After a long hibernation period, the NFL is officially back. Fans of teams from across America will finally have our beloved national religion (move over, Jesus) on the gridiron again, a desperately needed event to distract us from a pandemic, raging wildfires, and a rapidly approaching presidential election. Unfortunately, if you’re a Detroit Lions fan like I, your life has been filled with moments where being subjected to the horrors of real life has seemed preferable to watching another NFL game. Still, we turn on the TV every Sunday and I will be eager to do the same this Sunday when the Lions take the field against the Bears. Two years ago I wrote a preview of the Lions’ season for this website and was quite pessimistic, something that was confirmed by their subsequent 6-10 record. Last year I had a preview written but chose not to publish it- perhaps a good idea because I (obviously) did not see the team winning just three games. At least you can chalk that up to injuries.
Now with the 2020 season just two days away, I present to you yet another preview of the Detroit Lions, this time their 2020 iteration. This article will go through a series of points about where I'm optimistic and where I'm pessimistic, starting with...
What I feel good about: The Passing Game
Last season the Lions’ offense was completely rejuvenated under the play calling of Darrell Bevell, and Matthew Stafford was playing the best football of his career until his injury. It goes without saying that if the Lions can’t get Stafford healthy, they have a 0% chance of going anywhere in the NFL this season. We saw that in the final eight games of last year (No, Chase Daniel is not fixing the team in the event of another Stafford injury). But after having a full offseason to heal, reports out of training camp are about as positive as they could be for Stafford’s health and if he is in the lineup, I feel extremely confident about the effectiveness of this passing offense. In the first eight games last year, the Lions were averaging 295 passing yards per game, which across a full season would’ve ranked third best in the NFL. Bevell’s play-calling was the sharpest I’ve ever seen from a Lions OC in my lifetime (not exactly a high bar, though) and Detroit weaponized play-action to lethal success.
Reports out of camp are also positive about receiving corps: rookie WR Quintez Cephus has been the standout of camp, CB-turned-WR Jamal Agnew appears to be an interesting speedy weapon, and WR Marvin Hall is still around and should be good to make his one 35 yard catch per game. The Lions appear likely to carry 6 WR’s onto the roster and that’s because it’s a position of strength, not weakness. On top of those three, you have old faithful Danny Amendola, the slightly underrated Marvin Jones, and Kenny Golladay. Though Golladay doesn’t have a sexy name like a Mike Evans, he’s proved to be highly effective and gives the Lions a legit #1 threat. And on top of all of this you have tight end TJ Hockenson, who you hope makes the sophomore leap that most second year TE’s make. If he breaks out and becomes a 600ish yard guy, that’s another weapon. Oh and the Lions drafted DeAndre Swift in the early second round, who should play a big role as a receiving back. With a healthy Stafford, there’s a legit chance this passing game could make a run at the league’s best this year.
What I don’t feel good about: the running game
This meme I made sums up the last decade of being a Lions fan. Every year we hear that “this is the year the running game gets going” and every year it doesn’t happen. We were told that after Jahvid Best was drafted, after Reggie Bush was signed, after Ameer Abdullah was drafted, after the Lions signed TJ Lang and Rick Wagner, after Kerryon Johnson and Frank Ragnow were drafted, and again after TJ Hockenson was drafted last year. I’m not particularly down on the Lions running game, at least compared to previous years. It’s just I will not feel “good” about the running game until it actually happens. I have learned my lesson Lucy, I will NOT try and kick that football this year unless it’s on a goddamn tee and out of your grimy hands. I don't care about Swift being drafted or the signing/drafting of apparent maulers Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Jonah Jackson. The talent is there on paper but I. Will. Not. Be. Fooled. Again.
What I feel good about: Offseason defensive pickups
The Lions didn’t have an offseason that got lots of chatter in the NFL circles and it makes sense. They didn’t sign the literal GOAT QB, or trade for a marquee WR for pennies on the dollar, and they didn’t hand out a monster deal to a top free agent like last season. But they made a handful of moves to beef up the defense that I think could have a big impact. We’ve parodied the way the Lions have tried to turn themselves into New England But In Michigan by signing guys they probably shouldn’t, but snaring Danny Shelton, Jamie Collins, and Duron Harmon were all good moves. Collins brings a steady veteran presence to a position that badly needed it (LB), Duron Harmon is one of the more underrated safeties in the league, actually ranking in the top 25 of NFL safeties in PFF’s recent rankings, and Danny Shelton gives Detroit a probable starter at DT. On top of that, the Lions reeled in Desmond Trufant to replace Darius Slay at corner, which given their performances a year ago, is arguably an upgrade. These pieces are not high money or long-term deals but seem like they were intelligent uses of cap space to plug holes that were quite wide open a year ago.
