The Lions finished last season 26th in first down rate differential at -3.29%, but they still won 9 games, largely because of their +10 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis though, so the Lions won’t be able to count on that this season. Case in point, the Lions had a -1 turnover margin in 2016 with a similar roster. They also won 9 games in 2016, but only one of their wins came by more than a touchdown, they finished 28th in first down rate differential at -1.90%, and they didn’t beat a single playoff team. The Lions had trouble with tougher competition in 2017 as well, going 1-5 against teams that made the post-season.
The Lions’ turnover margin could easily regress in 2018. Matt Stafford led all quarterbacks in dropped interceptions last season and their defense was able to force 32 takeaways (3rd in the NFL), despite a terrible overall season. Only the Jaguars and Ravens, much better defenses, had more takeaways. The Lions’ defense allowed a league high 37.48% first down rate, the biggest reason why the Lions ranked where they did in first down rate differential. Unless they play significantly better overall, they’re unlikely to have as many takeaways this season.
Their offense, on the other hand, was not bad last season, finishing 15th in first down rate at 34.18%. They were led by Matt Stafford, who, though he should have probably had more passes intercepted, still had a solid season overall. He completed 65.7% of his passes for a career high 7.87 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked quarterback. He’s made all 112 starts in the past 7 seasons and has earned a positive grade from PFF in 5 of those seasons, with his best season coming in 2016, when he finished 9th at his position.
The Lions have a new head coach in Matt Patricia, but he’s a defensive minded guy and he kept Jim Bob Cooter on to lead the offense, which is great news for Stafford, who has played arguably the best football of his career in 2 and a half seasons with Cooter, completing 66.3% of his passes for an average of 7.51 YPA, 73 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions. Still in the prime of his career in his age 30 season, Stafford should continue playing well in 2018 in a familiar system.
The Lions would have been a much better offense last season, but they struggled mightily on the ground, averaging a league worst 3.36 yards per carry. Running the football was a problem for them in 2016 as well, when they ranked 27th in yards per carry. Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick led the team with 165 carries and 84 carries respectively in 2017 and they averaged just 3.27 YPC and 3.40 YPC respectively. Riddick is a converted wide receiver with a 3.44 YPC average on 248 career carries and should only play on passing downs, while Abdullah is a 2015 2nd round pick who hasn’t panned out, averaging 3.83 yards per carry on 326 carries and playing just 32 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league.
The Lions were aggressive upgrading their running backs this off-season, signing veteran LeGarrette Blount to a fully guaranteed 1-year, 2 million dollar deal in free agency and trading up to select Kerryon Johnson with the 43rd overall pick in the 2nd round of the draft. With Riddick locked into a passing down role and Blount and Johnson locked into roster spots, Abdullah could easily not make this final roster. Even if he does make the final roster, he’s unlikely to have much of a role. Blount and Johnson will compete for early down work.
Blount is a proven runner, with 5,888 yards and 51 touchdowns on 1,341 carries (4.39 YPC) in 8 seasons in the league. He’s earned a positive running grade from PFF in 6 of those 8 seasons. He’s going into his age 32 season though and the younger Johnson (only 21 this summer) is a much more explosive runner. Blount still ran well while splitting carries last season, averaging 4.43 yards per carry, and he’ll likely open the season in a rotation with Johnson, but if Johnson runs well he could run away with the lead back job as the season goes on. Johnson is also a much more versatile player, as Blount has just 54 career catches in 116 career games. Johnson is still raw as a passing down player, but he can develop into a three down back long-term.
For now, Riddick will continue handling the vast majority of passing downs, a role he’s been successful in for 4 seasons. Over those 4 seasons, he’s averaged 55 catches per season for an average of 457 yards and 3.5 touchdowns, while earning a positive pass catching grade from PFF in all 4 seasons. Last season, he was PFF’s 6th ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade. He’s not much of a runner, but he should continue having success in a passing down role and catch another 50-60 passes. He was the one thing about this running back group that was good last season, but the Lions should do a better job on earlier downs this season.
