The 2016 NFL season begins now, with 32 teams scheming to knock off the reigning champion Denver Broncos. The NFL Draft is just around the corner, but the first step in any offseason plan is to assess a team’s needs. Here we look at what the Detroit Lions team needs are.
These reports were compiled with the help of Inside The Pylon’s writers and editors, as well as the outstanding offseason primers at OverTheCap.com, which are invaluable for understanding the salary cap and contractual obligations of each team. In addition, the depth chart data is courtesy RosterResource.com – thanks for all your support!
The Lions suffered through a disappointing 2015 season, though you might not have known it from looking at stoic head coach Jim Caldwell. In his second season at the helm of Detroit, Caldwell survived a front office purge and will now report to new general manager Bob Quinn, who brings championship experience from the New England Patriots front office. Quinn, formerly the Director of Pro Scouting with the Patriots, faces quite a challenge, given the Lions salary cap situation, their aging roster, and the retirement of all-world wide receiver Calvin “Megatron” Johnson.
The good news is that defensive coordinator Teryl Austin – and his innovative blitz schemes – remains, while defensive end Ezekiel Ansah has developed into perhaps the most fearsome edge rusher in the NFL. However, Austin and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter will both be competing in the Lions draft war room to convince Quinn to bolster their respective units. Detroit has plenty of needs on both sides of the ball.
Johnson’s unexpected retirement – at the age of 30 – creates a void that cannot be filled. Arguably the most talented wide receiver in the NFL, Johnson was a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses and a security blanket for quarterback Matthew Stafford. The QB didn’t need to be very accurate on throws toward Johnson, nor did he need to worry about Johnson being where he should be on a given play.
Detroit signed former Cincinnati Bengals wideout Marvin Jones in free agency and Golden Tate returns as the #2 option. They also brought on veteran slot receiver Jeremy Kerley. But while Jones has tantalizing talent, he’s never been able to stay healthy, and Kerley is no long-term solution. This position will remain a need – and a want – for Lions fans for many years to come, because it is very hard to replace one of the all-time greats, especially when he leaves “too soon”.
Devin Taylor currently occupies the other end of the line from Ansah – and he’s not terrible. Were the Lions to ignore the position, they have Wallace Gilberry in reserve and their depth chart is below-average but serviceable. However, adding a premium talent opposite Ansah – and pushing Taylor into a depth role – would turn this into a position of strength, and would greatly improve Detroit’s defense. With Ansah drawing consistent double and triple teams, a talented bookend would accumulate many sacks and pressure.
For many years, the Lions boasted perhaps the best pair of DTs on paper in the league. Ndamakong Suh was a dominant player, but Nick Fairley never could stay healthy nor reach his potential, and with both departed, the Lions made due with veteran Haloti Ngata and the unheralded Caruan Reid. Having re-signed the aging Ngata, this position is a major need into the future, not in 2016. Reid isn’t making anyone forget Suh, but he is underrated and developing into a serviceable player in Austin’s schemes. Acquiring a player who can allow Ngata to be a two-down player in 2016, and to retire with dignity in 2017, is a priority for Quinn, and Austin.
Currently, Rafael Bush is penciled in at one of the safety spots but having lost both James Ihedigbo and Isa Abdul-Quddus to free agency, the cupboard is bare. While Glover Quin is steady at one safety spot, the Lions inability to address this position in free agency makes it a Day 1 or Day 2 priority for Bob Quinn.
Matthew Stafford, and his contract, will remain at the helm for the foreseeable future for the Lions, but there is currently no one backing up the former #1 overall pick. Stafford has never reached the lofty heights dreamed of when paired with Johnson, but the signal caller has shown increased maturity and improved decision making. It is possible that without Johnson the QB will sharpen his skills and take a step forward, now that his security blanket has retired.
The Lions yielded 44 sacks last season, and their problems up front start with left tackle Riley Reiff, who has yet to show the ability of a franchise player. On the right side, Quinn spent in free agency to secure the services of Geoff Schwartz, who represents a massive upgrade on what they rolled out in 2015. Top backup Michael Ola is replacement level but should be able to provide adequate cover if either starter misses a few weeks with a minor injury.
Similarly, the Lions need to rely on improvements from their incumbent guards, given the draft investment expended on them. Laken Tomlinson had an up-and-down rookie season but last year’s first round pick is expected to develop into a dominant player up front, able to pass protect and open holes in the running game. Meanwhile, right guard Larry Warford is a former 3rd round pick (in 2013) who has steadily held down the position and may yet reach his potential. The Lions may look to upgrade Warford on Day 3, adding a long-term developmental prospect who may overtake the veteran if things break right.
Incumbent starter Stephen Tulloch has departed, leaving free agent Jerry Franklin – newly arrived from the Denver Broncos – as the man in the middle for the Lions. In Austin’s scheme, the MLB is not asked to be a superstar. Instead, the MLB needs to be a dependable tackler who can scrape and shed blocks, pursuing the ball behind a talented defensive line. Franklin is a perfectly cromulent option, but the Lions will undoubtedly look to upgrade this position either with a street free agent (former MLB Stephen Tulloch?) or a late-round draft pick.
Veteran Rashean Mathis finally retired, bumping Nevin Lawson into a starting role opposite young, up-and-comer Darius Slay. Having invested in corner last season with the selection of Alex Carter, the Lions were undoubtedly disappointed the rookie spent most of the year injured and sidelined. This is another position where Quinn’s scouts will be working overtime to find a diamond in the rough, a later-round or UDFA gem that can challenge for playing time.
Set, For Better Or For Worse
The Lions running game was a massive disappointment last season, and former first round pick Jahvid Best retired because of concussion problems. However, the Lions invested a 2nd round pick in Ameer Abdullah last year and signed former New England rusher Stevan Ridley – who spent last season with the Jets, recovering from an ACL injury suffered late in the 2014 season. Theo Riddick is an above-average option in the passing game, who can be a versatile player for Cooter’s offense. While on paper, this group may seem in need of reinforcements, it is likely that the Lions running backs will improve with more experience (Abdullah), health (Ridley), and opportunity (Riddick) in 2016.
Almost assuredly, the Lions will not be drafting a tight end, having previous first round selections Eric Ebron and Brandon Pettigrew on the roster, with capable backups Tim Wright and Bear Pascoe in reserve. While Pettigrew never developed into the dynamic pass catching threat the Lions hoped for, there is still time – and opportunity – for Ebron to blossom in Cooter’s offensive scheme.
The Lions have a number of options at Center on their 90-man roster, including veteran Gabe Ikard and unproven options like Braxston Cave, Travis Swanson, and Darren Keyton. Quinn will be hoping one of these low-cost, low-investment options pans out, given the other, more pressing needs up and down the roster.
Tahir Whitehead and DeAndre Levy are acceptable starters, with Levy still flashing some upside, and Austin has proven he can make both players look better than they are with his understanding of what they can do, and what their limitations are. However, the lack of development from former 2nd round pick Kyle Van Noy has hamstrung the Lions’ options at OLB, and created needs elsewhere. Quinn will be looking at the UDFA market as a source for upgrades.
The Lions seem to be happy with big-legged kicker Matt Prater, and punter Sam Martin is underrated and dependable. The Lions will not be looking for replacements for players who are serviceable and acceptable.