The 2020 NFL Draft is now over, bringing to a close a main phase of the NFL offseason. With that in the books, it’s time to take a look at how the Detroit Lions fared and what we can take away from it. I’ve got five thoughts, so let’s dive right in:
1. It’s now or never for the run game
I feel like I have said this for 10 straight years. It was time for the run game when Jahvid Best was drafted in 2010, when Mikel Leshoure was drafted, when Reggie Bush was signed, when Ameer Abdullah was drafted, when TJ Lang and Rick Wagner were signed, when Kerryon Johnson was drafted, when TJ Hockenson was drafted and Darrell Bevell was hired, and now, when the Lions used three of their top four picks on run game help. While you could argue that every position (besides QB) is a position of need after you win just three games in a season, with the Lions spending a 2nd rounder on Kerryon Johnson just two years ago and Bo Scarborough proving mildly effective last year, RB was not one of the most pressing needs on the team. Thus, the selection of Georgia RB DeAndre Swift in the second round was met with some shock by fans. What was a more clear need, however, was at offensive guard after the departure of Graham Glasgow, and the Lions spent their third and fourth round pick on that position.
Detroit has now spent first rounders in the Bob Quinn era on a tackle and a center in Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow, who both grade out very highly in both the eye test and the Pro Football Focus metrics. They are the pillars of the line. The Lions then let Rick Wagner leave in free agency and replaced him with a new $50 M tackle, Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Then they spent a third rounder on Ohio State guard Jonah Jackson and a fourth rounder on Kentucky guard Logan Stenberg, the latter of whom is highly regarded as a run blocker than a pass protector. One of those two figures to start opposite of Joe Dahl at guard, who was largely fine a year ago. To top it all off, the Lions then spent their second rounder on Swift, who some saw as among the top RB’s in the draft, although opinions varied. Will this improve the Detroit run game?
It’s hard to say. The Lions’ run game was not atrocious a year ago, finishing with 4.1 yards per carry, which was 22nd in the NFL, but there’s still a lot more room for improvement. That is especially true in short yardage situations and the red zone, where the Lions’ run offense was atrocious, with just 7 TD’s recorded a year ago on the ground. Drafting Swift probably doesn’t change that, as he’s a smaller, shifty back, as opposed to a burly mauler. But the addition of the new guards and Vaitai, who grades very highly as a run blocker, may. With the three different running backs now in the backfield, Johnson, Swift, and Scarborough, in addition to a re-tooled offensive line selected with emphasis on running, it’s now or never. Furthermore, OL Coach Jeff Davidson has exited the team after two (mostly unsuccessful) seasons at the helm and has been replaced by Hank Fraley, who seems to have a good track record of success. With all these changes and all the capital invested, it’s time, at long last, for the building to pay off in the run game.
2. Expectations are high for Jeff Okudah
The Detroit Lions used the highest draft pick they’ve had in a decade on Jeff Okudah, a CB out of Ohio State. He happens to be the highest a corner has been picked since 1997 and though that position generally comes with a steep learning curve, elite corner prospects in recent drafts have been able to make instant impacts. While the first CB didn’t come off the board until the back end of the first round last year, in 2018, 2017, and 2016 the first corner was picked in the top 11, and in two of those years, in the top 5: Denzel Ward to the Browns in ‘18, Marshon Lattimore to the Saints in ‘17, and Jalen Ramsey to the Jaguars in ‘16. Lattimore and Ward happen to both be former Ohio State Buckeyes, like Okudah, and both guys were Pro Bowlers as rookies. Though Ramsey did not get selected to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, he was a First Team All-Pro selection in year #2 and by all accounts was very good as a rookie.
Given that Okudah was both picked as highly as those players, and had nearly universal praise on his scouting report with no real faults in his game, that level of impact in year 1 is not an unreasonable expectation. The Lions are essentially betting that Okudah and free agent signing Desmond Trufant prove to be a better tandem at corner than Darius Slay and Rashaan Melvin did last year. While that is a risky gamble, since Okudah has never taken a snap in the NFL, Slay had his worst season in years in 2019 and Melvin graded out very poorly, so that may not be as high of a bar to clear as some may think. However, the Lions don’t just need Okudah + Trufant to be an improvement. They need them to be a major improvement, since the Detroit pass defense finished among the worst in the league last season. Returning Justin Coleman and second year player Amani Oruwariye, who showed flashes as a rookie, rounds out what seems to be *on paper* not a bad CB group. Simply put though, the Lions need it to be.