What I don’t feel good about: So uh… who’s playing DT?
By far the weakest spot on Detroit’s roster seems to be defensive tackle, where they are carrying the following players into week 1: Danny Shelton, Nick Williams, and John Penisini, with Da’Shawn Hand playing both inside and out on the line. Williams and Shelton were good signings who should be serviceable starters, as noted in the previous section, but beyond that this depth chart gets very grim. John Penisini was a 7th round draft pick in the spring, profiling as a space eater nose tackle. If Williams and Shelton can play a full 16 games, the Lions may be fine, but this is football. That’s probably not going to happen and if we actually have to see Penisini (and other guys from the practice squad) play a lot, it won’t be good for the Lions. And boy, if Penisini gets hurt, then you, the reader, might as well strap on your pads and head to Allen Park and suit up at defensive tackle because I’ve got nothin’ on who would play that spot. On the bright side, Da’Shawn Hand gives the Lions a chance for an impact player along the interior of the line, as he’s been very good when completely healthy. But through two years Hand being completely healthy has been something of a fleeting glimpse than something we can have any real faith in.
What I feel good about: the secondary?
Detroit’s secondary was an utter catastrophe last season, ranking last in the NFL in passing yards against. They gave no real resistance to some of the best passing offenses they faced and the unit needed a complete overhaul in the offseason, something they mostly got. Trading Slay and signing Trufant was the first move, which I previously noted is probably an upgrade because Slay was quite bad last year. It was the worst season I’d seen him play since his rookie year in 2013, and while he could very well bounce back with Philly this year, it’s not like losing Slay means all that much given how poorly he played a year ago. Meanwhile, Trufant is a reliable, steady veteran. Though you’d ideally like a better #1 corner than him, you can also have a lot worse. As of this moment, the #2 corner would seem to be Amani Oruwariye, which is partly a function of Jeff Okudah’s inexperience, but also of Oruwariye’s growth. A 2019 draft pick who slid from the projected second round to the Lions in the fifth, Oruwariye looked much the part of a projected second rounder last season, one of the only bright spots in the secondary when he actually got to play.
Reports from training camp are quite positive about Oruwariye and I honestly don’t feel bad about him as the starting #2. Okudah will be a dude, and maybe this season, but it probably won’t happen right away. Okudah’s been greatly hurt by the fact the team didn’t practice all spring/summer and played no preseason games due to COVID. Ideally he should be a major contributor by midseason. At safety, I’m looking for Tracy Walker to make another jump after maturing into a quality starter last year, and I already mentioned the Harmon pickup, meanwhile second year player Will Harris needs to show some improvement. As a whole, I don’t think this group is the second coming of the Legion of Boom, but I am surprisingly okay with the secondary entering the season. Furthermore, I think they should be the strength of the 2020 defense. Even though that makes me incredibly nauseous to say, because calling the Lions’ secondary a strength just one year after the 2019 season feels like calling the city of Pripyat, Ukraine, a bastion of environmental health just one year after the Chernobyl meltdown.
What I don’t feel good about: the coaching staff
On paper, this is a team that should have a shot to make a run. They’ve got what could be a lethal offense, they brought in a fair bit of talent to shore up the defense, and have a very good QB. But the cloud hanging over all of this is the utter lack of faith that I, and everyone in the football world, have in Matt Patricia and his staff. I’m not including Darrell Bevell in this, since he runs the offense on his own and I’ve already buttered him up with praise. But as for the defense and the team overall, this coaching staff has given us nothing to be optimistic about. It started with a catastrophe of a Monday Night Football debut back in 2018, where the Lions self-immolated on national TV and Matt Patricia looked on with a bewildered and hapless face. Then we heard complaints from veteran players about the toxic culture, and complete lack of respect from other coaches. Patricia has been uncompromising, stubborn, unlikable, and flatly, unsuccessful as a Lions head coach. The team made some necessary coaching moves in the offseason, firing struggling OL coach Jeff Davidson, and replacing 90 year-old defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni with Cory Undlin. I want to believe in these moves, but I’ve been given not an ounce of reason to believe from the past two years, and I won’t until the results give me reason to.