The Lions are also expecting to be better on the offensive line in 2018. They had three starters earn positive grades from Pro Football Focus in 2017, Graham Glasgow, TJ Lang, and Ricky Wagner, but Lang and Wagner were both limited to 13 starts by injury and they didn’t have another lineman who earned a positive grade, so they definitely had some problems upfront. Glasgow was their only offensive lineman to make all 16 starts last season and he didn’t even make them all in the same place. He spent most of the season at left guard, but made 5 starts at center in place of an injured Travis Swanson. Swanson is no longer with the team, but he struggled mightily last season, finishing 31st out of 38 eligible centers, so he won’t be missed.
The Lions used their first round pick, 20th overall, on Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow. Ragnow spent his final 2 seasons at Arkansas at center and played really well, but the Lions seem to prefer Glasgow at center, so Ragnow will begin his career at left guard. Ragnow played guard earlier in his collegiate career and at 6-5 312 he looks more like a guard than a center. Glasgow has good size too at 6-6 310, but the 2016 3rd round pick has been better at center (9 starts) than left guard (18 starts) thus far in his career. The Lions could always flip them at some point if they want. Glasgow struggled as a rookie, so he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a capable starter and Ragnow is unproven, but both have the upside to be above average starters and Ragnow should be a major upgrade on Swanson regardless of where he plays.
The Lions should also get more out of Lang and Wagner this season. They didn’t miss that much time last season, but they are arguably their two best offensive linemen, so they were definitely missed when they were out down the stretch. Offensive line was a major problem for them in their week 16 upset loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that ended their playoff hopes. The Lions signed Lang and Wagner to contracts worth 28.5 million over 3 years and 47.5 million over 5 years respectively last off-season, to replace Larry Warford at right guard and Riley Reiff at right tackle respectively, after both Warford and Reiff left as free agents.
When on the field last season, Lang was PFF’s 16th ranked guard, while Wagner ranked 11th among offensive tackles. Lang has made 104 starts in the past 7 seasons, earning positive grades from PFF in 6 of 7 seasons, with his best seasons coming in 2014 (7th among guards on PFF), and 2015 (5th). He’s missed 6 games in the past 2 seasons and seems to be on the decline a little bit, going into his age 31 season, but he could easily remain an above average starting guard for at least another couple seasons.
Wagner, meanwhile, has made 58 starts in the past 4 seasons, finishing in the top-20 among offensive tackles in 3 of 4 seasons, with his one down season coming in 2015, when he dealt with a foot injury for most of the season. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, he’s one of the best right tackles in the league and should have another strong season in 2018. When Wagner and Lang are both out there, they form a strong right side of the offensive line.
The Lions are also counting on a healthier year from left tackle Taylor Decker. Decker missed the first 8 games of last season after off-season shoulder surgery. In his absence, Greg Robinson and Brian Mihalik both made starts and both were horrendous, but Decker was not much better when he returned. He was much before the injury though, finishing as PFF’s 22nd ranked offensive tackle in 2016 as a rookie, after the Lions used the 16th overall pick in the first round on him. Now healthier, Decker is only going into his age 24 season, still has a high upside, and could have the best year of his career in 2018. He has a ton of bounce back potential. If this starting 5 can stay healthy, they could be one of the best offensive lines in the league.
As well as Stafford played, he did get a lot of help from his receiving corps. Wide receivers Marvin Jones and Golden Tate both topped 1000 yards (61/1101/9 and 92/1003/5) respectively. They were the only wide receiver duo to both top 1000 yards last season and they joined Tyreek Hill/Travis Kelce and Brandin Cooks/Rob Gronkowski as the only teammates to both top 1000 yards receiving. Jones and Tate also complement each other well. Jones is a big outside receiver at 6-2 198 who ranked 1st in the NFL in yards per catch at 18.0 and 2nd in the NFL in average depth of target at 14.8, whereas Tate is built more like a running back at 5-10 202 and picked up 6.9 of his 10.9 yards per catch after the catch, while breaking a position leading 22 tackles.
