If the Lions make the playoffs in 2018, it will be because the offense became one of the top 5 units in the NFL. Detroit was 7th in PPG a year ago and 13th in yards per game, with the glaring weakness being a total lack of a running game. While it is true that the NFL is now a passing league, none of the top tier NFL offenses are without a functioning running game, which was the case with the Lions. Over the 4 years of Jim Caldwell’s tenure, the Lions were 28th, 32nd, 30th, and 32nd in rushing yards, a truly horrific track record. Since new GM Bob Quinn came into town, he has invested a humongous amount of capital in the running game. In his first draft, he took a LT in the first round (Taylor Decker) and a G/C in the third round (Graham Glasgow). The next offseason, he shelled out big money to a G and a RT (TJ Lang and Rick Wagner). This offseason, he signed a power running back (LeGarrette Blount), drafted a G/C in the first round (Frank Ragnow), and drafted a running back in the second round (Kerryon Johnson). Essentially, Quinn has sacrificed building a defense in pursuit of a running game.
Will it work? I don’t think anyone knows, but it has to. Using that many resources in pursuit of one goal is risky and it’s a gamble that needs to pay off. The Lions’ offensive line was dreadful last year because it had a ton of injuries, with Taylor Decker missing a half season, Lang and Wagner both missing several games, and former C Travis Swanson missing a handful of games late in the year. The biggest boon the Lions’ offense could get is to simply have all five of those guys healthy for most of the season. Offensive line is a position that performs as a unit, and it requires continuity and chemistry to be successful. In 2017, the Lions just never had that luxury. As for the running backs themselves, I love the way Kerryon Johnson ran in the preseason. He looked patient and explosive, with a really intelligent running style, a guy who has the potential to milk extra yards even when the blocking isn’t there. LeGarrette Blount is a wily veteran who will be useful in the short yardage situations that the Lions were very bad at last year.
The passing game is very good and there’s not much else to really be said about it. Marvin Jones and Golden Tate are the most underrated WR duo in the NFL, Theo Riddick is a weapon, and Kenny Golladay could be the breakout star of the team. All in all, the only thing holding this offense back is the running game. If the pieces come together and suddenly Detroit is say, the #20 rushing team, then the offense will be clearly one of the 5 best in the league. Having a solid running game would allow the team to extend drives in short yardage situations and make the opposing defenses finally respect the play action, opening up more passing opportunities. There’s a lot of talent on this unit, it just needs to all come together.
This is a lot less fun. The strategy for the Quinn regime defensively has been to get guys who are versatile and who can be used a lot of different ways. The problem is… while they may be versatile, it’s very much unclear if any of them are, ahem, good at football. The Lions do have a couple of studs: Glover Quin is a top tier free safety and Darius Slay is a top 5-10 cornerback in the NFL. Ziggy Ansah is productive when healthy. But outside of that…. *groans*. It’s basically a bunch of guys with not very impressive track records, which doesn’t give me a lot of optimism.
There is some young talent though! The Lions have gone all in on Quandre Diggs as their strong safety of the future, and I like that move. 2017 first round pick Jarrad Davis has the potential to be an elite run defender, it’s just unclear if he’s capable of covering anyone. Unfortunately, the preseason returns were… not great. Jalen Reeves-Maybin was a savvy fourth round pick in 2017, brought into be a coverage linebacker, but no one really knows if he’s capable of doing that. Christian Jones was a top tackler on Chicago last year but he didn’t grade out all that well on the advanced metrics.
On the defensive line, things are even more sketchy. At the other defensive end spot, across from Ansah, is Devon Kennard, who was brought in as an OLB but will mostly play as a pass rusher. He seems fine? Kerry Hyder is back after missing last season, which is a good sign since he had 8 sacks in 2016. Neither of these are every down players, so I assume Patricia is going to rotate them with frequency.
On the interior, things don’t look good, if I’m being honest. Da’Shawn Hand was a pick I liked in the fourth round of this draft, given he has huge potential, even if it’s been largely unrealized. He had a strong camp and preseason, and he may even start week 1. That’s good news for his potential growth as an NFL player, but probably bad news for the Lions. Detroit signed a pair of scrappy veterans at DT, Sylvester Williams and Ricky Jean Francois, both players with incredible names who graded out as pretty meh last season. Then there’s A’Shawn Robinson, who’s been fine as a run defender but hasn’t really developed into much else. He had a disappointing preseason and the former 2nd round pick has a lot to prove in 2018. Again, much like LB, it’s a lot of dudes, but no one knows if they’re good or not.
