It is truly a shame the Lions are not on Hard Knocks every year. It is so much better watching when your team is the center of attention and definitely gets you ready and excited for the year. If anything, we’ve learned that the Lions seem to have a good (if not great) coaching staff in place with a good culture. Last year they had a brutally difficult schedule and I had zero expectations for the team. I cannot say that I expect this team to do much more than win at least 7 games…and hopefully they can surprise us and win a few more than that. One thing is for sure, if Jared Goff goes down, this team could lose every game they have on the schedule and that is a scary thought.
Obviously the big news was Halapoulivaati Vaitai going on IR on Monday out of the blue. The Lions continue their streak of not having their five starting offensive linemen together…which is tremendously unfortunate given how much capital has been spent assembling the unit. I’m not sure if Tommy Kraemer or Evan Brown will take that spot, but whoever does will need to play at a high level. I still do not trust the defense completely and the offensive line is going to need to keep Jared Goff healthy and upright to put up points. Goff has his limitations as a player and is definitely overpaid, but he was solid last year when he was available and I think he will take another step forward this year. He seems to be more comfortable with his reads this year and I think Ben Johnson has made all of the difference. I was glad to see Tim Boyle and David Blough both get the axe, but it is a shame that it took this long for it to happen. I know I know, that’s terrible to say but frankly neither have been any good during their time in Detroit. They grabbed Nate Sudfield and he is not great and I’m concerned that the Lions tried to trade for him. It would have been ideal for the Lions to draft a guy like Sam Howell or sign someone in free agency. It appears that Brad Holmes has a bit of an issue with quarterbacks and some have even suggested he might have a blind spot…and at this point it is hard to argue against it. That being said, there is no reason Goff cannot run the offense efficiently and distribute the ball well. He will have more playmakers this year than last year (duh) and provided everyone stays healthy and Jameson Williams returns in a decent amount of time, the offense could be down right dangerous.
D’Andre Swift is going to have to prove he can stay healthy this year. He’s too dynamic to be in and out of the lineup. Jamaal Williams is a plenty capable RB2 and will actually provide value when he spells Swift…but if the Lions offense is going to hit that next gear that I said they could hit, it’s going to require a healthy Swift taking the next step as the primary ball carrier. In the preseason you saw him miss some holes and there is still plenty to work on, but the potential is there. He may never be a true home run hitter/home run threat but he is a playmaker when he gets into the open field and can get chunk yards in a hurry. Past Jamaal you have Craig Reynolds and then they will elevate Justin Jackson or Jermar Jefferson on game days…all plenty capable but nobody that you want to play long term. I’m a bit surprised Jackson did not make the initial roster but I’m guessing since he did not have to pass through waivers they decided to get a little creative with the a wink-wink, nudge-nudge promise of bringing him back on the practice squad and then elevating him. I know Reynolds is a great story but Jackson looked to be the superior player in my eyes during the preseason. At any rate, ideally none of them have to play much other than Swift and Williams.
At wide receiver they have an immensely different group from last year…at least they will once Jameson Williams is back. Josh Reynolds was a great pickup during the season and Kalif Raymond was a solid player and return man for most of the season. Quintez Cephus has shown he can be solid when he stays healthy, even with some of his separation issues. Obviously not much needs to be said about the steal that was Amon-Ra St. Brown. He’s a Robert Woods clone and has quickly become Jared Goff’s security blanket. I’m expecting the Lions to manufacture some touches for him and I expect him to have another great season. He won’t have the same target share that he had last year, but he has shown that he is the real deal. I talked previously about how much I loved the Lions trading up for Jameson Williams to get a true game breaker into the fold and my thoughts on that have not changed. They will be smart and bring him along slowly so I would not expect anything out of him the first half of the year and he may not do much even once he is on the field…he is a long term play. Brad Holmes was smart to prioritize DJ Chark in free agency as a perfect stop gap. Hell, they could even keep him past this season and I would be happy with it. Chark has great speed and he will be an athletic mismatch for most of the corners in the league. If he can stay healthy, he has shown what a force he can be. The Lions prioritized him over other free agents for a reason and I’m expecting Chark to have a bounce back season. He will provide a deep threat that the offense did not have last year and will take the pressure and eyes off of Amon-Ra as well as the run game.
