The Super Bowl is now over, with the New England Patriots being crowned as football’s champions. With it comes the close of the 2018-19 NFL season and the beginning of the offseason period before the 2019-20 season. This past season was an unmitigated disaster for the Detroit Lions, who finished at 6-10, firmly out of the playoff picture despite having had winning records in three of the preceding four seasons. The team went from mediocre to bad, despite being proclaimed by General Manager Bob Quinn last offseason as a team that had underachieved in 2017.
The Lions enter the offseason at a turning point of sorts, trying to find a way to claw back into relevancy and ideally, true contention. So what is the path to doing so? This article is a look into the top priorities that the team needs to address and how Quinn & Co. can go about addressing them:
Coaching (not anymore)
If I had written this article a few weeks earlier, coaching changes would have been top on the list. Instead, the Lions seem to be set with a coaching staff going forward after hiring former Seahawks and Vikings offensive coach Darrell Bevell as Offensive Coordinator and former Giants and Texans offensive coach Sean Ryan as Quarterbacks Coach. The former was seen as a mediocre hire, as Bevell has produced both excellent and terrible offenses over the years. Ryan was hailed as a tremendous hire due to his recent string of success with DeShaun Watson in Houston. Both coaches are new to the organization, which is probably a good thing given that the Lions’ offense has been directed by the same coaching tree for five seasons (Lombardi followed by JBC). Only time will tell whether these moves work out, but it’s hard to be worse than the stale and unimaginative play calling of Cooter that was so bad that many NFL teams were stealing Detroit’s playcalls pre-play. The first step to improving the Lions is kick starting the offense and at least the Lions seem to have decided on the coaches that they want to do that with.
Holes to fill
The Lions enter free agency with a lot of needs and a lot of holes to fill. In combination with the draft, the Lions need to focus on plugging the following holes:
- 2nd cornerback: Darius Slay had a down season in 2018 compared to 2017, but he is still a player who should be able to play at an above-average level for another 2-3 seasons. Opposite of Slay? Oof. Teez Tabor is a borderline bust at this point, Jamal Agnew is a nickel at best, and Nevin Lawson has gotten 17 tries and is just not a plus-NFL player. While the safety spot has solidified with Quandre Diggs and the emerging Tracy Walker, the #2 corner splot is a glaring hole.
- Guard: The TJ Lang experience is probably over. Lang was an excellent player in Green Bay but he simply couldn’t stay on the field in Detroit, playing just 6 games in 2018. His contract is the fourth largest on the team and the Lions likely have very little interest in forking over a ton of money for a player who isn’t playing. They can save $8 M to spend in free agency on a different player by cutting Lang and that is likely to happen. Thus, there is a spot at starting guard to fill.
- Linebacker: Jarrad Davis improved as a run defender and blitzer, but he still has issues in his all-around game and he needs help. PFF graded none of the Lions’ top four linebackers as higher than average and the team is desperately in need of an impact player here.
- Defensive End: It’s no secret that the Lions’ pass rush is bad. The days of 2014, when pass rush was a team strength, are over. While the Lions' sack numbers weren’t half bad (middle of the league), there were a lot of coverage sacks and the team lacks a dynamo pass rusher. With the constantly-injured Ziggy Ansah likely to depart in free agency, there is absolutely nothing at this position. While the Defensive Tackle position is now a clear strength thanks to the acquisition of Damon Harrison, the late season resurgence of A’Shawn Robinson, and the promising future of Da’Shawn Hand, defensive end needs a lot of help.
- 3rd wide receiver: The Lions’ WR depth proved to be a disaster late season. After the Golden Tate trade and Marvin Jones’ injury-plagued season set in, Detroit was exposed to have basically no depth at the position and Kenny Golladay was the only target. Jones will be back and healthy and he and Golladay are a good tandem, but the Lions will need a real slot receiver and in theory, a viable 4th option, too
So how can the Lions fill these holes in free agency? The good news is, they have a lot to spend. The Lions will rollover $6 M in cap from this season, meaning the final cap will be around $195 M. If every contract on the book + draft picks are signed, the Lions would have $22 M to spend, but in reality, they will likely have much more than that. The Lions can gain $16 M in space by cutting TJ Lang and Glover Quin, two moves that are highly likely to happen, and they are also committing $4+ M to Theo Riddick and $5+ M to Nevin Lawson, two players I could easily see being cut. Point is, they could have close to $45 M to spend in free agency, so they have the room to go after big names.
