Well, the 2017 crusade for the Detroit Lions is over. In some regards, it came up short of expected, with a record of 9-7, but in other ways, it was largely playing up to the talent level of the squad: a mediocre team. While I think when analyzing in game scenarios, the team could have finished with a better record and made the playoffs (they lost to a Cincy team they were better than, squandered chances to beat Atlanta and Pittsburgh), in no way does 9-7 seem like a drastic underperformance.
So, as the Lions look forward to the offseason, what are the things GM Bob Quinn must do in order to get Detroit over the hump, from mediocre/maybe good to one of the more elite NFC contenders? There are a few areas to address and let’s break them down:
1. He needs to hire the right coach
The Lions parted with Jim Caldwell after the season, who went 36-28 in 4 seasons with the club. Caldwell was a player’s coach, a classy individual, and a great man. In no way is he a bad coach, but he has a tendency for questionable in-game decision making and slow starts, and his failure to develop a run game during his tenure was alarming. It was the right decision. But this next coach needs to be the championship coach, a talent developer for the youth of the team, especially on defense. Someone who can maximize the talent on the roster, build good football players, and take the Lions to the promised land. The names that are out there are promising, including Steve Wilks, Mike Vrabel, Matt Patricia, Pat Shurmur, Jim Bob Cooter, Teryl Austin, and Winston Moss.
This is the first order of business and Quinn needs to get it right. My ideal selection would be Matt Patricia, Defensive Coordinator, New England Patriots. The Lions have asked Patricia for an interview and with Quinn’s own connections to New England, the interest makes sense. Patricia is my ideal choice despite my hesitancy to hire a New England coach due to the track record of Belichick assistants because he’s wicked smart. A guy who could be working for NASA, he’s well known as one of the best teachers and a film guru. Beloved in New England, he’s engineered defenses of the bend not break variety, ones that have low DVOA yet keep the opponents off the scoreboard. He switches his defenses around from a 5-2 to a 3-4 to a 4-3, depending on scenario. That flexibility and creativity is ideal and he has rave reviews from around the league. He’s worked with linebackers in his past and he was an offensive lineman in college, which is perfect for the Lions. At 43 years old, he has the potential to be the Lions coach for a long time. In my opinion, he’d be the home run hire. But if Detroit cannot get Patricia, then Mike Vrabel and Pat Shurmur would be fine in my opinion.
II. Shoring up the running game
The one thing holding back the Lions offense from being of the truly elite variety that would make them an instant Super Bowl contender is the anemic running game. Detroit finished 32nd at just 76.3 YPG in 2017. They haven’t been out of the bottom five in rushing since 2013. Quinn invested money in the offensive line in the offseason and it didn’t produce an effective running game. Part of that was injuries. Four of the five offensive line starters missed at least 3 games, including losing stud LT Taylor Decker for half of a season (and he was very rusty for the other half). But when the guys were healthy, nothing happened. And that’s not really due to a lack of good play. RT Rick Wagner graded out as a top 10 tackle in football by PFF, Lang was good before the injuries got him, and Graham Glasgow took a huge step forward. Yet the unit was far less than the sum of the parts. Quinn has to fix this, now.
I recommend a few solutions, and I don’t think it’s a hard problem to fix. It starts with better coaching. The play calling was far, far too predictable and the blocking scheme was generally a mess. Whoever the new head coach is needs to work with this unit, or hire an offensive coordinator with a specialty in running schemes. Matthew Stafford is elite, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones are a great tandem, Eric Ebron balled out in the second half, and Kenny Golladay and TJ Jones were good when healthy. The passing game doesn’t need any help. It’s championship caliber. So whoever the new OC is needs to be a running focused coordinator. The second solution is to draft a running back. Even when holes opened, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick were plainly unable to find and hit them. Riddick is an excellent receiving back but that’s what he is. Tion Green looked much better as a runner than either Abdullah and Riddick did, and it showed in him averaging 3.9 YPC, as opposed to 3.4 for Riddick and 3.3 for Abdullah. And Green was undrafted for a reason. He isn’t fast or very athletic, but he’s a guy who can find the hole and hit it. So, I recommend drafting a running back, preferably in the second or third round. Whether it’s Derrius Guice or Nick Chubb or Sony Michel or Damien Harris or Kerryon Johnson or Ronald Jones II, Quinn needs to pick the right guy, an every down back. Lastly, I would recommend either using a 7th round pick or an undrafted free agent slot to scoop up a full-back or power back. A battering ram who can come in on 3rd and 1 scenarios where the Lions were awful. The game against Pittsburgh where they failed at the 1 yard line numerous times may have cost them a shot at the playoffs. They need what Khalid Hill was at Michigan, a guy who comes in and gets the 1 yard and that’s what he’s good for. That extends drives and gets TD’s.
III. Use the draft and free agency to go crazy and fix the defense
The other aspect the Lions need to fix is the defense. With the offense having the potential to be excellent, they don’t need a great defense. They just need an average to good one. This season it started like that and then tailed off. It is hurt by depth and its status as a top run defense was turned on its head after the injury to Haloti Ngata. The first key decision is what to do with Ziggy Ansah. He finished the season with 12 sacks and in theory that makes him a potent pass rusher. But 9 of his sacks came in just three games(!) against New York, Cincinnati, and Green Bay. In the other 11 games, he was nearly invisible. He continues to be dogged by injuries, and while he is a factor in the run game, he is not what he once was. The Lions can franchise tag him, but that’s a hefty price. I’m honestly on the fence about Ansah. It’s up to Quinn to decide.
They need to use the first round draft pick on either a DE or a DT, to help fortify the line. I would recommend re-signing Tahir Whitehead as he had a nice bounceback season, grading out at 79.6 via PFF, good enough for #26 among linebackers. He’s a nice piece and at 27, he’s still got a few more years left in him. I would let Nevin Lawson and Tavon Wilson leave in free agency, and let Quandre Diggs continue his transition to safety. Teez Tabor can plug in at nickelback and try and sign a new CB, preferably a wily veteran to hold that position down until Tabor is ready for it, someone like Jonathan Joseph, Prince Amukamara, or Brent Grimes. I would also look into a linebacker who could be a small step up from Paul Worrilow to help the young LB corps. And of course if Ansah leaves, adding help on the line, either a pass rusher or a defensive tackle is key.
There is no simple answer to the Lions issues, but they aren’t that far away. In the world of the NFL, teams can go from good to bad and from mediocre to great in one offseason. We saw that latter note with the Rams, Vikings, Eagles, Saints, and for a time, the Jaguars. If the Lions can solve their running issues, going from atrocious to average, the offense will go from good to elite. And if the defense can go from not very good to average, through adding pieces on the lines and the development of the young linebackers, they can make the jump to a Super Bowl contender. But it all starts with the right coach, and it all rests in the hands of GM Bob Quinn.