3 biggest offseason needs for the Detroit Lions
After emerging as one of the better teams in the NFC in 2014, the Lions have fallen away to a 4-9 record. A tumultuous season has seen offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and general manager Martin Mayhew fired. The organization seems committed to head coach Jim Caldwell, who absolved himself of responsibility for the disaster against the Vikings, a game in which Stafford was sacked seven times. Despite struggling this year, the Lions have enough talent to challenge in 2016 if they make a few minor adjustments.
Consistency at QB
Matt Stafford can make every throw in the book, and has the arm strength that opens the eyes of NFL scouts. Yet despite his physical attributes, Stafford’s decision-making over the past two years has been less than impressive. After finishing as our 22nd overall QB in 2014, Stafford has regressed further. He’s currently our 31st overall QB in 2015, with a passing grade of just 56.5 (on a scale of 1–100). Despite some outstanding performances, such as against the Giants last year and the Eagles this season, Stafford’s standard game is below average. He has 17 negatively-graded games in the past two seasons, compared to just eight positively-graded games. If this consistency remains an issue for the soon to be 28-year-old quarterback—and with no real viable replacements in the free agency crop—the Lions will struggle to compete in the NFC North over the course of a 16-game season.
Stafford is due to make $17 million in 2016, and the Lions can save $11.5 million by cutting him. It wouldn’t be the safe option, but holding the seventh pick of the NFL draft if the season ended today, Detroit would have a shot at one of the top quarterbacks in this draft class. After six years in the league, Stafford’s image as a franchise quarterback is fading. Of teams currently slotted to select above Detroit, only San Francisco and Cleveland are likely shopping for a quarterback. It’s possible that Cal quarterback prospect Jared Goff will be sitting on the board at pick seven, or be available in a trade-up scenario.
It’s unfortunate that DeAndre Levy played only 17 snaps before going onto IR with a hip injury. With that said, the Lions need a pair of three-down linebackers who can cover in space. MLB Stephen Tulloch has been an excellent servant for Detroit, but his injury-derailed 2014 season arguably seems like it had a lasting impact. Although he’s played well against the run this year (87.2) he’s really struggled in coverage (37.0). Overall, he’s allowed a QB rating of 127.0 when targeted (81 completion percentage, 390 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions), which is seventh-worst amongst inside linebackers. Levy’s replacement, Josh Bynes (77.7 overall), has done a solid job, especially in run defense (84.1) but has had a mixed year in coverage (71.0). He has the fourth-worst QB rating when targeted amongst 4-3 OLBs (128.0). Bynes has allowed 73.8 percent of passes to be caught, while also yielding three touchdowns without an interception.
Interior linebackers are rarely worthy of a top-10 pick, so the Lions will use later draft picks or potentially free agency to upgrade the unit. One intriguing option is Cleveland inside linebacker Craig Robertson (65.1). Although he’s struggled as a run defender throughout his career, he’s flashed consistently in coverage (80.8 grade in 2015). Over the past two years he has allowed 36-of-43 targets to be completed for 404 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions and five passes defensed. Or, the Lions could look for a guy with more pedigree, who can play multiple roles. Seattle’s Bruce Irvin (79.0) would fit the bill, but he won’t come cheap. He could give the Lions’ pass rush a boost on third-downs opposite Ziggy Ansah, as well as make plays in coverage standing up (78.7 coverage grade).
Complete defensive tackle
The Lions overhauled their personnel on the interior defensive line in the 2015 offseason. They considered Ndamukong Suh’s demands too rich, and were fed up with Nick Fairley’s indiscipline. Haloti Ngata (75.2) has had a solid season, but was only ever deemed a short-term solution. Other than the former Raven, Detroit doesn’t have a defensive lineman with a positive grade. Over the past few years, mid-round investments in Caraun Reid and Gabe Wright have yet to demonstrate significant return.
The Lions have invested a number of high draft picks in defensive lineman over the past few years, and there are likely to be a multitude of options if they do end up with the seventh overall pick. Assuming top prospects Joey Bosa and DeForest Buckner are off the board, the Lions will have some options in the group just below them. Personal preference will dictate which way they go, considering there’s little to separate between the likes of Ohio State’s Adolphus Washington, Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day, and Florida’s Jonathan Bullard. Washington and Day are the better scheme fits, having played in the 4-3. Washington has the second-highest pass rush grade amongst interior defensive lineman, having recorded five sacks, eight hits, and 35 hurries. Day, meanwhile, ranks fourth with four sacks, nine hits, and 31 hurries. The Notre Dame product contributed more against the run than Washington, however (+23.6 grade compared with +14.0), making him perhaps the more attractive option.