The Lions are doing everything in their power to get back to the top of their division, a task that surely will be difficult to achieve in the current state of the NFC North.
The two biggest threats within the division are the Packers, who get a healthy Aaron Rodgers for the start of the season, and the highly potent Vikings, who just upgraded their weakest position by signing quarterback Kirk Cousins this offseason.
Still, Detroit has a franchise quarterback of their own in Matthew Stafford, who should not be overlooked. The Lions have become a potent passing offense behind Stafford’s arm. It took a little while for the quarterback to adjust to the retirement of prolific wide receiver Calvin Johnson in 2016, but he finally seems comfortable again, and his weapons are pretty good, as well.
Stafford was pretty great last year, passing for 4,446 on the season. He also threw for 29 touchdowns versus just ten interceptions. His strong play was good enough to support two 1,000 yard receivers. In the process, he was able to transform wide receiver Marvin Jones into one of the top players at his position in the entire league. Jones averaged 18.0 yards per reception in 2017, tallying a total of 1,101 yards on the year, as well as nine touchdowns. Meanwhile, Golden Tate played his role as the possession receiver to perfection. Tate uses volume to get his numbers, and he finished the season with 92 receptions for 1,003 yards and five touchdowns.
At the start of free agency, Detroit was reluctant to re-sign tight end Eric Ebron, who spent his first four seasons in the league with the team. Ebron was unfortunately unable to develop into the top playmaker the team had envisioned when they drafted with the tenth overall (!) pick in the 2014 draft. He certainly has the physical traits and explosive ability to be one of the absolute best tight ends in the NFL, but he has also had issues with drops, as well as timing. With Ebron no longer on the roster, the Lions will look to former Seahawk Luke Willson to take on an expanded role on offense. Willson is an opportunistic playmaker, who can contribute both in the running and passing game. He uses his 6’5 frame to perfection, and Stafford will certainly look his way in scoring position.
Meanwhile, the Lions have struggled for some time to develop their running attack. Ameer Abdullah was drafted in the second round of the 2015 draft, but he has yet to live up to his potential. There is still time for him to do so, but the Lions are not standing idly by waiting for him. The clearest evidence of their lack of patience is their decision to use their second round pick this year to select former Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson. Johnson will almost certainly open the year as the team’s starter, and he has a chance to secure the job if he plays well.
The issue for Detroit last season was their defense, which ranked a lowly 27th place in total defense. The team gave up an average of 355.8 yards per game, 243 of which were through the air. As mentioned earlier, with Aaron Rodgers facing this defense twice a year, this was a weakness that needed to be addressed.
The Lions hired former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as the new head coach of the team. While former Bill Belichick assistants have historically struggled to achieve success as head coaches, Patricia has a chance to break that trend. His defensive mentality will bring a rugged and physical culture to a team that needs to play tougher.
Patricia immediately made some moves to improve the defense. In free agency, the team added Devon Kennard, and the linebacker will be a key member of the 2018 Lions. Then they added another linebacker in Christian Jones to help get some depth at the position. In an effort to address the porous pass defense, Detroit signed former Seahawk defensive back DeShawn Shead, who can play multiple positions for the Lions, including cornerback and safety.
In the draft, Detroit used two consecutive picks this year to take two potential playmakers for this unit. Their third round pick was used to pick up Louisiana safety Tracy Walker. Then they selected former Alabama defensive end Da’Shawn Hand in the fourth round. The two have the potential to contribute to a defense that is starved for playmakers, particularly at limiting opposing passing attacks. Improving the pass rush could also go a long way in helping the secondary perform at a higher level.
The Vikings and Packers remain the biggest obstacles standing in the Lions’ way of reaching the playoffs. While it’s probably a stretch to think that Stafford and the Lions could overcome these more seasoned teams, anything is possible in the fast-changing landscape of the NFL.