Despite having fewer yards, Tate actually had the better year. He was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked wide receiver, while Jones ranked 21st and he averaged 1.88 yards per route run, while Jones averaged 1.76. While Jones was an every down player outside, ranking 5th among wide receivers in snaps with 1005, Tate was more of a slot specialist, playing just 792 snaps on the season (76.1%), with 619 of them coming on the slot. A 2nd round pick by the Seahawks in 2010, Tate has earned positive grades from PFF in 7 straight seasons. He didn’t put up huge numbers early in his career on a run heavy Seattle offense, but he’s topped 90 catches in all 4 seasons in Detroit and has topped 1000 yards in 3 of 4. His age is a minor concern in his age 30 season, but he also hasn’t missed a game since 2012, playing 80 out of 80 regular season games.
Jones, on the other hand, topped 1000 yards for the first time in his career last season. He’s been a consistently good receiver for a while too though, earning positive grades in 4 straight healthy seasons, though he did miss all of 2014 with an injury. Last season was the best season of his career and he might not be quite as good again in 2018, but he’s averaged a 58/890/8 slash line in his last 4 healthy seasons and has only missed 1 other game due to injury, so he should be a reliable outside option for them again in 2018, still only in his age 28 season.
With Tate primarily playing on the slot (121 routes run on the outside in 2017), young receivers Kenny Golladay and TJ Jones split snaps outside opposite Jones, playing 473 snaps and 398 snaps respectively. Both showed promise in limited action, posting slash lines of 28/477/3 (1.66 yards per route run) and 30/399/1 (1.49 yards per route run) respectively, but Golladay has the most upside long-term and could run away with other outside receiver job. Golladay is a 2017 3rd round pick with the tools to be an above average starter long-term, while Jones is a 2014 6th round pick who caught just 15 passes in 13 games (216 snaps) in his first 3 seasons in the league prior to last season. Golladay has breakout potential in this offense in his 2nd season in the league.
The Lions figure to run a lot of 3 and 4 wide receiver sets, as they have way more depth at wide receiver than tight end, where they lack a capable pass catcher. Eric Ebron was 3rd on the team with 53 catches, 574 yards, and 4 touchdowns in 2017, but he was let go this off-season, owed 8.25 million non-guaranteed. The Lions also lost #2 tight end Darren Fells, a solid blocker who played about half the snaps and posted a 17/177/3 slash line.
The Lions didn’t do much to replace them, signing backup caliber talents Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo from the Seahawks and Falcons respectively. They were signed to deals worth 2.5 million over 1 year and 1.5 million over 1 year respectively. Both are 5-year veterans and are capable blockers, but Willson’s career high is 22 catches in a season and Toilolo’s career high is 31 catches in a season. Those career highs came way back in 2014 too, and they had just 15 catches and 12 catches respectively in 2017. The Lions won’t be able to rely on either for a big role in the passing game.
The same is true of Michael Roberts, a blocking specialist who played 220 snaps as the 3rd tight end as a 4th round rookie in 2017. He could have a bigger role in a wide open depth chart, but he caught just 4 passes as a rookie and was not much of a pass catching threat in college either. The 6-5 265 pounder is like a 6th offensive lineman and could continue to improve as a blocker, but he lacks the athleticism to be a receiving threat. Matt Stafford will have to rely heavily on his wide receivers and running back Theo Riddick, but they still have a lot of pass catching talent.
As I mentioned, the Lions had major problems on defense last season. Outside of takeaways, they had real trouble getting off the field all season, allowing the 2nd most first downs in the NFL with 350. On the defensive line, injuries were at least part of the problem. Kerry Hyder, their 2016 leader in sacks with 8, tore his achilles and went out for the year before the season even started, while top run stuffer Haloti Ngata suffered a torn biceps week 5 that ended his season after 145 snaps. Hyder actually wasn’t missed that much, as 2nd year defensive end Anthony Zettel had a mini-breakout year in his absence, while fellow starter Ezekiel Ansah bounced back off of a career worst 2016 season.
