32 Teams in 32 Days: Detroit Lions
After the midway point of the 2012 season the Lions were a team in disarray. Not one bounce seemed to go their way as they lost their last eight games by a combined 69 points. It was obvious that changes needed to be made at a number of positions, so the Lions return in 2013 with many new faces in the starting lineup.
Out go Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Gosder Cherilus, Jeff Backus, and Justin Durant. In come Glover Quin, Israel Idonije, Ziggy Ansah, and Reggie Bush. Head coach Jim Schwartz certainly has his work cut out for him as Lions fans have already forgotten about their 2011 playoff berth and want results from their young talent.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Another Year of Development
Even though starting quarterback Matthew Stafford is entering his fifth season in the NFL, the single-season pass attempts record holder is only 25 years old. Stafford’s efficiency had been following an upward trend since his rookie season until he plateaued in 2012 (2009: -32.7, 2010: +3.0, 2011: +8.7, 2012: +9.8). There were many reasons why that may have happened, his shaky wide receiving corps and propensity for side arm passes being the biggest two. While the receivers haven’t drastically improved, if Stafford can keep his mechanics in check another grade bump is all but assured.
2. Interior Defensive Lineman
When it comes to defensive tackles the Lions duo is the class of the NFL. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley graded out as the fourth- and fifth-best defensive tackles last season and were two of the three Lions to make PFF’s Top 101 of 2012 (along with Calvin Johnson, obviously). Both had Pass Rushing Productivity ratings of 9.0 or more last season, while only three defensive tackles had PRP’s that high in the previous four seasons. Their presence is going to make life a lot easier for first-round pick Ziggy Ansah and free agent signings Jason Jones and Israel Idonije.
3. An Intact Secondary
In 2012, Detroit was ineffective in coverage all season. As a team they had the 24th-best quarterback rating against, at 91.7. The secondary was decimated by injuries and inconsistency. Eleven different defensive backs played at least 150 snaps on the season and only one player, Chris Houston, played more than 600 snaps. The starters as of now look to be Houston and Ron Bartell at corner, with Louis Delmas and free agent signing Quin at safety. Rookie Darius Slay and second-year man Bill Bentley also look to be firmly entrenched in a positional battle for second corner. Quin (+2.3) isn’t a pro bowl-caliber safety yet, but he’s only 27 and a marked step up from the likes of John Wendling (-3.6) and Erik Coleman (-4.8).
4. Calvin Johnson
No need for explanation here. Johnson tried his best to be a one-man offense in 2012, and in the process broke Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving record. Megatron caught 122 passes on 199 targets for 1,964 yards. Just imagine if he hadn’t dropped a career high 14 passes on the year. If you add the depth of those drops, and you assume a 4.2 YAC that Johnson averaged in 2012, then Johnson would have amassed an amazing 2,218 yards. If Johnson can cut his 10.29 Drop Rate down in 2013 he could see his 12th-overall ranking in the PFF Top 101 improve next year.
5. A Stable of Running Backs
In the past two seasons the Lions’ have ranked 25th and 29th in the NFL in total rushing attempts. It’s hard to blame Scott Linehan for not running the ball more with the mediocre group of running backs they’ve had. Jahvid Best, Kevin Smith, Maurice Morris, Keiland Williams, Jerome Harrison, Stefan Logan, Aaron Brown, Joique Bell, and Mikel Leshoure have all been handed the ball at one point or another in the past two years. Say what you will about the inflation of Reggie Bush’s abilities based on highlight reel runs, but the former Heisman Trophy winner is the most accomplished back in Detroit since Kevin Smith. Along with Bush is Leshoure, a fully healthy former second-round pick in 2011 and Bell, a third-down specialist. Three viable backs give me reason to believe the Lions will finally be able to take some pressure off Stafford with a viable running game.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Protecting the Edge
With Jeff Backus retiring and Gosder Cherilus spurning Detroit for more money in Indianapolis, the Lions are in the precarious position of having to replace both offensive tackles. While Riley Reiff looks like he’ll be an upgrade in the running game, it remains to be seen if he can hold up in pass protection as well as Backus did. For a team that drops back to pass over 800 times, pass protection is a must, and the Lions have question marks on both sides. The problem is, first-year starter Reiff won’t even be the biggest question mark. The right tackle position will either be manned by Corey Hilliard or Jason Fox. Hilliard got the first look at the position, but Fox appears to have overtaken him as the competition will be ongoing all preseason. Fox was a fourth-round pick in 2010, but hasn’t played since his rookie season having only 26 career snaps and a -3.8 grade to his name. Hilliard also didn’t play a snap last season, but he made two starts at right tackle for the Lions in 2011. In those starts he allowed six total pressures and compiled a grade of -5.1. Even though the Lions felt comfortable enough to decline a veteran free agent signing at tackle, their fans can’t be too excited about their pass protection possibilities in 2013.
