News & Analysis

2020 NFL Team Preview Series: Detroit Lions

Last season did not go as planned for the Lions, as they lost heartbreakers early in the season before starting quarterback Matthew Stafford went down with an injury. The offense showed some firepower when Stafford was healthy, though the defense has not found its stride in two years under head coach Matt Patricia. The offense has the pieces to be explosive once again, but Detroit must find a way to slow down opposing offenses with its man-heavy scheme. If Stafford picks up where he left off last season and the new defensive acquisitions perform well, Detroit should be in the mix in a wide-open NFC North.

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ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS

CB Desmond Trufant (signed for two years, $21 million)

S Jayron Kearse (signed for one year, $2.75 million)

LB Jamie Collins Sr. (signed for three years, $30 million, $18 million guaranteed)

QB Chase Daniel (signed for three years, $13 million)

S Duron Harmon (via trade)

DI Danny Shelton (signed for two years, $8 million)

T Halapoulivaati Vaitai (signed for five years, $50 million)

Losses:

CB Darius Slay (via trade)

DI Mike Daniels

G Graham Glasgow

DI Damon Harrison Sr. (cut)

DI A’Shawn Robinson

EDGE Devon Kennard (cut)

CB Rashaan Melvin

QUARTERBACK

Oct 20, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) drops back to pass during the second half against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field. Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s what I said about Matthew Stafford after the 2019 season:

“In one of the biggest single-year transformations in recent memory, Stafford briefly returned to his best in 2019 before he lost his season due to injury. Stafford increased his average depth of target by over 4 yards per attempt, a massive improvement in offensive aggressiveness that led to the most efficient year of his career and the league’s highest percentage of big-time throws. He also saw the biggest jump in the percentage of positively graded throws outside of Ryan Tannehill, which led to the league’s sixth-most efficient passing attack while Stafford was on the field. He had fallen into more of a game manager mode in recent seasons, but Stafford and the Lions embraced a high-risk, high-reward style that led to more explosive plays but also a few more misses down the field. And if they continue down that path, the payout could be massive.”

Stafford getting back to a downfield attacking machine is a great sign for the Lions, and that should absolutely be their approach in 2020. There are a handful of games each year in which Stafford looks like a top-five quarterback, using his strong arm and playmaking feel to make “wow” plays all over the field. While it’s not easy to bottle that up and trot it out there for 16 games, a more aggressive, downfield-throwing Stafford has a much better chance of unlocking that potential, and the Lions have the skill position talent to put points on the board.

RUNNING BACK

It wasn’t exactly the plan, but the Lions had four different runners with at least 200 yards on the ground last season, with Kerryon Johnson leading the way (403). Johnson had a strong start to his career in 2018, grading at 80.9 overall and averaging 5.4 yards per carry to go with an excellent performance in the pass game. However, Johnson has been limited by injuries in his two years and the Lions were active in the running back market prior to the draft, landing D’Andre Swift out of Georgia in the second round.

Swift was the top running back on the PFF Big Board due to his receiving ability that will be featured right away in Detroit’s offense. If Johnson is healthy, he and Swift will make a solid three-down duo. Bo Scarbrough returns as the No. 3 option after averaging an impressive 3.2 yards after contact per rush on 89 carries last season, while 2019 sixth-rounder Ty Johnson put up similar numbers on his 63 carries. The Lions have invested two second-round picks in three years at the running back position, and it will come down to Johnson’s health and Swift’s pass-game acumen to determine if it pays off.

WIDE RECEIVER

Nov 24, 2019; Landover, MD, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay (19) carries the ball past Washington Redskins cornerback Fabian Moreau (31) during the second half at FedExField. Credit: Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

The Lions have a well-rounded group of receivers, starting with Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay on the outside. Jones has been one of the league’s best intermediate (10-19 yard) threats over the past two years, grading at 93.3 in that range. He’s also one of the most sure-handed receivers in the league, dropping just 24 passes on 390 catchable targets since entering the league in 2012. Golladay has emerged as one of the NFL's most formidable vertical threats, tying for 18th with a 79.3 receiving grade last season and racking up 930 yards on 20-plus yard passes over the past two years (the third-most in the NFL).

While Golladay and Jones make for an excellent one-two punch, Danny Amendola is a perfect complement in the slot. He picked up 678 yards in his first year in Detroit and was “open” on 73.9% of his targets, fourth-best in the NFL last season. The No. 4 spot will be a battle between former Packers wideout Geronimo Allison, 2019 sixth-rounder Travis Fulgham and rookie fifth-rounder Quintez Cephus. Allison showed flashes in Green Bay, but he’s graded in the 50.0s in two of his past three seasons.

