“We’re above average, but our record against the real good teams is not good enough”.
After finishing the 2017 season at a respectable 9-7, the Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn declared somewhat bluntly to the press that this was below the level expected of the franchise, resulting in the firing of head coach Jim Caldwell. In four years at Ford Field, Caldwell led the team to three winning seasons and two playoff appearances. He finished as one of only two coaches in the team’s history to have a winning record.
Fast forward to February 2020 and the Lions have found themselves in relative no mans land. After Matt Patricia took over in 2018, he first posted a disappointing 6-10 record, leading on to this seasons downright disastrous 3-12-1. So what do the Lions need to do to bounce back in 2020?
The 2019 season started with relative promise for the Lions as they opened with a 2-0-1 record, before the season spiralled into free fall with QB Matt Stafford going down with a fractured back in December. He missed eight games and of those eight games, the Lions managed a grand total of zero wins. Despite the efforts of Jeff Driskel and David Blough, it is clear now the importance of having a competent backup QB in case of injury. Quinn could look in the direction of Matt Moore, Case Keenum or Chase Daniel to back up Stafford in 2020. Dave Dameshek of NFL.com has also reported that Stafford may indeed find himself on the trade block, suggesting that the Lions will use their #3 pick in the draft to select a QB, likely Tua Tagavailoa. If they were to trade Stafford, it would result in a dead cap hit of $32 million. That would hurt in the short term but if Tua works out, they would have more money to work with in the long run with a QB on a rookie deal.
The passing game put together by offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell worked well, ranking 10th in the league – a more than respectable finish given that Stafford missed half of the season. The receiving corps of the team particularly impressed with Kenny Golladay leading the way. He racked up 11 TDs to lead the league and posted a career best 1,190YDs, showing that he is turning into a legitimate star in the league. Golladay has one year left on his contract, but given his consistently high levels of production an extension for him should be high on the list of priorities for Quinn. Danny Amendola impressed mightily in the slot, showing great chemistry with Stafford and also establishing himself as a great veteran leader in the locker room, as illustrated by Patricia making him a team captain before a game had even being played. He is now a free agent and the Lions should look to bring him back to pair with Golladay and Marvin Jones, who bounced back in ’19 with 9 TDs in 13 games himself.
Offensive line will also need to be addressed. Graham Glasgow was outstanding at right guard, playing 872 snaps and not giving up a single snap. He is looking at commanding between $9 million and $11 million per year, a price that may be a little too steep for the Lions. Quinn may be inclined to look to the draft for reinforcements for his offensive line, with plenty of talent likely to be available.
The biggest problem for the Lions in 2019 was their defence, an issue that places more pressure on the shoulders of Patricia given that is his area of expertise. They couldn’t tackle, ranking 28th in the NFL with 127 missed. They couldn’t rush the quarterback, registering a lowly 28 sacks which ranked 29th. The unit gave up 26.4 PPG and 400 YPG, both stats landing them in the bottom six of the league. The secondary was devastated by the loss of Quandre Diggs, who was traded to Seattle in what was a wholly unpopular move amongst both the fans and players. Corner Darius Slay, who has an All Pro nod and three straight Pro Bowl selections to his name in the last three years, was also on the trading block. The Lions tried at the deadline last year to acquire Broncos corner Chris Harris, who is now a free agent. He is a potential option to improve the secondary along with fellow unrestricted free agent Devin McCourty. McCourty has a long-standing relationship with Patricia and is also an option to rejoin his old coordinator in southeast Michigan.
The defensive line disappointed in 2019, especially given the $90 million acquisition of edge rusher Trey Flowers in the offseason. To his credit, Flowers finished the season well, but the rest of the line regressed and faces uncertainty going into 2020. D’Shawn Hand played only three games, Romeo Okwara tallied just 1.5 sacks (compared to 7.5 in ’18) and Mike Daniels was underwhelming after coming over from Green Bay in free agency. Quinn would be better served concentrating on bringing back A’Shawn Robinson, who was disappointing in 2019 but at 24 has shown enough upside to suggest he can bounce back. Damon “Snacks” Harrison is reportedly considering retirement and his loss would leave the Lions with a huge void in the interior of their line. Gerald McCoy could be considered as a free agent addition to fill the gap left by Harrison if he chooses to quit and Michael Bennett would also be a cost effective addition, bringing experience and grunt to a line that needs it.
The Lions possess the number 3 pick in the draft and that leaves them in an enviable position. Joe Burrow to the Bengals and Chase Young to the Redskins should be certainties, leaving Detroit in a great position to land an elite talent or leverage it in a trade with a quarterback needy team. A trade back would still leave the Lions in a position to get a top prospect.
There is a lot of work to be done at Ford Field, both in free agency and in the draft. It is clear that if they aren’t successful in those areas, another season of mediocrity awaits and after already having two incredibly disappointing seasons, Messrs Quinn and Patricia may find the temperature of their seats has risen from warm to piping hot. Patience is undoubtedly required to turn a franchise around, but it is a rare virtue in a “what have you done for me lately” environment.