2016 cheat sheet: Detroit Lions
To get you ready for the 2016 NFL season, the PFF analysis crew is assembling team “cheat sheets” to catch you up on the latest changes, grades, and rankings of note involving your NFL team.
The Detroit Lions head into the 2016 season looking to bounce back from a disappointing 7-9 campaign in 2015. However, the team looked much improved after some midseason coaching changes last year, and can be successful early on if they continue to build on that momentum. The Lions will no doubt miss Calvin Johnson following his abrupt retirement, but added the top WR available on the free agent market in Marvin Jones in an attempt to mitigate the loss of the future Hall of Famer.
Three biggest things to know
1. Matthew Stafford on a downward trend the past two seasons.
A few years ago, it looked like Matthew Stafford was on the cusp of becoming a perennial name in the top-10 NFL quarterback discussion, stringing together three straight seasons of good play and an overall grade that ranked eighth in 2013. However, he dipped to 22nd in 2014, and those struggles continued into last season. Through the first six weeks of 2015, Stafford was the lowest-graded quarterback in the league. The changes to the offensive coaching staff midseason did help both Stafford and the entire offense, and he played better down the stretch, but he still needs to improve his consistency. Stafford must also prove he can succeed without Calvin Johnson for a full season for the first time in his pro career.
2. Lions’ front-seven now their best positional group.
After moving on from Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley an offseason ago, it’s somewhat surprising to see the Lions’ front-seven as their highest-ranked positional group. But for the most part ,they have found production when needed. LB Tahir Whitehead played well for a second-consecutive year, and Josh Bynes was a valuable addition last season. DeAndre Levy’s return after injury should only help solidify the linebacker group. Meanwhile, Ziggy Ansah is on his way to becoming one of the most productive edge rushers in the league. Now they just need to get more-pass rush production out of the rest of the defensive line, as Ansah accounted for nearly one-third of the defense’s total sacks and hits in 2015.
3. Offensive line changes.
The Lions shook up a struggling offensive line by drafting Ohio State’s Taylor Decker in the first round to play left tackle, allowing Riley Reiff to move over to right tackle. There’s no question the line needed some improvements, with the Lions returning just a single offensive lineman (Reiff) with an above-average overall grade last season. Decker’s specialty is run blocking, where he should do well, but he will need to make significant strides in pass protection. We’ve already seen him beaten quickly a couple times so far this preseason. Still, he should be a considerable net upgrade over LaAdrian Waddle and Cornelius Lucas’ poor performances last year.
Key arrivals and departures
Top three draft picks: LT Taylor Decker (Round 1, pick No. 16 overall, Ohio State), DT A’Shawn Robinson (Round 2, pick No. 46 overall, Alabama), C Graham Glasgow (Round 3, pick No. 95 overall, Michigan)
Signed in free agency: WR Marvin Jones (Bengals), S Rafael Bush (Saints), S Tavon Wilson (Patriots), LB Jon Bostic (Patriots), DE Wallace Gilberry (Bengals), DT Stefan Charles (Bills)
Acquired via trade: G Brandon Thomas (49ers)
Left via free agency: RB Joique Bell (UFA), S Isa Abdul-Quddus (Dolphins)
Left via trade: WR Jeremy Kerley (49ers)
Cut: G Geoff Schwartz
Retired: WR Calvin Johnson, CB Rashean Mathis
Rookie to watch
A’Shawn Robinson, DT, Alabama (Round 2, pick No. 46 overall)
Robinson probably won’t be a starter as a rookie, but he should see plenty of playing time along the defensive line. Robinson was one of the best run defenders in the nation during the past two seasons at Alabama. He’s more than capable of controlling offensive linemen and rarely gets blocked out of a play. Because of his lack of explosiveness and pass-rush production in college, he may be limited to a two-down role initially, but does have room to improve as a pass-rusher.
Highest-graded player of 2015
The former second-round draft pick has progressed well over the first three seasons of his career, and is coming off one of the best season performances we saw from a cornerback last year. Slay ranked sixth in overall grade and coverage grade among NFL CBs. Just as importantly, he has become much more consistent on a week-to-week basis, grading above-average in 10 games and grading below-average just twice last season. There are still a few question marks in the Detroit secondary, but Slay looks like he is the cornerstone of the group.
Breakout player watch
Quandre Diggs, CB
Last year’s sixth-round pick out of Texas earned more playing time as the season progressed last year, eventually locking down the slot corner position on the defense by midseason. From Weeks 10 to 16, Diggs was the NFL’s second-highest graded cornerback in coverage. His 0.56 yards allowed per cover snap in the slot ranked second behind only Denver’s Chris Harris Jr. Unfortunately, he ended the season with his worst game of the year, but he put plenty of good performances on tape to give the Lions confidence in his ability, and he should be a player to watch in 2016, as he should get to start the entire season as the nickel cornerback.
Nickel defense (2015 season grades shown)
Offense with three receivers (2015 season grades shown)