season because the Lions are much thinner at safety. The Lions let veteran Duron Harmon go this off-season even though he was both their leader in snaps played at safety with 1,102 and also their only safety to earn even an average grade from PFF and, not only did they not replace him, but they also let Jayron Kearse, who played 503 snaps, leave as well.
Kearse struggled last season like rest of the Lions’ other safeties, but without him and Harmon the Lions are left with a shaky starting duo of Will Harris and Tracy Walker and lack any proven depth behind them, with 2019 undrafted free agent CJ Moore and his 81 career snaps possibly to be the first one off the bench in case of injury. Both Walker and Harris are recent third round picks, drafted in 2018 and 2019 respectively, so they both have upside, but they both come with a lot of downside.
Walker would seem to have the most potential as he flashed a lot of promise on 268 snaps as a rookie before finishing 26th among safeties on PFF in 843 snaps in his second season in the league in 2019, but he saw that rank fall all the way to 86th out of 99 eligible on 755 snaps last season, leaving a once promising once safety with a less certain future. He has bounce back potential, but that’s not a guarantee.
Harris, meanwhile, finished 84th among 98 eligible safeties on PFF across 668 snaps as a rookie in 2019 and last season found himself largely buried on the depth chart, playing the 4th most snaps by a Lions defense with 312, despite staying healthy for all 16 games. He also didn’t seem to be noticeably better than his rookie year, even in a lesser role. The Lions are really putting a lot of faith in two inconsistent at best young players as season long starters at a position with very suspect depth.
Things aren’t much better at cornerback, where the Lions didn’t have a single player exceed 60 snaps and earn even an average grade from PFF for the season. The Lions cleared out disappointing veterans Desmond Trufant, Justin Coleman, and Darryl Roberts, who all struggled across 324 snaps, 470 snaps, and 469 snaps respectively last season, and replaced them with veteran free agent additions Quinton Dunbar and Corn Elder and 3rd round draft pick Ifeatu Melifonwu, but there is still a lot of uncertainty in this group.
Melifonwu has the tools to develop into a starter long-term, but he enters the league very raw, so Dunbar is definitely the more intriguing short-term addition. Dunbar’s contract season went about as bad as it could have gone, as, shortly after he was sent to the Seahawks for a 5th round pick for demanding a massive extension ahead of the final year of his contract, Dunbar was arrested and, while the charges were eventually dropped before he missed any game time with suspension, things did not get better from there, as Dunbar was dealt with injuries all season that caused him to finish the year ranked 119th among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF and ended his season after just 397 snaps in 6 games.
Dunbar was arguably justified in asking for big money last off-season, following a shockingly dominant 2019 campaign in which he finished as PFF’s 3rd ranked cornerback, but his contract year was so bad that Dunbar had to settle for a one-year deal worth just 1.1275 million this off-season. Dunbar could prove to be a steal for the Lions, but even in that 2019 season, Dunbar was limited to 613 snaps in 11 games by injury, which has been a key issue for him throughout his career.
In total, the 2015 undrafted free agent has missed a third of his games, 32 of his 96, since entering the league 6 seasons ago and 2019 was the only season in his career where he even topped 397 snaps in a season, as largely a middling depth cornerback aside from 2019. Dunbar is still theoretically in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, but he is a former undrafted free agent with durability issues and his 2019 campaign will almost definitely go down as a complete fluke.
Dunbar’s primary competition for a starting job will likely be Amani Oruwariye, who made 15 starts for this team in 2020, but finished 108th among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. He showed a lot more promise as a 5th round rookie in 2019, but that was across just 215 snaps, so it’s not a guarantee he ever develops into a capable starter. Dunbar likely is the higher upside option, for at least as long as he can stay healthy, and should be considered the favorite to win that competition.
If Dunbar wins the starting job, he will start opposite another cornerback the Lions are hoping will bounce back in 2021, Jeff Okudah, a high potential cornerback who the Lions selected 3rd overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, only to watch him finish his rookie season as PFF’s 125th ranked cornerback among 136 eligible in an injury plagued season that was heavily affected by injuries that limited him to 460 snaps total on the season. It’s not hard to see how Okudah could be a lot better in 2021 and beyond, but the rough start to his career makes him a much shakier long-term projection than he looked a year ago, when he was seen by most as the top defender in the draft class outside of Chase Young.
Dunbar, Okudah, Oruwariye, and even Melifonwu are all best as outside cornerbacks, so slot specialist Corn Elder is likely to be the #3 cornerback regardless of how the snaps are broken out outside. A 4th round pick in 2017, Elder played just 63 total defensive snaps across his first 3 seasons in the league, but injuries were a big part of the problem and in a much healthier 2020 season, he played 411 snaps and showed potential in the first significant action of his career, almost all of which came on the slot.
Elder should play that same role in Detroit and could easily set a career high in snaps if he can continue to stay healthy, though that’s far from a guarantee. Very little is guaranteed in this group, but there is at least the upside for this group to be noticeably improved over last year’s disaster. Still, when you add in the Lions shaky starting duo and lack of depth at safety, you get a secondary that still enters the season as one of the worst in the league on paper.
The Lions had above average special teams overall last season, but their kicker was an obvious weakness, as the two special teams aspects in which they finished below average in DVOA were place kicking and kickoffs. Matt Prater was the kicker all year, but was just 38/41 on extra points and 21/28 on field goals and struggled so much on kickoffs that he was replaced by punter Jack Fox, who was arguably worse. Prater is no longer with the team, replaced by Randy Bullock, who is experienced with kickoffs and will probably take over those duties from Fox.