Obviously everyone knows that TJ Hockenson is the TE1 on the roster. The question is whether or not TJ Hockenson will play out the full season. Hockenson has quite a bit to prove at this point in his career. He is an above average tight end but he has not shown the ability to stay healthy or the skills to claim his spot as an elite tight end. That’s not to say that he cannot be that player and does not have that ability. He just has not shown that he was worthy of that draft selection yet. So far he has played one full season in his career and has not surpassed 725 yards receiving and last year he had a career low yards per catch of 9.6. He is far from a lost cause though. Ben Johnson is now the offensive coordinator for the Lions and he was previously the tight ends coach…Hockenson has also told the media that he is going to be moved around the offense more and will be used as more of a chess piece instead of lining up in line most of the time. I’m excited to see how this goes and I am hopeful…but he has a lot to prove if he wants to get a monster extension. As far as the rest of the group? They’ve been solid but I do not expect much. James Mitchell intrigues me moving forward coming off the ACL tear but he still has a bit to go and was behind Brock Wright and Shane Zylstra for much of camp. All the more reason Hockenson needs to stay healthy.
Circling back to the offensive line…they have outstanding pieces. Taylor Decker is a rock solid left tackle and Penei Sewell settled in quite well at right tackle last year. It’ll be huge to get Frank Ragnow back, who is consistently one of the best centers in the league and a leader up front. Jonah Jackson is also a main stay at left guard and big time key in the run game. As for the backups? It’s a bit of a mixed bag. Logan Stenberg seemed like he finally had things click this preseason for him and Tommy Kraemer and Matt Nelson are solid. Evan Brown is probably one of the better reserves in the league and I would not be surprised if he ended up starting at guard. As much as people liked to hate on the Vaitai signing after the first year (especially me), he played pretty well last year and even though the contract is not great, he leaves an enormous hole on the offensive line. Hopefully the injury is not as bad as it seems, but Ian Rapoport sent out an ominous tweet that made it seem like they discovered it was worse than originally thought.
Obviously we have to take these depth charts for what they are and for being unofficial…I have a hard time believing Malcolm Rodriguez will not be starting but we can touch on that a bit later. Looking at this depth chart shows how far the Lions still have to go and this could be the unit that blows it for the whole team. The offense has potential…this group is in the early stages of the rebuild/turn around. They have their work cut out for them.
The Lions have an interesting group of pass rushers, but the injury to Levi Onwuzurike (that has seemed to linger) has certainly made the interior defensive line quite thin and the injuries to Romeo Okwara and Josh Paschal have not helped them with their depth issues on the edge that existed prior to the draft. Paschal will be a chess piece that will play a great deal inside, but it shows how much capital they have spent on the defensive line and they’re still hurting for players. Charles Harris has had quite the career resurgence in Detroit and even though I was not a fan of his during the pre-draft process, he has turned out to be quite a great fit in Detroit. Aidan Hutchinson showed all preseason why he should have gone #1 and the tools that he has available to him. After these two the Lions have some athletic players that have some questions. Austin Bryant, Julian Okwara and John Cominsky all have solid profiles and will be contributors, but it will be great to get Romeo Okwara back ASAP to help out. The pass rush was abysmal last year and the fact that not all of their young talent has been able to stay healthy is not great.
Starting in the interior will be Alim McNeill and Michael Brockers…both of which will have their work cut out for them because the depth behind them is unsettling. Sure, Isaiah Buggs can rotate in and Benito Jones was a fine waiver claim..but they hardly make you feel warm and fuzzy if one of the two goes down. I would expect to continue to see a heavy dose of Aidan Hutchinson lining up inside on specific downs/in specific packages to help bolster the pass rush as much as possible. The secondary is going to need all of the help that it can get.