Lastly, the 2nd CB spot seems like it’s going to be won by Nevin Lawson, which is not a good sign. While Lawson was a solid #2 corner in 2016, he was awful in 2017 and didn’t have a strong summer camp. The Lions have to hope he finds his old form. At nickel, 2nd year player Jamal Agnew looks to get the nod after getting very few defense snaps a year ago. Let’s see how that goes.
All in all, I’m very worried about this defense. At run defending, the tackles are weak, the ends aren’t great at it, though the linebackers are solid at that aspect thanks to Davis. As for pass defending, the Lions have ¾ of a good secondary, but if Lawson doesn’t come around, oof is that a weak spot. Also, I have no faith that the Lions have anyone who can cover a TE, which is also not good. The hope for this unit to me, rests on Matt Patricia’s shoulders. Over the past several years, he converted a Patriots defense that was consistently very weak in yards per game and DVOA into one of the better PPGA defenses. His scheme is exclusively about bend not break, that giving up a bunch of yards is okay, so long as you don’t give up a touchdown.
A Few Words on the Trajectory of the Franchise
I was a fan of the decision to hire Bob Quinn. We as a franchise needed to shake things up after 20 years of either Matt Millen or Matt Millen’s right hand man (Martin Mayhew). Getting Bob Quinn from New England was smart in terms of trying to pry someone from the most successful franchise in the NFL. We’re now entering Year 3 of the Quinn era, and the jury is still out. Any discussion of Quinn has to start with the knowledge that he inherited a terrible roster. There were very few pieces on the offensive line, no good running backs, a gutted defensive line, few linebackers, and only Slay and Glover Quin in the secondary. Yes, the Lions went only 7-9 the year before Quinn was hired, but that was incredibly misleading. That was a team carried by Stafford entirely, lacking of talent everywhere on the roster.
So how has Quinn done to improve the Lions’ roster? Some of his picks look good, like Taylor Decker and Graham Glasgow, while others are a little worrying, like Teez Tabor and A’Shawn Robinson, for example. That’s to be expected from a GM. But my biggest question is about the trajectory of the franchise. Football is a strange sport, with injuries often being the difference between a good season and a bad season, and simple moves in the offseason can make a team a lot better (Atlanta 2016, New Orleans 2017). Thus, teams don’t really follow the classic rebuilding path of an NBA, MLB, or NHL team. Still, when a team bottoms out, like Cleveland or Chicago in recent years, you can still see a rebuilding arc. That isn’t as clear with the Lions, because they still have a very good QB. The good news is because of how well NFL QB’s age, Stafford will probably be good for another decade. However, I don’t really know how far away the Lions are from contending for a Super Bowl.
When I saw the Bears trade two first rounders for Khalil Mack, part of me wanted the Lions to do that. But part of me also feels like that’s a move I’d only feel comfortable making if you’re on the verge of winning a Super Bowl (the Bears aren’t obviously). And are the Lions? I’m not comfortable enough with the defense to answer yes, quite frankly. I know that Quinn and Patricia are in just their first year together, but I still wonder where this team is headed. What is the path to contention? Maybe the offense explodes this season and the team wins 11-12 games and is a real contender despite a suspect defense (a la Atlanta 2016). I know we’ll have the answer to this question soon enough, but it is the thing vexing me the most as the 2018 season kicks off tonight.
The last word on 2018
I don’t like making predictions about an overall season, but when in doubt, predict 7-9, 8-8, or 9-7. As my uncle always says, if you predict one of those things, you’re not going to be too far off, both in the context of the modern NFL, but if the team overperforms, you’ll be a few wins off, but the same is true if they go 5-11. It’s also the easiest prediction for a team that’s gone 7-9, 9-7, and 9-7 the last three years. The Lions have been trapped in mediocrity and unable to break free. The path to be elite in 2018 is to let the offense explode and have Patricia work his magic on the defense despite not great talent. But it’s easy to see how the opposite could happen if the Lions are on the wrong end of some close games. Detroit is in a loaded division in a loaded conference, which means they will probably be in a handful of close games like last season. I’m not feeling great about this season, but I’m also not really dreading it. I guess we just have to see what happens.