3. NFC North rivals have mixed offseasons
In the case of the Green Bay Packers, the word “mixed” is quite generous. For a team that played in the NFC Championship Game just three months ago, the offseason has been strange, to say the least. The Packers watched fading TE Jimmy Graham walk out and join the Chicago Bears, which on the whole is not a major loss, but they signed no free agent help to replace him. Then they let RT Bryan Bulaga, still a productive NFL player, sign with the Los Angeles Chargers and the Packers replaced him by signing former Lions RT Rick Wagner. Wagner had an extremely mediocre career in Detroit and is now on the wrong side of 30. In the NFL Draft this weekend, the Packers declined to use their most valuable asset, a first round pick, to help the team now. Instead they picked QB Jordan Love, who could be a great player down the road, but will not see the field in 2020 unless Aaron Rodgers is injured. In the second round they selected RB AJ Dillon, an equally baffling pick given that RB is arguably the position of greatest strength on the Green Bay offense, with Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams already there. Finally, they selected TE Josiah Deguara in the third round, which is a position with a notoriously steep learning curve in the NFL, making it quite unlikely that he has a major impact in 2020 either. All told, the Packers watched a couple starters walk out and replaced them with not a single player likely to have significant impacts. While the stellar Green Bay defense returns intact, the entire draft process was confusing. Though the Packers finished 13-3 last season, they were an extremely lucky team, with their expected W/L being just 10.0-6.0, actually worse than the Vikings, who were at 10.7-5.3. If the Packers’ luck runs out, and the roster got worse in the offseason, it’s hard to deem them much of a divisional favorite anymore.
In Minnesota, the Vikings had a number of salary cap casualties this offeeason, including Stefon Diggs, who was dealt to Buffalo for a first round pick, Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, Trae Waynes, and Xavier Rhodes. While most consider the Vikings to have had a very good draft, that saw them pick Justin Jefferson to replace Diggs, and a pair of corners in Jeff Gladney and Cam Dantzler (in addition to Mike Hughes, who has dealt with injuries off and on in his first two seasons) to replace the departed Waynes/Rhodes, they are plugging a number of holes with rookies and unproven young players. I think that Rick Spielman has done about as good of a job as Vikings fans could have hoped for in retooling the roster this offseason, but the cap squeeze casts some doubt on whether Minnesota can return to the playoffs.
Chicago made some changes on the defense in the offseason, bringing in Robert Quinn to replace Leonard Floyd, signing Artie Burns and drafting Jaylon Johnson to replace Prince Amukamara at corner, and bringing in Deon Bush to replace Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix at safety. Many of those changes don’t seem to be the type to make major changes, and adding Jimmy Graham and Cole Kmet to an already deep TE position were their only “luxury” upgrades, both rather odd. At this point, it’s tough to see how any member of the NFC North got better this offseason, besides the Lions, who obviously have a lot farther to go to catch up to the division after last season. However, perhaps not as far you may think. While the Packers were extremely lucky last year, the Lions were extremely unlucky, per expected W/L. Here are the standings from last year based on expected W/L compared to the actual standings:
Vikings 10.7-5.3 (actual: 10-6)
Packers 10.0-6.0 (actual: 13-3)
Bears 7.4-8.6 (actual: 8-8)
Lions 6.0-10.0 (actual: 3-12-1)
After years of being considered among the best divisions in football, the NFC North may now be one of the weakest.