The other X-factor is Marvin Hall, a 4.4 speedster who played the deep threat role perfectly last year, catching seven passes for 261 yards for an incredible 37.3 yards per reception average. Expect the Lions to use Hall in a similar, field-stretching role. Detroit has one of the better groups in the league and can create chunk plays as well as any receiving corps in the NFL.

TIGHT END

T.J. Hockenson had an outstanding start to his NFL career, catching six passes for 131 yards and a score in his debut in Week 1. But he slowed down to catch just 26 passes over the rest of the season. Like many tight ends, Hockenson is primed to take a big step forward in Year 2. He’s an effective route runner and is as sure-handed as it gets, dropping just three passes over the past three seasons. Hockenson is also an effective run blocker, and his three-down ability combines with Detroit’s receivers to give them one of the best all-around playmaking units in the league.

Jesse James returns in a backup role after producing a career-low 53.7 overall grade in 2019. Isaaac Nauta, a 2019 seventh-round pick. is a solid blocker who doesn’t provide much in the pass game, though undrafted free agent Hunter Bryant is a potential “move” tight end option who could add another pass-game threat. Detroit’s tight end production will depend on Hockenson making a Year 2 leap, and he has the necessary tools and pedigree to make that happen.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Sep 22, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Detroit Lions center Frank Ragnow (77) prepares to block against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Lions finished with the 11th-ranked offensive line last season after having two players place in the top 10 at their respective positions — center Frank Ragnow finished sixth and right guard Graham Glasgow finished 10th — while left tackle Taylor Decker ranked 19th. There will be some turnover after Glasgow and right tackle Rick Wagner moved on in free agency. At tackle, Decker enters the fifth year of his rookie contract. He ranks above the league average on true pass sets and run-blocking grade on both gap and zone runs since 2016.

Left guard Joe Dahl performed well in his first year as a starter in 2019, though it was a bit lopsided, as he ranked 23rd with a 73.0 pass-blocking grade, but finished just 48th as a run blocker (57.1). Ragnow had the second-best grade among centers in the run game (78.2), showing off the skills that made him one of the best interior offensive line prospects of the PFF College era (since 2014).

Questions persist on the right side, where Halapoulivaati Vaitai signed for $45 million over five years to start at right tackle. Vaitai is coming off a career-high 76.2 run-block grade, but his 55.2 pass-blocking grade since 2016 ranks 84th out of 94 qualifiers, so that remains a major concern. Third-round pick Jonah Jackson was our favorite pass-protecting guard in the draft, and he has the all-around game to step in immediately as a starter. He’ll compete with veteran Oday Aboushi, who hasn’t posted an overall grade above 62.7 since 2014.

Keep an eye on fourth-rounder Logan Stenberg, who brings excellent power and size to the line and may be a solid starter down the road. Between Decker, Dahl and Ragnow, the Lions have a strong foundation up front. The right side of the line will determine where Detroit finishes in the end-of-the-season rankings.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Detroit Lions' defensive line is still trying to find its identity and consistency under head coach Matt Patricia. Last season, defensive end Trey Flowers was the only consistently impressive member, earning an 83.0 overall PFF grade and notching 63 total pressures. That wasn’t even Flowers' best season, but it’s probably a fair return in his first year as the Lions' big-money free agent acquisition. The issue is, Flowers had little help.

Veterans Mike Daniels and Damon Harrison Sr. broke down with injuries and just weren’t the same players they have been in the past. They were on the field for fewer than 750 combined snaps, and neither player graded particularly well — especially given their past performances. There was also little in terms of pressure coming from anybody other than Flowers. Devon Kennard had the next-highest pressure total (43), and he is now in Arizona, leaving Romeo Okwara, along with his brother Julian, to be the most likely candidates to bring some heat on the quarterback.

Romeo had 34 total pressures last season despite generating only two sacks, However, those totals came on 377 pass rushes, plummeting his PFF pass-rushing grade to 58.2. Julian was the No. 4-ranked edge rusher on PFF’s Big Board and certainly has the talent to provide pressure, even if he might need a situational role early. Injuries robbed Da’Shawn Hand of most of his second season after his strong showing as a rookie, but he is a player who could still feature heavily.

Meanwhile, Danny Shelton was brought in from the Patriots to anchor the middle of the line. Shelton is primarily a run-stuffing force, and for added insurance in that area, the team drafted Utah’s John Penisini in the sixth round. Much like Chicago's unit, the Lions' defensive front likely relies on finding somebody beyond its top player — Trey Flowers — to be a consistent force, particularly when it comes to generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Most of the personnel on the roster are more run-focused, which likely leaves the Okwara duo to take advantage of their pass-rushing snaps and prove they can hurry the quarterback.