The 5th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Ansah had 22 sacks and 40 quarterback hits from 2014-2015 and ranked 8th and 14th respectively among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in those two seasons, but his sack total dropped to just 2 in 13 games in 2016, as he played most of the season through an ankle injury. He added 12 hits and 21 hurries and earned a positive pass rush grade overall, but he was not the same player the Lions were used to.
In 2017, he was more what they were used to. He only played 516 snaps in 14 games, but he had 12 sacks, 7 hits, and 19 hurries on 320 pass rush snaps and played the run well. He finished as PFF’s 25th ranked 4-3 defensive end on the season, solid, although not as good as he’s been in the past. Unable to reach a favorable long-term deal with Ansah this off-season, the Lions gave him the 17.143 million dollar franchise tag to keep him for 2018.
The Lions will probably try to extend him long-term before the start of the season, but they may want to see him stay healthy in 2018 before committing top defensive lineman money to him long-term. His age is also a concern. He’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, so he should have another strong year, but he’ll be 30 next off-season, something the Lions need to take into account when trying to extend him.
Zettel, meanwhile, was just a 6th round pick in 2016 and played just 214 mediocre snaps as a rookie, but he led this defensive line in snaps with 752 last season. His sack total of 6.5 isn’t huge for someone who played as many snaps as he did and he earned a negative pass rush grade overall, but he added 5 hits and 31 hurries and did a great job stuffing the run. Overall, he finished the season as PFF’s 26th ranked 4-3 defensive end. He’s a one-year wonder, but could continue playing well. With Hyder returning, they won’t need as much from him in 2018. Zettel may play primarily a base package role, with Hyder coming in as a pass rusher in sub packages.
Hyder and Zettel also both have the size at 6-2 275 and 6-4 270 respectively to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages. New head coach Matt Patricia comes from New England where lining up defensive ends inside in sub packages was commonplace. They’d probably prefer keeping Ansah on the edge because he has very little experience on the interior, but Zettel and Hyder could be more effective as interior pass rushers and moving one inside would allow them to get their best pass rushers on the field in passing situations. Hyder is a mystery after the injury and he originally went undrafted back in 2016, but he burst onto the scene as an undrafted rookie, totaling 8 sacks, 8 hits, and 35 hurries on 416 pass rush snaps and earning a positive pass rush grade from PFF. He’s far from a guarantee to pick up where he left off, but his return should help this defensive line, at least for depth purposes.
Hyder’s return will likely eat into the role of Cornelius Washington the most, as he played 487 snaps as the 3rd defensive end last season. He struggled though, as outside of Zettel, Ansah, and the injured Haloti Ngata, the Lions’ defensive linemen all earned negative grades last season. Washington wasn’t awful, but he’s never earned an above average overall grade for a season in 5 seasons in the league and last season was a career high in snaps.
At 6-4 290, Washington also has the size to rush the passer from the interior, but he probably won’t have a big role overall on a deeper defensive line. The Lions also have 4th round rookie Da’Shawn Hand in the mix for snaps, both inside and outside at 6-4 297, while Devon Kennard, a starting linebacker signed in free agency, has the ability to rush the passer off the edge at 6-4 256 and could see a significant role as a sub package edge rusher, in addition to being a base package linebacker.
While Hyder wasn’t missed that much at defensive end, Ngata was definitely missed at defensive tackle, as he was their only defensive tackle to earn an above average grade from PFF. In Ngata’s absence, A’Shawn Robinson and Akeem Spence were the starters and they finished with 734 snaps and 661 snaps respectively. Neither player was bad, but both were underwhelming. Robinson was drafted in the 2nd round in 2016 and could have his best year yet in his 3rd season in the league in 2018, after being about a league average starter in his first 2 seasons in the league (21 starts in 32 games). Spence, meanwhile, is a career journeyman who was sent to the Dolphins this off-season for a late round pick with a new coaching staff coming in.