2. Who’s Going to Catch all those Passes?
One of the biggest reasons Johnson broke the single-season receiving record last year was because Stafford just didn’t have any other receiver he could rely on. The receivers outside of Megatron were dismal, compiling 99 catches on 163 targets for 1,130 yards and a YPRR of .97. Those numbers are terrible. The Lions haven’t added anyone of note to their receiving corps and will be banking on Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles coming back healthy and productive. If injuries strike the receiving corps again in 2013 it could get ugly quickly for the Lions’ offense.
3. No New Linebackers
The Lions were one of the least efficient teams in stopping the run last season, giving up 4.5 yards per carry. Things only got worse this offseason when their best run stuffing linebacker, Justin Durant, moved on to Dallas. Last season Durant had the fourth-highest Run Stop Percentage among 4-3 outside linebackers, at 9.9. For comparison, DeAndre Levy’s was 8.3 and Stephen Tulloch’s was a particularly poor 8.0 (ranked 23rd among starting inside linebackers). All that being said, Detroit chose to stand pat with their linebackers and promote fifth-year man Ashlee Palmer to starter. Palmer’s -9.8 career grade in 640 snaps leaves a lot to be desired. It’s hard to imagine Detroit’s linebackers will be much improved this season, and it could be a problem for them all year.
4. Questions All Over
When looking up and down the Lions’ depth chart, you can’t help but see a distinct lack of known quantities. Both tackles, right guard, left linebacker, defensive end, cornerback, and wide receiver are all positions that could cause problems for the Lions this season. Compare the Lions unknowns to teams like San Francisco, Green Bay, and Atlanta, and it is easy to see how the Lions could be a few bad breaks away from a repeat of 2012.
5. The NFC North
If the Lions have postseason aspirations in 2013 they’ll have to fight through three playoff-caliber divisional foes. The combined 31 wins of Green Bay, Minnesota, and Chicago was the highest total of any divisions’ top three. The Lions failed to win a divisional game and were held in check offensively. The Lions’ averaged just 18 points per game against NFC North opponents, over 5 points less than their season average. Detroit simply can’t afford to go less than .500 inside their division again if they want to make a run at a playoff spot.
What to Expect?
What was once one of the most exciting, young, talented teams in the NFL, the Lions have faded considerably since the 2011 club went 10-6. One of the biggest reasons for that is the Lions inability to gain quality depth through the draft. The last legitimate starter the Lions drafted outside of the first round was Louis Delmas all the way back in 2009. It’s difficult to sustain success in the NFL without having quality backups to step in when starters invariably leave through injury or free agency. The Lions are no different.
Detroit’s 4-12 record last season did not reflect the talent level on the roster. Detroit still has something that is necessary for winning in the NFL, a capable quarterback. Given all of that though, the talent level still doesn’t reflect a playoff team as they only had the 18th best team PFF grade last season and haven’t made any obvious upgrades. The Vegas money line currently has Detroit’s over/under at 7.5 wins on the season and with their schedule that number is about what I’d expect from them this season.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @PFF_MikeRenner