Bullock has been a capable kickoff specialist in his career and it would be hard for him to be worse than Prater on field goals, but Bullock is an underwhelming kicker overall. His career 83.2% field goal percentage doesn’t look bad, but he’s just 48.0% from beyond 50 yards (12 of 25) and is arguably coming off of his worst season, finishing with a 80.8% field goal percentage that was his worst since his first season as a starter in 2013, losing his starting job in Cincinnati, and ending the season as PFF’s 30th ranked kicker out of 36 eligible, before being let go this off-season. He’s not a bad option, but he’s unlikely to be a major upgrade.
Punter Jack Fox remains after a much better 2020 campaign, in which he finished #1 among punters on PFF and ranked 3rd with 4.55 seconds of hangtime. The 2019 undrafted free agent had never attempted a punt in the NFL prior to last season and is not a guarantee to be as good as he was last season, but he has a bright future and I would expect him to remain at least an above average starter even if he can’t remain his dominant 2020 season. He struggled on kickoffs, but he shouldn’t have to handle those this season with Bullock at least likely to be an upgrade in that aspect.
Jamal Agnew had a solid season as both the Lions’ kickoff and punt return specialist in 2020, averaging 28.0 yards per on 28 kickoff returns and 12.7 yards per on 14 punt returns, but he is no longer with the team, so the Lions might not get as much production from the return game in 2021. Free agent addition Kalif Raymond is experienced, with 53 kickoff returns and 56 punt returns in five seasons in the league, but his averages of 20.5 yards per kickoff return and 8.3 yards per punt return respectively are a bit underwhelming.
Raymond will likely win both return jobs by default though, as the only other player on the roster with experience as a returner being Victor Bolden, who has just a 21.3 career average on 24 kickoff returns, hasn’t returned one since 2018, and is unlikely to make this roster for reasons other than special teams. Raymond is very unlikely to be an upgrade on Agnew, but if he continues getting good play around him, he might not be a significant downgrade either.
Unfortunately, there is a good chance the Lions won’t continue getting as good of play from the rest of the bunch, as three of their four highest ranked special teamers last season, Miles Killebrew (353 snaps), Jesse James (170 snaps), and Christian Jones (158 snaps) are no longer with the team. All three finished in the top-100 among special teamers on PFF, with Killebrew and Jones leading the way ranked 15th and 21st respectively. The Lions did add four free agents with special teams experience this off-season, but they are a mixed bag.
Alijah Holder played 174 snaps last season, but was nondescript and is otherwise inexperienced on special teams. Alex Anzalone was capable across 179 snaps last season, but had never played that many in a season and could see that decrease if he goes back to playing more regularly on defense. Shaun Dion Hamilton has averaged 272 snaps per season over the past three seasons, but has only been a middling option. Dean Marlowe is the best of the bunch, playing 294 snaps per season over the past three seasons and playing at a high level, including a 33rd ranked finish among special teamers on PFF in 2020.
Those off-season additions should see significant roles on this special teams unit along with some holdovers. Jason Cabinda (274 snaps) is by far their best returning holdover, finishing 49th among special teamers on PFF in 2020, but he’s just a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played at last season. Jalen Reeves-Maybin led this group with 370 snaps played, finished above average, and has been better in the past. However, fellow holdovers Will Harris (252 snaps), CJ Moore (227 snaps), and Mike Ford (154 snaps) have never been better than middling and have also struggled in the past. Cabinda, Thomas, and Reeves-Maybin will lead a group that might not be that bad, but they figure to be significantly worse than a year ago.
Most teams have at least something to feel confident in going into the season, but the Lions are one of the few teams in the league who figure to almost definitely be below average on both sides of the ball. Perhaps their league worst defense will be a few spots improved over last year’s group, but the decline of this offense will likely be greater than any improvement by their defense, a huge problem for a team that already finished 29th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential last season.
Additionally, while the three teams who ranked below them, the Jaguars, Jets, and Bengals, have exciting young quarterbacks who were selected in the top-2 picks of the past two drafts and could be significantly better in 2021, while the Lions figure to be worse and have yet to even attempt to find a long-term signal caller and instead will commit 51.8 million to subpar veteran Jared Goff over the next two seasons.
If there is a plan that results in this team rising back into playoff contention and possibly finally going beyond that, it’s at least 2-3 years out, after this team finds a long-term franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie deal that will give them the flexibility to build around him, once other veteran contracts have come off their books, and that’s assuming the Lions draft better than they have in recent drafts and are able to give this roster the infusion of talented youngsters it needs with their upcoming draft capital.
In the meantime will be a team that is neither competitive in the short-term nor full of intriguing young long-term prospects. Perhaps the Lions will be able to find their franchise quarterback in next year’s draft after a 2021 season that is likely to result in a high draft pick, perhaps the #1 overall, though it’s worth noting next year’s quarterback class figures to be a significant dropoff from this past year’s. Still, bottoming out and getting a high pick would probably be the best outcome this season for this team, as winning a few games will only set their rebuild back, but even bottoming out isn’t a guaranteed outcome, as they have enough talent that they could pull a few upsets and end up outside of the top few picks. I will have a final prediction for the Lions at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.
8/8/21 Update: Special teams play is more predictive than I thought, but that won’t be much help for the Lions, who figure to be significantly worse in that aspect in 2021, as compared to 2020.
9/4/21 Update: The Lions are likely to be one of the worst teams in the league in 2021.
Prediction: 2-15 4th in NFC North