Spence’s direct replacement will be free agent acquisition Sylvester Williams, but I wouldn’t expect Williams to play as many snaps as Spence did, with defensive ends likely seeing more action inside this season. Williams isn’t really an upgrade on Spence. He struggled mightily as a starter in Denver before earning the first positive grade of his career on 349 snaps with the Titans last season. The Titans still let him go, rather than paying him 5 million guaranteed in 2018, so the Lions signed him to a 1-year deal worth 3.5 million. At 6-2 328, he’s a better fit for Matt Patricia’s scheme than the 6-1 307 pound Spence, even if he’s not a great player. He and the 6-4 322 pound Robinson will try to anchor the run in base packages with smaller defensive tackles and defensive ends seeing the majority of the snaps in passing situations.
Jeremiah Ledbetter is one of their smaller defensive tackles at 6-3 295. A 6th round rookie, Ledbetter was underwhelming on 349 snaps in 2017, but could see a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. Da’Shawn Hand is also a smaller defensive tackle, although he may see some time at defensive end as well. Hand has the potential to be a steal in the 4th round and he has all the tools to be a long-term starter in this league, but he had an underwhelming college career after going to Alabama as the #5 ranked recruit in 2014 and comes into the league very raw. He may struggle to carve out a rookie year role on what should be a deeper defensive line as long as everyone is healthy.
In the linebacking corps, the Lions are arguably worse than they were last season and they were not that good last season. Each of their top-3 linebackers earned a negative coverage grade from Pro Football Focus last season and their top-2 linebackers, Tahir Whitehead and Jarrad Davis, finished 73rd and 88th respectively among 90 linebackers in coverage grade. The reason they could be worse is they lost Whitehead in free agency. Whitehead had his issues in coverage, but was a great run stuffer, ranking 12th among linebackers in run stuffing grade, and he led this linebacking corps with 950 snaps.
On top of that, his replacement, free agent acquisition Christian Jones, is a major downgrade. Jones made 31 starts in 4 seasons with the Bears, after they signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2014, but he earned negative grades from PFF in all 4 seasons and finished last season as PFF’s 45th ranked middle linebacker out of 52 eligible, playing inside in Chicago’s 3-4 defense. He was only signed for 6.35 million over 2 seasons, but could have close to an every down role at outside linebacker in the Lions’ 4-3 defense, for lack of a better option. He could struggle mightily in such a large role, considering he’s played just 57.7% of the snaps in 63 games in his career. His primary competition is 2017 4th round pick Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who flashed on 239 snaps as a rookie. He’s probably their best coverage linebacker by default, but he’s undersized at 6-0 230 and unproven in a larger role.
One reason the Lions might not be worse in the linebacking corps is middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, a 2017 1st round pick who could be a lot better in his 2nd season in the league. Davis played 85.8% of the snaps in 14 starts as a rookie and played the run pretty well, but had major issues in coverage and finished as PFF’s 37th ranked middle linebacker out of 52 eligible. It’s not a guarantee that he’ll be better in 2018, but he still has a high upside and could develop into a capable every down player long-term.
The Lions also added ex-Giants linebacker Devon Kennard in free agency, which is an upgrade at the 3rd linebacker spot. Free agent departure Paul Worrilow only played 272 snaps in 12 games (8 starts) in that role last season, but Kennard’s 3-year, 17.25 million dollar deal suggests he’ll have a much bigger role. In addition to starting as the third linebackers in base packages, he figures to rotate as an edge rusher in sub packages, similar to the role he played with the Giants.
A 5th round pick in 2014, Kennard has earned a positive run stuffing grade in all 4 seasons in the league, though he’s earned just one positive pass rush grade (2014). On 487 career pass rush snaps, he has 9.5 sacks, 12 hits, and 28 hurries. Last season, he had a career high 191 pass rush snaps and accumulated 4 sacks, 4 hits, and 6 hurries. He’s a decent addition, but he won’t boost this linebacking corps that much as he’s just a base package linebackers. Unless either of their second year linebackers (Davis and Reeves-Maybin) takes a big step forward, this could be one of the worst sub package linebacking corps in the NFL.