Who are the targets?
- Trey Flowers, DE: It’s unknown if New England will let their best pass-rusher get away, but if he hits the market, you have to think the Lions will be hot on his trail. He’s a guy who is highly versatile and plays a ton of positions and oh, he plays on New England. That’s exactly the type of pedigree and player the Lions have tried to get and he’s already played for Matt Patricia, and Bob Quinn helped draft him.
- Anthony Barr, LB: A guy who the Lions wanted to draft back under the old regime is likely going to hit the free agent market this spring. His career with the Vikings never really made him into a star, but he’s a respectable NFL player who isn’t going to cost a lot and would definitely be an upgrade over Detroit’s current LB unit.
- Kareem Jackson, CB: There is concern over age for the soon-to-be 31 year-old corner, but he’s an above-average corner who would be a good and not-too-expensive option on a short-term deal to be a temporary fix at a positional weakness.
- CJ Mosley, ILB: If the Lions want to break the bank and shell out a bunch of the money they have to a linebacker, CJ Mosley is the guy. A multi-time Pro Bowler for Baltimore, Mosley would be a huge upgrade to the LB corps and give Jarrad Davis some help.
- Bryce Callahan, CB: Callahan is a 27 year-old corner who has been very good- and steadily improving- over the last several seasons in Chicago. Set to hit the free agent market, Callahan is PFF’s 2nd best corner on the market after Ronald Darby. Younger than Jackson, he could be a longer-term solution to the corner position.
- Rodger Saffold, G: Saffold is on the older end, but he was great for Los Angeles this year and is a run-blocking specialist. For a team that is trying to build offensively around the rushing game, Saffold would be a great short-term fix at right guard.
- Cole Beasley, WR: One of the NFL’s best slot receivers, Beasley is a solid option to fill the void left after Golden Tate was traded away.
There’s also a list of a bunch of guys who the Lions would love to shell out money for but will likely all be franchise tagged, like Dee Ford, JaDeveon Clowney, DeMarcus Lawrence, etc.. With the amount of money the Lions have to spend, they have the ability to mix and match and perhaps shell out big money for a Flowers or Mosley, and still have cash to plug one more hole with a solid player, like a Callahan at corner. The Lions have been very timid under Bob Quinn, frugal and refusing to go after big names. With money to spend and perhaps a feeling of urgency, that could change this offseason.
By virtue of their poor season, the Lions have the ability to pick with the #8 selection in the NFL Draft in 2019. The most commonly mocked players to the Lions fill their needs. Greedy Williams, a corner from LSU would be a long-term solution across from Darius Slay. Devin White, a linebacker from LSU, could form a fearsomely athletic young LB corps with Jarrad Davis. Clelin Ferrell, a defensive end from Clemson, would give the Lions the pass-rushing threat they need. Whichever way the Lions go with their top pick, it is likely to be defense, and it is likely to be someone who directly fill their needs. In the second and third round, they could pick a guard or WR or whatever they didn’t address previously to try and round out the roster.
The Lions have a lot of work to be done in the offseason. The best piece of optimism entering the offseason is how much the run defense improved in the second half of the season, after Harrison arrived from New York and A’Shawn Robinson finally began to reach his monstrous potential. In the first 8 games, the Lions’ run defense allowed 1,140 yards, or an atrocious 142.5 per game. In the final 8 games, the Lions’ run defense allowed just 621 yards, or 77.63 per game. That luxury makes it so the Lions don’t have to build down the middle and can focus at the still very large issues they have at pass rush (DE and OLB), as well as at corner. Any combination of free agents and elite talent in the draft have the potential to improve the team and its time that they build like they want to compete.
On the offensive side, most of the improvement will have to come from the players and the coaches. Yes, finding another WR or two and a guard will be helpful, but most 2019 success is incumbent upon the players and coaches themselves. In 2017, the offense was 7th in scoring and 13th in yards per game. This season it was 25th and 24th, respectively, despite having basically the same roster and same offensive coaching staff. That has to improve in 2019 and there’s not a lot that Quinn can do in free agency or the draft to fix it. It’s up to Bevell, Stafford, and others. But on the defensive side, this is where Quinn needs to prove his worth.
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