At linebacker, I’m sure everyone will agree that after Derrick Barnes preseason last year everyone was expecting him to take hold of the job and never let it go. Well he’s had a few setbacks along the way and we’re still staring at Alex Anzalone as a starter. Whether CJ Board or Malcolm Rodriguez starts at the other spot, we’ll have to wait and see. Rodriguez plays with his hair on fire and does a great job with his run fits. The only real down side to him is he is small and can get blocked if the line is able to get him square and he could be better in coverage. Right now I’m trying to temper expectations because of what happened with Barnes after last preseason. In the ideal world, Barnes and Rodriguez take the necessary steps forward to take both starting spots and their speed helps the defense out immensely. Their athleticism sets them a part from the rest of the group.
The secondary still gives me the heebie jeebies. I get that Jeff Okudah won the second starting corner spot and that is all well and good…but he still struggled at times in the preseason. He’s had to totally rebuild himself multiple times so I’m willing to give him a shot. It’s far better to find out what he has right now that to continue protecting him and hoping he splashes…toss him in the deep end. Amani Oruwariye had a great season last year and will look to build off of it as the unquestioned CB1…but this group is going to have opposing QBs salivating if the defensive front cannot get any pressure. Mike Hughes should start in the nickel and Will Harris has completed the move to cornerback, even if it has not always been pretty. Chase Lucas is just about 40 years old and has shown some flashes, but he is just about at his ceiling. Bobby Price and Jerry Jacobs remain intriguing options…but again, none of it is pretty. At safety, at least Tracy Walker should be able to provide some stability. Kerby Joseph looked rough in the preseason so he will definitely be behind DeShon Elliott to start the season. Ifeatu Melifonwu has made the conversion to safety officially, as was expected with the Will Harris flip, and I’m not what to expect with him. I like his athletic profile but he’s a work in progress. I think the best way to sum things up is this is a total grab bag secondary. When Oruwariye and Walker are your two best DBs, it’s going to make for some interesting times in a pass happy league. This is where Aaron Glenn is going to have to step up and scheme everything out to get everyone in the best position possible to succeed. If the defense is good this year, it’ll be because of him and I would expect him to have a head coaching gig in short order afterwards.
SPECIAL TEAMS/PRACTICE SQUAD
Not much to say with this crew…I had hoped that Riley Patterson would beat out Seibert but Seibert was the better player in the preseason. Jack Fox is a stud and Scott Daly seems fine. I hope that someone else will return kicks instead of Craig Reynolds but that’s just me. I would rather have Raymond return in both spots and see what he can do.
The practice squad is a solid mix of guys that flashed in the preseason and veterans. I don’t think anyone other than Maurice Alexander or Justin Jackson have potential to have any impact this year, on offense anyways. There are a lot of solid depth options defensively and I’m sure once the injury bug bites we will see some of these guys again (hopefully not but that’s how things go). The NFL did a great job expanding the practice squad to 16 (removing some age restrictions) and then letting teams elevate a player 3 times before having to add them to the active roster. A great way to get yourself out of a pinch and allow more players to stay in the league.
Like I said earlier, I expect this team to put together at least 7 wins. I think if they mix in a couple surprises they can get to 9 or 10 wins. I’m not sure that will be enough for a playoff spot, but man it would be awesome if it was. I’m going to go ahead and put down my official prediction for the season as 9-8. They have a strong offensive group but I just think the defense will pop up as an achilles heel too many times. Brad Holmes and his staff have done an amazing job turning the roster over but they have picked some young kids with injury struggles that have not been able to contribute just yet. Another year and another round of draft picks to bolster the defense should go a long way. The offense is ready to be a factor and the fact that Dan Campbell is driving the bus gives me hope. He has the culture going in the right direction and he is clearly a guy that everyone is ready to play for and wants to play for. One more year of good drafting and I think this franchise will be ready to compete, even if it is Goff or a rookie quarterback at the helm.
[Photo via: MLive]