While the rest of the world faces disruption from novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the NFL offseason is one of the few things in the sports world that is operating (semi) normally.
The Lions have been fairly active since the new league year opened March 18, in large part because both head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn enter 2020 on the hot seat. It won’t be just enough to get more wins than last year, as Lions ownership has made it clear that they have playoff expectations.
With that in mind let’s look back on the first week of the playoff-or-bust year for Detroit.
Despite being coached by Bill Belichick disciple and defensive specialist Matt Patricia, the Lions’ defense was perhaps their biggest weakness last year. While Detroit was the second-best defense in yards allowed, the Lions were in the bottom third of the league in just about every other defensive measurement.
Detroit fielded the 21st-ranked rush defense, sixth-worst scoring defense, fourth-worst third-down defense, third-worst pass rush and the worst pass defense.
Needless to say, the Lions need to make radical changes to their defense if they have any hope of making the postseason. To their credit, they’ve made some solid additions that should help them improve.
I know people have been grumbling about bringing in a ton of former New England Patriots in an effort to bring the infamous “Patriot Way” to the Midwest, but two of those additions could really help Detroit’s defense in 2020.
While both Jamie Collins (outside linebacker) and Danny Shelton (defensive line) have had some consistency concerns in their careers with the Browns and Patriots, both bring plenty to the table .
Shelton is coming off the best year of his career in which he finished with 61 tackles and three sacks and should be able to fill the void left by Damon “Snacks” Harrision’s (cut) and A’Shawn Robinson’s (two-year, $17 million deal with the Rams). Shelton’s career stats are comparable to Robinson’s and he comes $7 million cheaper than what it would have cost to keep Robinson.
Collins, who signed a three-year $30 million deal, can be a versatile defensive asset if the coaching staff can keep him consistent. He comes off a solid season where he recorded 81 tackles, seven sacks and three interceptions. Collins is a significant improvement over Devon Kennard; while both have almost the same amount of sacks, Collins averages nearly double Kennard’s tackles and has nine more career picks.
Desmond Trufant, who agreed to come over from Atlanta on a two-year, $21 million deal, should help the Lions’ pitiful pass defense. It would have been nice to pair him with Darius Slay (more on that later) but Trufant can hold his own as a No. 1 corner.
Over his six-year career Trufant has averaged 13 passes defended and two interceptions. And while Trufant missed seven games in 2019, he still finished top-15 in the league in interceptions.
Getting a legitimate backup QB
The Lions weren’t great in 2019 even with Matthew Stafford under center, but their season was effectively nuked the second he was ruled out. Stafford is at the stage in his career where the Lions need to either look for a solid backup QB in case of injury, or get a QB of the future — or do both. While it remains to be seen if Detroit brings in a young quarterback, the team inked veteran Chase Daniel to a three-year $13.05 million deal. At minimum, it’s insurance that the season won’t go straight to the gutter if Stafford goes down again.
THE NOT SO GOOD
Stop if you’ve heard this one before. The Lions find a talented player in the high rounds of the draft, experience some highs with that player before cratering back to Earth and ending up on bad terms.
Slay expressed displeasure with the organization back in October after they traded safety Quandre Diggs to the Seattle Seahawks before publicly wishing for a trade following the signing of Desmond Trufant. But according to reports, the rift between Slay and Lions goes back to Patricia’s hiring with an apparent lack of respect between two being the cause.
In any event, Slay is gone and that’s bad news for a Detroit pass defense that needs all the help it can get. Now, I know some may question how important the best player on the worst pass defense actually was. Simply put, “Big Play” Slay is still one of the best man-to-man corners in the NFL. In the last three seasons Slay has been a three-time Pro-Bowler, made first team All-Pro (2017) and led the league in interceptions (2017). Despite battling injuries last year, Slay still managed 413 passes defended, two interceptions and 46 tackles — albeit slightly being under his career averages.
Furthermore, it tends to be a whole lot harder to make the playoffs when you get rid of one of your top five players.
Questions on the O-line (again)
One step forward, two steps back. While the Lions have done an all right job at fixing up their defense, the offensive line has once again hit some choppy waters.
After opening up the league year by cutting tackle Rick Wagner, who went on to sign a two-year $11 million deal with the Green Bay Packers, the Lions lost starting guard/center Graham Glasgow to the Broncos on a four-year $44 million deal.
How did the Lions remedy this? By signing Eagles’ tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai to a five-year $45 million deal, which would be fine if Jack Conklin, who was widely considered to be one of the better OTs on the market, wasn’t still available.
Furthermore, for a team with an aging veteran QB, tossing out two veteran starting linemen without really finding sure improvements probably won’t help that playoff push.
NOTE: Stats via NFL.com and Pro Football Reference.