Bob Quinn has Done an Excellent Job of Making Savvy Moves in both Free Agency and the NFL Draft but How Far Are the Lions From Being a Legitimate Contender?
This is a very tough question to answer. This is my look at the Detroit Lions roster and what I think needs to happen for the team to enter the championship contender conversation. The primary obstacle standing in Detroit’s path to legitimate contending is the unavoidable fact that the Detroit Lions play in possibly the toughest division of the toughest conference in the NFL.
The path to a divisional championship goes through an Aaron Rodgers led Packers and the Minnesota Vikings, a team with one of the most competitive rosters in the NFL. The Bears, who have struggled for some time now, are making some really solid moves to rebuild their roster around a young quarterback and are starting to look like a team that the Lions have to take seriously. That is not an easy or likely path to the playoffs.
That may sound pessimistic but I think that it is far closer to realistic than many fans want to admit. At the very least, the Lions will have to far exceed their level of play from the last two years to make a run at the divisional championship.
Outside the NFC North, the NFC is an incredibly competitive conference.
The Eagles are coming off a Super Bowl victory led by their backup quarterback Nick Foles. They have one of the most complete rosters from top to bottom and have a young core of players that should only improve.
The Rams were a top team in the NFL last year, led by one of the best young coaches in the league and made significant moves this offseason to go all in for 2018. This team was scary last year and should be even more formidable in 2018.
The Saints finally decided to give Drew Brees a defense last year and the results speak for themselves. The Saints should continue to be competitive as long as Drew Brees can continue to play at a high level. He is certainly getting up there in age but he hasn’t shown signs of significantly slowing down yet.
The Panthers took the Lions to school last year. That was an ugly game. That said, it was more a product of poor game planning than anything. The Panthers are probably the weakest in terms of overall roster of the teams that finished at the top of the NFC last year and are very beatable but they should continue to be competitive. This is the bottom of the teams I think are considered legitimate contenders. This is what the Lions are aiming for.
The 49ers are a team on the rise after finding their quarterback in Jimmy G and could be entering the conversation at the top of the NFC sooner rather than later.
All in all, this NFC conference is a gauntlet. There are a lot of very talented teams that could make a run at a Super Bowl in the coming years. So how far are the Detroit Lions from entering this conversation?
Let’s look at the position groups.
Quarterback, offensive line (in theory), and wide receiver are all positions groups that I believe are championship caliber on the offensive side of the ball, meaning that they are positions that could help carry the Lions into a deep playoff run. All three of these position groups compare favorably to the majority of teams that made playoff runs last year.
Running back is a question mark right now but the position probably grades out as adequate. Kerryon Johnson is an unknown for the most part. I believe in his talent and think that he will be a successful back for this team but assuming that he will make the position a championship quality group is probably premature.
Tight end is the weak spot on the offense. While both the Patriots and the Eagles have top tight ends, this isn’t usually a requirement for a team to make a deep run in the playoffs. The Lions are below average here and are probably in more of a position to try and work around the tight ends rather than feature them in the offense.
Overall, this offense appears to be championship-caliber, or at least very close. The success of the running backs is probably what dictates which side of the fence the offense falls on.
The defense is a little further away. While Matt Patricia certainly projects to make more of the talent on the Lions defense than Caldwell did, the defense could definitely use some pieces to make this a group that can help a team contend, rather than a group that can be good enough to let the offense carry it.
The secondary is set. Another top end corner across from Darius Slay would put the unit over the top but the secondary is already a unit primed for a contending team. The linebackers and defensive line are another story.
How the linebackers and defensive line perform this season really depends on how well Matt Patricia is able to scheme average talent into above average performance. The fact that we believe Patricia is capable of this is a huge point in Detroit’s favor but let’s look at this from a purely talent and roster standpoint.
The Lions defensive line struggled last year. They failed to generate pass rush and were leaky in run defense. They probably need at least one more quality player to be a part of a championship caliber defense. That player may already be on the roster.
The linebacker position was one that Bob Quinn invested in heavily last year. That investment yielded improvement but the group as a whole was still probably below league average. They probably need one more quality player as well, even with the additions this offseason. Again, that player may already be on the roster.
So, looking at the roster as a whole, I think that the Lions probably need a total of three more quality players to be in the conversation with the legitimate contenders in the NFC. Those players need to probably be spread between the running backs, tight ends, defensive line, and linebackers. A quality second cornerback would probably help minimize the deficiencies in the other areas of the defense.
That sounds pessimistic but I promise that it isn’t because the Lions have young talent at all of those positions. Teams generally don’t have every position group loaded with championship quality players, so the Lions really just need three.
At the running back position, the combination of Legarrette Blount, Kerryon Johnson, and Theo Riddick could easily combine to be a quality group. The only reason that this group is even listed is because of the uncertainty surrounding the changes to the Detroit Lions run scheme and the fact that both Kerryon Johnson and Legarrette Blount are new to the team.
Tight end is a group of new faces. Both Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo are new. I don’t expect either of them to be big time play makers but they could outperform expectations and be adequate starters. Michael Roberts, a rookie last year, showed that he was raw entering the league, something that is quite common for tight ends. He could take a step forward this year, or we may have to wait until the standard year three mark to see what he has to offer.
The linebackers are a group that were completely overhauled last year. Both Jarrad Davis and with more uncertainty, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, have the potential to be the “quality starter” that the team needs in this upcoming year. Neither one really showed dominance in their 2017 campaigns but they were rookies and they still had some things to improve upon. If either one of them can take a step forward and lead the linebacking group, this group could be adequate for a championship as well. That doesn’t even take into account the additions of Kennard and Jones.
The defensive line is a little bit more of a hazy situation. The Lions didn’t add a ton of talent here in the past couple of years, at least not a lot that I would expect to be “game-changers”. The wildcard is Ziggy Ansah. If Ansah can return to form and be a top end pass rusher, this group is in much better shape. One elite pass rusher can change the entire outlook of a defense. The Lions didn’t add anybody with this potential, so it would have to be a Ziggy rebound to get them there.
With this in mind, Patricia tends to generate pressure with linebackers, making lack of elite pass rushers a little less of a blow. That said, I don’t think that any coach is going to complain about having top end pass rushers, and I still think that a Patricia-led team could benefit from this.
The secondary is a group that has performed very well in the last few years. They don’t need significant improvement. However, if another top end corner ended up opposite Darius Slay, or if Quandre Diggs continues to play safety at the level that he did finishing out 2017, this group could definitely be strong enough to negate the weaknesses in other areas of the defense.
If any three of those things happen, I think that the Lions could be a legitimate name in the NFC contender conversation. If those things don’t happen, the Lions still have the talent to make a run but a more rounded roster would definitely make them more of a staple of the race than a dark horse.
If the running game is fixed, which I expect it will be, the Lions probably need two players on the defensive side of the ball to elevate their respective games. This could be Teez Tabor. It could be Ziggy Ansah. It could be Jarrad Davis or Jalen Reeves-Maybin. It could even be someone that none of us are expecting. I think that two players stepping up, combined with good scheming from Patricia, makes this defense ready to be a part of a contending team behind what I expect to be a top ten offense in the NFL.
I think that is where the team is at heading into 2018. This isn’t a team that looks ready to compete for a championship right now but it is certainly close enough that it will only take a couple of guys stepping up to be a team in the conversation of legitimate contenders.