Let me start with the biggest story of the Lions’ off-season. WR Calvin Johnson retired from the NFL and some argued that it was a premature decision. From my perspective, Megatron did what was best for him and the Lions. While it will be difficult to watch Stafford throw the deep ball to someone other than Calvin, the time for him to move on was fitting. Detroit’s brass knows that replacing Megatron will be tough; Johnson finished the season 10th in yards, 10th in targets and sixth in receiving first downs among qualified wide receivers. But the free agent signing of Marvin Jones coupled with the assumed progress of third-year tight end Eric Ebron, the Lions should be able to make up for most, if not all of Johnson’s production.
Successful NFL teams typically have great players but they also carry quality depth all-around. The Lions have always (at least in my lifetime) been top-heavy in the personnel department and usually don’t have the depth to offset the most inevitable aspect of pro football: injuries. Bob Quinn, the first year general manager from the Patriots organization, used the cap money designated for Johnson to deliver added depth. He was able to sign RB Steven Ridley, OL Geoff Schwartz, WR Jeremy Kerley, S Rafael Bush among others in free agency.
In particular, Schwartz and Kerley, have a chance to help the team in two critical areas. Schwartz can play both guard spots and right tackle. He may end up starting and should help shore up a running game that finished last in the NFL in rushing yards per game. Kerley can be a useful situational receiver but his real value is in the return game. Kerley finished second in the NFL in punt return yards (411) last season. Quinn was also able to resign key contributors from last year’s team; TE Tim Wright, DT Haloti Ngata, DT Tyrunn Walker, LB Tahir Whitehead and long snapper Don Muhlbach. Good teams are without a shortage of depth and that depth is accentuated by keeping the valuable players and not losing them to cap issues or free agency.
While it would have been nice to see Detroit enter the Josh Norman sweepstakes, it was probably smart to not commit that type of money to anyone in free agency. The Lions have a burgeoning star at corner in Darius Slay and matching him with Norman would have been devastating for opposing offenses. But Slay will need a new deal next year and having that type of money tied up in one position would have kept Detroit on its former trajectory of having stars, but not quality players, throughout the roster. The Lions expect second year corner back Alex Carter to supplement depth at the position and 2015 sixth round pick Quandre Diggs, showed glimpses of being a very good NFL corner in limited action.
Speaking of defense, Detroit will get linebacker DeAndre Levy back this year. Make no mistake, Levy is one of the best linebackers in the NFL. It is up for debate that losing him to injury last year was almost as bad as losing former All-Pro DT Ndamukong Suh in free agency. Fourth year left-end Devin Taylor flourished in the second half of the season, finishing with 35 tackles and 7 sacks. Taylor should only get better with more opportunities and give the team another young defensive end to pair with All-Pro DE Ezekiel Ansah, who accounted for 47 tackles, 14.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles a season ago. The defense finished about middle of the pack last year, but factoring in a horrible start (1-7 to start the season), and the absence of Levy and Walker helped create a less than ideal situation. The unit should perform much closer to expectations this season.
With eight picks in this year’s draft, Quinn should be able to afford the team with the depth that will be needed to push the team from mediocrity to the playoffs. Rumor has it that Quinn’s draft approach will be based on need and not best available player. This is refreshing to hear, because while Eric Ebron may end up being an elite tight end one day, few people understand why the Lions took him at 10th overall in the 2014 draft when DT Aaron Donald was available. Because during that time, the Lions had no guarantee if they would be able to sign Suh.
Again, the 2015 Lions were a tale of two halves. They started poorly, but finished on a 6-2 tear. I believe that they are closer to the team we saw in the second part of the season. The defense is young and should only get better. Special teams has improved with Kerley and remember they still have RB Ameer Abdullah. The offensive line is also young and showed improvement this season. Quarterback Matt Stafford has enough weapons to put up similar numbers to what we’ve grown accustomed to even without Johnson. The key for him and the offense will be a competent running game and growing a line that can keep him upright. Expectations for this year’s team may not be high from a national perspective, but the Lions and its’ fans expect this team to push for a playoff spot.