4. Is the roster better than it was four years ago? Well, at least it’s younger
As someone who has started to lean more heavily into the “Fire Quinn and Patricia” train, I do respect the way that Quinn has gone to compile young talent and manage the cap space. Even if the 2020 Lions season goes down in flames and the Quinn regime were to be dismissed, he would leave behind a solid group of pieces to work with. Detroit’s RB tandem will have an average age of just 22 years old this season, TJ Hockenson will be 23, and Kenny Golladay will be 26. Taylor Decker, meanwhile, will be 27, Joe Dahl the same age, and Frank Ragnow only 24. Even Vaitai is set to be 27 this season, and the two new guards, Jackson and Stenberg, are both early 20s. Stafford, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola are the lone old men on the offense. Defensively, Tracy Walker will be 25 during the season, Okudah 21, Da’Shawn Hand 24, Trey Flowers 27, the Okwaras 25 and 22, Jahlani Tavai 24. That is a roster that even if this season goes poorly, leaves behind a lot more pieces for a hypothetical next regime to build with than the Mayhew group left behind to Quinn. Though obviously, we would all prefer for the 2020 season to pan out and lead to a return to the playoffs. Moreover, despite the large contract given to Stafford, the Lions still have the fourth most cap space in the NFL. Yes, that will go down after giving extensions to Golladay and Decker, but the cap mismanagement of the Mayhew era also seems to be a thing of the past. That is one development to be optimistic about.
5. Optimism and causes for concern on both sides of the ball
For this last thought, I’m simply going to list the areas of both offense and defense to feel optimistic and concerned about as we head into the summer after the offseason period:
OFFENSE - Optimism
- DeAndre Swift has an instant impact and the tandem of Swift and Johnson, with Scarborough on third down, could be dynamic and explosive, giving OC Darrell Bevell lots to play with.
- The Lions should expect to get much more in both blocking and receiving out of TJ Hockenson. Looking at impact tight ends around the league, Ertz, Kittle, and Kelce, all three saw dramatic improvements in their numbers as second year players. That’s typical for the tight end position and if Hockenson can become a clear asset as a blocker, and a dangerous weapon in all phases of the passing game, that would be huge.
- A healthy Matthew Stafford obviously improves the team greatly. The Lions went 0-8 after Stafford’s injury, and the QB had been having arguably the best year of his career before that. A full healthy season of Stafford could make all the difference. That’s a big “if” though.
OFFENSE - Concern
- We’ve talked year after year about running the football and it never seems to happen. The Lions still ran into a brick wall on third down and in the red zone repeatedly, and I need to see evidence that it’s going to change before I can really believe it.
- Can this offense stay healthy? Marvin Jones has battled injuries repeatedly, so has Kerryon Johnson, and recently, Matthew Stafford. Can this group afford to lose key pieces? I’m hesitant to believe so.
DEFENSE - Optimism
- As stated previously, the CB room seems greatly improved.
- I liked the signing of Duron Harmon. He’s a guy with experience, should allow the Lions to use Tracy Walker more the way they want to, and free up Will Harris to play at the line of scrimmage.
- Jamie Collins could be an upgrade to the LB group that struggled mightily last year, to put it kindly. He had a good bounceback season in Cleveland and knows the system, should be plug-and-play.
DEFENSE - Concern
- So, uh, how are the Lions stopping the run? Signing Danny Shelton seems like a solid move and I like Da’Shawn Hand a lot, but he has struggled to stay on the field. Beyond those two, there’s Nick Williams, John Atkins, and sixth round pick John Penisini. Neither the front-line talent, nor the depth, is where you’d want it to be at that position. Trey Flowers is a good run-defending EDGE and the Okwaras will factor into this, but it’s hard not to have memories of two years ago before the Snacks Harrison trade, with the Lions being gashed ad nauseum up the middle.
- The pass rush still is a question mark. Trey Flowers is an excellent all around player, but not a pure pass rusher. Picking up Julian Okwara in the third round was a terrific pick, but can he be an instant playmaker and pass rusher? The Lions will use Collins, Tavai, Davis, and Will Harris to help pass rush but there are still major questions here.
- Does anyone have any faith in Matt Patricia? Patricia was brought in to fix the defense and has done anything but that, fielding one of the worst units in the league last year. While they drummed out defensive coordinator Paul Pasquoloni and brought in Cory Undlin, which at least is a fresh set of eyes, Undlin is unproven. Moreover, Patricia was supposed to be The Defensive Guy. Through two seasons, we’ve seen no demonstrable improvement on defense and a grip on the locker room that seems tenuous, at best. That doesn’t bode well for 2020.
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