The Lions made some changes in the secondary as well. Veteran cornerback DJ Hayden, who played 488 snaps last season, is no longer with the team, while Quandre Diggs is moving full-time to safety after leading the team in slot snaps in each of the last 3 seasons (463 slot snaps last season). Neither cornerback played all that well last season though, so it won’t be hard for their replacements to be better. Holdovers Nevin Lawson and Teez Tabor could play bigger roles, while veteran DeShawn Shead was added in free agency on a one-year, 3.35 million dollar deal.
Lawson and Shead both topped 900 snaps and earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in 2016 (924 snaps and 918 snaps respectively), but that was not the case in 2017. Lawson struggled mightily and was limited to 555 snaps in 15 games as a result, while Shead didn’t play a defensive snap as he was working his way back from a January 2017 torn ACL. Both players are also one year wonders, as Lawson has finished below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, while Shead struggled in 2015, finishing 87th out of 118 eligible cornerbacks on 520 snaps in the only other significant action of his career, aside from 2016.
Tabor played just 190 snaps last season and did very little of note, but he may have the best shot at locking down the #2 cornerback job opposite Darius Slay. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Tabor has more upside than either Lawson or Shead. None of three have any real slot experience, but Tabor played 103 of his 190 snaps there last season and would be a natural fit on the slot because his primary weakness is his long speed. He has the clearest path to a job, but it could be close to a wide open competition. The Lions also used a 3rd round pick on the University of Louisiana’s Tracy Walker and he has the versatility to play both cornerback and safety at 6-1 206, though he comes into the league very raw and might not play much as a rookie.
Slay remains locked in as the #1 cornerback and is one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. A 2nd round pick in 2013, Slay has started all 61 games he’s played in the past 4 seasons, earning positive grades from PFF in all 4 seasons and finishing in the top-15 in each of the past 3 seasons. Last season, he finished 8th among cornerbacks on PFF and led the NFL with 8 interceptions. That number will likely come down, as he had just 6 career interceptions going into 2017, but he’s a legitimate #1 cornerback nonetheless and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 27 season.
As mentioned, Diggs has moved to safety after spending most of his 3-year career as a slot cornerback, where he was about league average in coverage. He started the final 5 games of last season at safety with Tavon Wilson out with a shoulder injury, so he has some experience at his new position, but he didn’t play all that well and is a bit undersized at 5-9 200. He only played 43 slot snaps in those 5 games, though he could conceivably still play a large role on the slot in 2018 if none of their cornerbacks can lock down the slot job.
Wilson returns after shoulder surgery, so the Lions could regularly use 3-safety looks in sub packages with Diggs on the slot. Wilson struggled in 2017 before the injury, finishing 74th out of 89 eligible safeties, and he had just 18 career starts in 5 seasons prior to 2017, but he earned positive grades in each of those 5 seasons, after going in the 2nd round in 2012, and was PFF’s 16th ranked safety in 14 starts in 2016. Still only in his age 28 season, he has bounce back potential, but may be best in a situational role like he played in to begin his career.
Veteran Glover Quin remains as the other starter and will once again play every down. He’s started 144 of 144 games in the past 9 seasons, playing 97.1% of the snaps. His age is becoming a concern, as he goes into his age 32 season, but he’s been incredibly durable and is coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 4th among safeties on PFF. He also finished 4th among safeties in 2014 and 11th among safeties in 2013, and he has earned a positive grade in 7 of 9 seasons in his career. He probably won’t be quite as good in 2018 as he was in 2017, but he should remain a solid starter at least another couple seasons. He and Slay lead a secondary that needs help from other players in 2018.
The Lions have gone 9-7 in each of the past 2 seasons, but have not been as record as their record suggested in either season. Matt Stafford leads a good passing game, but they haven’t had the running game or defense to complement it. They could be better in both aspects in 2018, but that might not necessarily show up in the win/loss column, especially in the tough NFC. The Lions are squarely behind both the Vikings and the Packers in the NFC North and it will be tough for them to lock down one of the wild card spots. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.
Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC North