Are The Lions Ready To Win Their First NFC North Title?
This is the fourth installment in a series that will look at the offseasons for all of the teams in the NFC North and form a hypothesis about whether each team improved or regressed. Today is the Detroit Lions.
2016 Season Recap
The Lions had a very strange 2016 season, as the finished with a 9-8 record counting their playoff loss in Seattle. They started the season off 1-3, but then had a fantastic stretch in the middle of the season, going 8-1. They then had an ultra disappointing finish to the season, closing it out at 0-4. The Lions set the record for the most fourth quarter comeback wins ever in a season, with eight such wins. They were not a dominant team at all, but they had lots of fight and found ways to win games at the end.
Biggest Needs Going Into The Offseason
The Lions biggest need by far going into the 2017 offseason was linebacker. They not only had no depth at the position, but they had nobody capable of starting at linebacker either. Tahir Whitehead has looked solid at times, but was horrible last season. Josh Bynes was average at best in 2016, but not starter material and has not been re-signed. The other linebackers we saw attempt to play 2016 where DeAndre Levy, Antwoine Williams and Thurston Armbrister among others. Because the Lions had very weak linebackers, their defense was easily decimated by short passes to running backs and tight ends.
The Lions defensive line struggled both against the run and pass in 2016. They consistently got little pressure on quarterbacks, as they finished second to last in the entire NFL in sacks with only 26. The run defense got worse and worse as the season wore on, culminating in the Seahawks running all over Detroit for 177 yards in a wildcard playoff game. Ziggy Ansah was playing through injuries for most of the season, and Kerry Hyder looked good rushing the passer at times, but the rest of the defensive line, especially the interior defensive tackles, was not good.
The Lions had an alright offensive line for most of 2016, but knew they were likely going to lose two starters in Riley Reiff and Larry Warford in free agency. They also badly needed depth on the offensive line. This showed late in the season as Reiff and Travis Swanson started to miss games late in the season, resulting in a lot of pressure on Stafford and an inability to run the ball consistently. Even when all five of the starters were playing, they still often struggled to open up running lanes.
Rick Wagner, Tackle (Baltimore)
Signed a five year $47,500,000 contract
Rick Wagner was arguably the best offensive tackle in free agency this offseason, and Detroit made a priority of signing him knowing that they would lose Riley Reiff. The Lions signed Wagner for $11,000,000 less than what Reiff got, while upgrading their offensive line in the process. Wagner has had two dominant seasons in 2014 and 2016, but had a much more pedestrian season sandwiched between them in 2015. Detroit hopes that he will continue to play as he did in 2014 and last season.
DJ Hayden, Cornerback (Oakland)
Signed a one year $3,750,000 contract
DJ Hayden is a former first round pick for the Oakland Raiders. Throughout his career, he has struggled with injuries and inconsistency when playing. He has played only 45 of 64 possible games in his career. He still has lots of potential, as he put together by far his best professional season last year when he switched to the nickel cornerback position. He will compete for the Lions’ nickel position while also serving as depth for the outside cornerback spots.
Akeem Spence, Defensive Tackle (Tampa Bay)
Signed a three year $9,000,000 contract
Akeem Spence comes to the Lions from Tampa Bay, where he played in 56 games in the last four seasons and recorded five sacks. He will compete for one of the starting defensive tackle spots in Detroit, which was an especially weak position last season. Spence will likely be nothing more than a solid depth/rotational player, but that is alright because depth is important.
Darren Fells, Tight End (Arizona)
Signed a one year $1,000,000 contract
Darren Fells’ job is to bring the two tight end formation back to Detroit. In Arizona, Fells was an excellent blocker as well as a serviceable receiver. He will likely help block a lot in Detroit this season, especially with the Taylor Decker injury.
TJ Lang, Guard (Green Bay)
Signed a three year $28,500,000 contract
TJ Lang is a huge signing for the Lions because not only is he an upgrade over Larry Warford on the offensive line, but he takes away a really good player from their rival, the Green Bay Packers. TJ Lang decided to leave Green Bay and return to his hometown of Detroit. Lang has been a very good player for many years with the Packers, the only issue is injuries combined with age, as Lang will turn 30 before the season starts and has missed four games in the last two years.
Cornelius Washington, Defensive End (Chicago)
Signed a two year $5,825,000 contract
Cornelius Washington is a physically talented defensive end who was drafted by the wrong team. The Bears tried to play his as a 3-4 outside linebacker and defensive end when his optimal fit is as a 4-3 defensive end, which is what Detroit runs. Washington has had a very disappointing career so far, but will hopefully be a much better player now that he is in a scheme more suited to his talents.
Paul Worrilow, Linebacker (Atlanta)
Signed a one year $3,000,000 contract
Paul Worrilow is not a great linebacker. He had a decent start to his career, coming up with 127 tackle in his rookie year. He would top that in his sophomore professional season, racking up 153 tackles. Although he made a lot of tackles, he doesn’t make a lot of big plays as he has just two interceptions and four sacks in his four professional seasons. He played in 47 of 48 games in his first three seasons, but started to fall out of favor last season as Atlanta drafted two more talented linebackers in De’Vondre Campbell and Dion Jones. Worrilow is a very high character team leader type though, and he got a lot of credit for helping those rookies adjust to the NFL last season. Worrilow will compete for one of the starting outside linebacker jobs for the Lions, and if he doesn’t get it, he will serve as good depth and a good special teams player.
Riley Reiff, Tackle (Minnesota)
Signed a five year $58,750,000 contract
Riley Reiff was a good but not great player for Detroit. Losing him would have really hurt had the Lions not signed Rick Wagner. However, Detroit ended up actually improving their right tackle position despite losing Reiff. The negative to this is that Reiff went to Minnesota, where he is actually a big improvement on their offensive line.
Andre Roberts, Wide Receiver (Atlanta)
Signed a one year $1,800,000 contract
Although Roberts was a very bad kickoff returner, he was a good punt returner last season, returning two for touchdowns. He didn’t make a lot of catches, but the ones he did come up with were very clutch receptions, such as the ones against the Rams, Redskins and Vikings.
Larry Warford, Guard (New Orleans)
Signed a four year $34,000,000 contract
Larry Warford had a great rookie season, but regressed badly under offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi in his second season and hasn’t been able to return to the level of play he showed in his rookie year since. He’s a slightly above average guard. Again, this loss would have hurt, but the Lions actually upgraded the position by signing TJ Lang to an only slightly larger deal.
DeAndre Levy, Linebacker (Free Agent)
DeAndre Levy has not been a big contributor for the Lions over the last two years (as he has only played in six games and made 21 tackles in that time), but his loss still deserves to be mentioned because of the great career he had as a Lion. As of the writing of this article, it seems like Levy is going to retire.
Anquan Boldin, Wide Receiver (Free Agent)
As of the writing of this article, Anquan Boldin is still a free agent. I am assuming that Detroit is going to choose not to bring him back, because I strongly feel that they want to give their younger guys a chance to catch passes. Boldin had 67 catches and eight touchdowns last year and was a very good player, but I think Detroit will be able to make up that production between Eric Ebron, Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Golladay, Darren Fells and Michael Roberts seeing increased roles this season.
Jarrad Davis, Linebacker from Florida (Round 1, Pick 21)
Jarrad Davis is a linebacker who can do anything you ask of him. He is effective against the run, in pass coverage and blitzing the quarterback. He is a high character guy and team leader type. He had a great junior season with 94 tackles (11 for a loss), 3.5 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and four passes defended. The issue with him is injuries, as he has missed time in two of his three collegiate season as a starter.
Jalen “Teez” Tabor, Cornerback from Florida (Round 2, Pick 53)
Teez Tabor was debatably the top cornerback in the entire draft class at the start of the offseason, but a horrible 40 yard dash time caused him to fall all the way to the Lions in the second round. Tabor is incredibly sticky in coverage, particularly zone coverage, and is the ball hawk that the Lions secondary desperately needs. The issue will be whether or not he is fast enough to stick with speedy NFL receivers.
Kenny Golladay, Wide Receiver from Northern Illinois (Round 3, Pick 96)
Kenny Golladay is a great physical prospect, standing at 6’4″ and is very speedy too. He had more than 1,000 yards in each of his two seasons at Northern Illinois. He is a very raw player though, and will need to polish up his route running before he is ready to see the field in the NFL. He will see the field some in his rookie year (barring injury), but I wouldn’t expect too much from him as a rookie.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Linebacker from Tennessee (Round 4, Pick 124)
Reeves-Maybin is an unquestionably talented linebacker who fell in the draft due to a significant shoulder injury that caused him to miss much of his senior collegiate season. He will likely slowly be worked onto the defense on passing downs and will play lots of special teams in his rookie year. If he fully recovers from his injury, he has potential to be the steal of the entire draft.
Michael Roberts, Tight End from Toledo (Round 4, Pick 127)
Michael Roberts is a big tight end at 6’4″ and 270 pounds. He is a good blocker and a great redzone threat, as he caught 16 touchdown passes in 13 games last year in college. He will see time blocking and in the redzone immediately with the Lions.
Jamal Agnew, Cornerback from San Diego (Round 5, Pick 165)
Agnew is a high potential nickel cornerback. He is a known ball hawk and was a great punt returner in college. He has a good shot to win the return man position for Detroit in his rookie year and could also serve as cornerback depth.
Jeremiah Ledbetter, Defensive Lineman from Arkansas (Round 6, Pick 205)
Ledbetter is another guy with great physical traits but is really raw. He has the size to play anywhere on the defensive line, but Detroit has said they want him to bulk up and play only three-technique defensive tackle. He will likely not see the field much until he bulks up some more.
Brad Kaaya, Quarterback from Miami (Round 6, Pick 215)
Some had Brad Kaaya is a possible number one overall pick a year ago, but a disappointing 2016 season had him fall all the way to the sixth round. He will compete with Jake Rudock for the backup quarterback job. It is likely that Detroit will keep three quarterbacks on their roster this year, with Kaaya serving at the third string for now.
Pat O’Conner, Defensive End from Eastern Michigan (Round 7, Pick 250)
Pat O’Conner is a defensive end with a very high motor. In his three collegiate seasons, he had 28.5 tackles for a loss. He puts in lots of effort, but will need to significantly improve his technique if he wants to make an impact in the NFL.
Did They Get Better Or Worse?
On paper, the Lions unquestionably improved on what was a very mediocre roster in 2016. They upgraded the linebacker position greatly by drafting Jarrad Davis and Jalen Reeves-Maybin and good depth by signing Paul Worrilow. They may have lost Riley Reiff and Larry Warford, but they actually got two better players through free agency in Rick Wagner and TJ Lang. Although they didn’t add any star players on the defensive line, they did add solid depth with Akeem Spence, Cornelius Washington, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Pat O’Conner.
Detroit has the talent to compete for their first ever NFC North title in 2017. Now, they have to step up and actually do it. We know that Matthew Stafford can play at an MVP level as he has since Jim Bob Cooter was promoted to offensive coordinator. The offensive line is the most talented it has been since the days of Barry Sanders. The defense saw a nice talent injection. The special teams will likely continue to be good. It is time for Detroit to finally prove they can contend for a NFC North title.