What I feel good about: the winnability of the NFC North
As it stands right now, the Lions are the only team in the division that I think got demonstrably better in the offseason. Minnesota ran into cap hell and had to jettison their entire CB group, as well as Linval Joseph, Stefon, Diggs, and Everson Griffen, though they have restocked some of those areas with top draft picks, as well as excellent pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue. Minnesota still has great players across the roster, but there’s considerable uncertainty with the Vikings and it’s hard not to think there won’t be at least a small step back from them this year. Green Bay had a puzzling offseason where they spent their most valuable asset to pick a guy who probably won’t play this season (Jordan Love). The Packers didn’t make many moves at all and roll mostly the same team into the season, a team that I thought (and the Pythagorean theorem backs up) was supremely overrated. They were, according to expected W/L, more like a 10-6 team than a 13-3 one and I concur with that judgement. The Bears also didn’t make any real moves, losing a couple parts off the defense and bringing in Nick Foles, although Mitch Trubisky is the starter heading into week one. So long as Trubisky is the starter, it’s hard to feel like Chicago has a real shot to be a superpower. All told, I think nine wins could win the division, though you may want ten to be safe. For the record, Football Outsiders’ DVOA projections for the season see all four teams around 8-8 and that doesn’t feel that far off at this time.
The 2020 Lions season feels like a true crossroads for the future of the franchise. The current GM, coach, and QB are all on the line this year because if things fall apart again and the team finishes 4-12, I think the whole management group has to be fired and it’s time to draft one of Fields, Lance, or Lawrence in April and start over. But if the team makes a run, maybe Detroit keeps Stafford around and tries to build around him the way the Saints have with an aging Brees. Unfortunately it’s hard not to feel like 7-9/8-8 is the most logical prediction. That’s what the team probably was last season, had Stafford played a full 16 games, and while they’ve added a lot of pieces compared to that, the coaching staff remains the gargantuan question mark over all of this.
A path for the Lions to make the playoffs probably runs through a monster offense and a passable defense. With the amount of firepower the offense has, as we stated previously, a top five finish is very much on the table. When you have that kind of unit on one side of the ball, you don’t need that much from the other side of the ball to be a playoff team. But you do need something and they didn’t have that last year defensively. The Lions need a defense that can get some stops. Not many, but some. If the defense can just hold opponents to 24 or so points per game against, while the offense surges to up 28 or so points per game for, over a sixteen game season that would translate out to a +64 point differential, which is indicative of a 10-6 team, roughly speaking. That should be enough to win the division.
So Detroit doesn’t need the defense to be incredible, but just to get enough stops to let the offense do the work. And still I’m rather unsteady about whether that can happen or not, simply because of how poor the defense has been in the past two seasons. The other factor to discuss is the schedule, which is extremely front-loaded. The Lions will face Chicago at home week 1, which is a must-win. After that it’s @Packers, @Cardinals, and home against the Saints. Detroit will need to win at least one of those. Following another early bye week, it’s @Jags, @Falcons, Colts, @Vikings. That’s a tough first eight games, where again, just beating Jacksonville and scratching one win out is the goal. Get to 4-4, and then beat Washington and @Carolina to be 6-4. From there, finishing 4-2 down the stretch against Houston, @Chicago, Packers, @Titans, Bucs, and Vikings gets you to ten wins. It’s not easy, but that’s the path to 10-6.
Unfortunately, that kind of schedule presents the possibility that a few things don’t go your way early on and then all of a sudden you’re 1-3 or 0-4 and then there presents the risk of the team giving up and quitting. The NFL is a league of supreme parity, where almost every week is going to a battle and just a couple breaks can flip your season. The Lions saw that first hand last year on a haunted Monday night in Green Bay. Which is why it’s perhaps most reasonable to expect roughly 8-8, but beware: due to both the talent level of the team, as well as the possibility of the coaching staff or frustration with it tanking the season, the tails of probability in either direction, are pretty fat.