LINEBACKER

Detroit Lions linebacker Jahlani Tavai rushes Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston during the second half Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019 at Ford Field.

Last season, Lions linebackers had the second-worst overall grade (40.7) among NFL teams, with rookie Jahlani Tavai posting the top grade for the unit (60.5). Much like he did in college, Tavai did his best work in the run game, where his 65.9 grade ranked fifth among rookie linebackers. Former first-rounder

Jarrad Davis is in the last year of his contract after Detroit declined his fifth-year option. His peak grade thus far was just 52.8 as a rookie in 2017. Davis showed signs of life in coverage in 2018, but he dropped back to a 32.6 grade last season, fourth-worst in the NFL. Davis has done his best work as a blitzer, grading in the 70.0s in all three years and amassing 58 pressures. Davis’ explosiveness made him an attractive developmental first-round pick, but it appears that his best fit is as a sub-package blitzer.

The Lions signed Jamie Collins from the New England Patriots after he rejuvenated his career with a 75.8 regular-season grade in 2019, good for 13th in the league. Collins is familiar with the defensive system and is yet another versatile weapon who can play all over the defensive formation while providing one of the better blitz threats in the league. Christian Jones also returns after a disappointing 44.0 overall grade in his second year with the Lions. He’s done his best work in the run game throughout his career, though last season’s 46.5 grade is the worst of his career.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin adds depth to the unit after a 54.5 grade on 298 snaps last season. Adding Collins is a major boost to this linebacking corps, which could surprise in 2020 behind several players who have at least played well at some point, despite poor overall performances last year.

SECONDARY

With Darius Slay now with the Eagles, much rests on the shoulders of top draft pick Jeffrey Okudah to be impressive right out of the gate. Okudah was the No. 1 corner on PFF’s Big Board and the No. 4 player in the entire draft, regardless of position. He was the consensus best corner in this draft and excelled in man coverage during his college career. He is a perfect match for Detroit's man-heavy coverages, but expecting a rookie to be better than Slay was, even in a down year, is asking a lot.

Okudah will play alongside Desmond Trufant, who gets a chance to revive his career in Detroit and try to rediscover the form that he began his NFL career with. After back-to-back years with a grade above 80.0, Trufant hasn’t topped that mark since. But, like Okudah, he is a good fit for the man coverage scheme the Lions want to run. Amani Oruwariye, Darryl Roberts and Mike Ford round out the depth chart with solid options, while Justin Coleman will continue to cover the slot.

Oruwariye, in particular, could be an option to start if either Trufant or Okudah struggles, as he has impressed in limited snaps so far in the NFL. Tracy Walker will retain one safety spot after finishing 2019 with the best PFF grade of any Lions defensive back, but he will now line up next to Duron Harmon, who comes over from the Patriots. Harmon has been one of the better pure free safeties in the league for a while in New England and allows the Lions to run more single-high looks with aggressive man coverage. Jayron Kearse adds some intriguing versatility and depth after coming over from Minnesota.

DEVELOPMENT NEEDED: T.J. HOCKENSON

Nov 10, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson (88) makes a catch on Chicago Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack (52) during the second half at Soldier Field. Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

While Hockenson wasn’t bad as a rookie, being a former top-10 pick comes with high expectations. Despite Detroit’s already strong receiving corps, it's necessary that Hockenson emerges as a middle-of-the-field threat for the unit's overall success. When combined with his run blocking, Hockenson has top-10 tight end potential. The Lions will want to see it sooner rather than later.

DRAFT CLASS REVIEW

It was a well-rounded draft for the Lions, headlined by cornerback Jeffrey Okudah, who is expected to step in right away as a starter. The Lions got a pass-game weapon in running back D’Andre Swift, a movable defensive chess piece in Julian Okwara, and two potential starting guards in Jonah Jackson and Logan Stenberg. On Day 3, wide receiver Quintez Cephus was good value in the fifth round and the sixth round is the perfect place for a run-stopping defensive tackle like John Penisini. The Lions have a good balance of immediate contributors and future starters, all adding up to one of our favorite drafts of 2020.

BEST BET

One of the best bets early in the offseason was the Lions to win the NFC North at +800. At an implied probability of 11.1%, our simulation loved the value, predicting a division crown for the Lions on almost 20% of outcomes. After an adjustment of the price down to +600, it is still a worthwhile bet — but not one to overexpose on if you have a better number.

Another enticing play for the Lions is “yes” to make the playoffs, currently priced with an implied probability of 29.4%. This is one our simulation sees happening closer to 35.7% of outcomes. The Lions are one of the teams our betting model is highest on in relation to the current market.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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