The Detroit Lions are always an enigma. Looking at the roster on paper, you would think that the playoffs are guaranteed. But after watching them in the preseason, I’m less encouraged. Sure, it’s just the preseason but the secondary looked like complete garbage, and the offensive execution was less than ideal; even if Calvin Johnson wasn’t playing much. I’m not a fan of Jim Caldwell, but I think that the new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is going to do a good job when they don’t have a vanilla game plan. I also enjoyed how aggressive the front seven of the defense was during the preseason with Teryl Austin’s playcalling, but the starting corners make me extremely worried. Blake Bortles went 70 yards with no timeouts in less than two minutes like he was back in college playing Akron or Temple.
The offense is the one area of this team that I’m optimistic about, save for the preseason game planning and execution. They have some serious work to do on their timing if they want to put up points, and I trust that their game plan will be better in the regular season. Matt Stafford is a true gun slinger and running the offense out of the shotgun and pistol, as they did before, will give him continuity as a passer. Adding in the dynamic of being under-center and carrying a fullback on the roster is going to add intrigue and variability to the play calling. As I say every year, I don’t worry about Stafford’s mechanics like other people do; it’s his decision-making that concerns me. Yes, I would prefer he didn’t throw side-arm as much, but if he’s comfortable with it and it works, then fine. I also enjoy his extreme confidence where he trusts his arm and his ability to fit the ball into tight spaces and his willingness to take chances. That being said, there is a time and a place for that. He regressed last year as a passer a bit and that is part of the reason why the Lions didn’t end up making the playoffs. Mostly though it was because of a lack of discipline and an inability to close out games in the fourth quarter, but I digress.
It’s unfortunate that the Lions let Shaun Hill go, because if Stafford gets hurt, then the season is down the drain. Dan Orlovsky is brutal and Kellen Moore has a wet noodle for an arm. Neither one of them would be able to take the team to the playoffs and it would likely be an absolute disaster. If Orlovsky does end up starting for more than half the season, this team would be picking top 10, no doubt about it.
Running back is an intriguing position and will be a strength of the offense. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell are the perfect compliments to each other and Theo Riddick will be able to contribute to the passing game on a regular basis. Bell has looked fantastic since he got in shape last summer and if Reggie can return to his USC days as a pass catcher, he will be explosive again.
I thought that George Winn would make the team after his preseason and after Mikel Leshoure finally got cut, but it appears he is just going to be a practice squad guy. Winn is essentially another Joique Bell, and that’s always a good thing to have in close reach. Hopefully Riddick can be a solid backup/replacement for Bush, since they seem to refuse to find a backup in case Bush gets hurt. He got hurt against the Arizona Cardinals and it completely stunted the offense. You’ll notice they’re only carrying three running backs, and that’s because they’re carrying two fullbacks (Montell Owens and Jed Collins). Collins is a solid blocker and Owens will be a nice contributor on special teams.
(Evidence that Calvin isn’t human)
The wide receiver group is a group that I’m more optimistic about for once than normal. Obviously if something happens to Calvin this team is screwed, but they finally have a legit second option beside him. Golden Tate isn’t amazingly dynamic, but he catches literally everything. Since 2011, Tate has caught 144 of 149 passes, so only 5 total drops (okay he doesn’t catch everything, but still). Tate will be very productive with teams distracted by Calvin and should have a very nice year.
With Kris Durham getting cut, the 3rd wide receiver position will be filled by a combination of Kevin Ogletree, Jeremy Ross, Ryan Broyles and one of the tight ends lining up in the slot (most likely Eric Ebron). My hope and expectation is that it’s a combination of Broyles and Ebron, because when Broyles is healthy he can be a very nice pass catcher. Corey Fuller also made the roster, but he’s still developing as a player.
On a different, more concerning note, Calvin Johnson had surgery on his knee and finger in January, and I’m not sure his finger is completely healed.
The tight end position is an intriguing one to say the least. I was hoping that Brandon Pettigrew wouldn’t be re-signed, but alas, he was. He’s going to be utilized as a blocking tight end and should contribute as a pass catcher, but hopefully not often. Joe Fauria is an interesting player because he’s still developing. Last year he was used mostly as a red zone threat, and that will continue, but in the preseason he got a lot more time lining up in the slot and catching passes. I would expect Pettigrew and Fauria to be the two tight ends that line up on the line of scrimmage, while Ebron should see most of his snaps in the slot or outside. He’s not an in-line tight end and should essentially be treated like a wide receiver. Hopefully he’s picking up the offense, because his contributions are needed.
The Lions offensive line used to be the Achilles heel of the team, but this is no longer the case. The depth is a huge problem, but the starters are more than solid. Riley Reiff is a solid pass blocking left tackle. He’s not going to move the pile in the run game, but despite his short arms, he does well against team’s premier pass rushers. LaAdrian Waddle is one of my personal favorite undrafted rookies this team has found. And the fact that they found Waddle and Fauria last year after the draft almost makes up for some of their bigger whiffs in years past.
The interior line is also rock solid. Larry Warford is a road grader and was an absolute steal last year in the draft. He was named Pro Football Focus’ Offensive Rookie of the Year, and he was second-team All-Pro as a rookie, which is incredible. Dominic Raiola is another year older and has been on the decline, but the fact that the Lions drafted his future replacement this year (Travis Swanson), might fire him up and he could improve immensely. Rob Sims had surgery this offseason to get fully healthy and is in a contract year. He’s been a more than serviceable left guard since they acquired him in 2009 for a Little Caesars Hot ‘N Ready and a flat two-liter of caffeine free Diet Pepsi. If any of them get hurt, there will be major issues, but they did a good job of protecting Stafford last year. In 634 pass attempts, Stafford was only sacked 23 times, which is simply astounding. Swanson will be a utility backup for the interior, with Cornelius Lucas and Corey Hilliard serving as the backup tackles. Michael Williams, the converted TE, is also on the practice squad. Let’s just hope none of them have to play because they all need to get better.
The defense is going to be lead by the front seven, as it should be. Ziggy Ansah had a fantastic rookie year and did a great job proving me wrong, but is still having trouble staying healthy. He didn’t play much during the preseason and the Lions are going to need him. Getting Jason Jones back to play the strong-side defensive end spot and to rotate inside on passing downs is huge. He missed most of last season with a ruptured patellar tendon. Adding him back is essentially like adding a free agent defensive end.
George Johnson and Devin Taylor had phenomenal preseasons and I have really high hopes for Taylor. I was unsure of the pick at the time, but he’s looking more and more like a formidable player and pass rusher. Larry Webster, the rookie former basketball player, had a solid preseason but I wouldn’t expect a ton out of him. He’s still learning the game but looks further along as a developmental prospect than I thought.
Once thought to be the strength of the team, the defensive tackles have a few questions marks. Nick Fairley has battled some weight issues all summer and was demoted to the second-team defense in the preseason. He’s in a contract year, so I would expect him to perform (in typical Albert Haynesworth fashion), but unless he changes his attitude, I’m not sure he can be counted on as a productive player. Ndamukong Suh is poised to have a huge year. He’s out to get paid, and after J.J. Watt’s mega-deal, he’s going to want more money than that. In order to do so, he’s going to have to be a monster in the interior and something tells me that Suh will go for double-digit sacks this year and then leave in free agency for a $100+ million contract. C.J. Mosley adds solid depth to the unit and Caraun Reid will contribute some, but I would expect Jason Jones to get more snaps inside than him. The productivity of this unit hinges on Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah.
I was thrilled when the Lions drafted Kyle Van Noy to finally get a third linebacker for their starting unit and of course now he’s hurt. It wasn’t clear when he might return, but as I was writing this, he was put on the short term IR. This means that he is going to miss the first game and this is a big blow to the depth at linebacker. So who replaces Van Noy as the SAM backer now? The combination of Tahir Whitehead and Ashlee Palmer will look to pick up the slack. Whitehead has developed nicely over the past few seasons and looked absolutely fantastic against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the preseason.
Yes, it’s only preseason, but that is an absolutely absurd stat line. He had some issues in coverage, but that’s not what he’s there for. Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy are two of the best pass coverage linebackers in the NFL and what they need is a dynamic linebacker to wreak havoc. If Tulloch was 6’2″ 240 lbs you would hear about him a helluva lot more. I have no concerns with the starting linebackers and Palmer makes for a solid 4th, while Van Noy recovers.
Do I really have to talk about the cornerbacks? This is the only unit on the defense that is a problem. I think that Darius Slay can be a solid #2 corner, but I don’t see him ever becoming the true #1 that they need. The release of Chris Houston shocked me and the fact that he hasn’t been signed just shows how concerned they were about his foot injury and how bad it really is. The starting duo of Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay scares no one in a division that has a trio of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Santonio Holmes in Chicago and then a duo of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb with a solid Jarrett Boykin and Davante Adams behind them in Green Bay. FML. Who’s behind them if they get hurt? Bill Bentley, Cassius Vaughn and rookie nickel corner Nevin Lawson.
What is there else to say? Better pray that these guys can learn on the fly and develop.
If the safeties stay healthy, the Lions defense might be pretty good. Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo serve as a formidable duo, but Ihedigbo hasn’t been very healthy so far and his replacement Jerome Couplin is an undrafted rookie. I’m a fan of Couplin, but he still has to develop. He is an absolutely massive hitting safety, for whatever that’s worth. Don Carey and Isa Abdul-Quddus are the other two safeties, but I wouldn’t expect much out of them. Some say that Abdul-Quddus had a good preseason, but when he started the third preseason game he was an absolute dumpster fire. Missed tackles, dropped an easy pick and took some bad penalties. Definitely a unit with questionable backups at best.
I’m never going to be a Sam Martin fan. Everyone talks about how good he is, but I just can’t get over the fact that they drafted a punter and then he made some bonehead plays, one of which actually cost them the game against Cincinnati. He’s not going anywhere though and should be a good player, he does have one helluva leg.
Nate Freese barely won the job in the preseason as the teams kicker according to the beat writers, but you typically don’t draft a kicker to just cut him. Stranger things have happened. Freese was one of the most accurate kickers in college football last year but he struggled in the preseason. I don’t know if he’ll be the long-term answer for replacing Jason Hanson, but anything is better than David Akers.
Jeremy Ross is back returning punts and kicks and this should please everyone. The guy has got the goods when it comes to returning the ball.
Season Outlook And Unbiased Prediction
You should have noticed a theme here, the Lions have good starters on a lot of units but have depth issues. This is what happens when you don’t draft well and have one player left on your roster from the 2010 draft and one from the 2011 draft. Both of which could leave in free agency (Suh and Fairley). Good teams use the draft to not only find starters but find quality backups to add depth. This is something that the Lions haven’t done and it is holding them back. An injury at offensive line or in the secondary could send the whole season into a tailspin.
Looking at the Lions schedule I see four games that will cause an immediate problem. The Saints at home and then the Patriots, Bears and Packers all on the road. Two other wild card games are the Cardinals and Falcons on the road. Personally, I see the Lions going 10-6 and barely missing the playoffs. The NFC is just absolutely stacked. If they were in the AFC, I would say they would make the playoffs with ease. But the NFC has a massive amount of depth in all of the divisions except the NFC East. Hopefully this means they all beat up on each other and the Lions can sneak in, but I’m not sure that can happen with San Francisco or Seattle guaranteed one of the wildcards. If they do make the playoffs, I think they have a legit shot of moving on to the NFC Championship Game. This is all assuming that everyone important stays healthy, obviously.
Hopefully Jim Caldwell can prove me wrong, I’d love nothing more than to see the Lions back in the playoffs.
Here’s the Lions depth chart as of September 1st, but these are always subject to change. I would look at Ourlads.com for their depth charts, it’s an awesome tool.
(One minor mistake on here, Tahir Whitehead is starting and not Ashlee Palmer and Van Noy is now on the IR.)
If you want a recap of the Lions draft, this will help:
Detroit Lions 2014 NFL Draft Recap/Analysis
[Photo via: Getty Images]
[Photo via: Pride of Detroit]