Detroit started last season off very poorly, but turned it around after some midseason coaching changes. Although the Lions finished the season strong, it was ultimately a disappointing year culminated by Calvin Johnson’s retirement at age 30. With moves made to replace Johnson and help improve the protection of Matthew Stafford, what is the outlook for the 2016 season? Here’s our positional preview for the Lions.
[More: Be sure to check out PFF’s ranking of all 32 NFL QB situations, offensive lines, running back units, receiving corps, secondaries, and defensive front-sevens. Catch up on all the team previews here.]
Stafford’s improvements offset by Johnson’s departure
Quarterbacks: 23rd in PFF’s season preview rankings
Matthew Stafford had his second-straight below-average season, and his lowest-graded one as a passer since his rookie year. However, he did improve as the season progressed, along with the rest of the offense, after the offensive coaching changes prior to Week 8. Through the first seven weeks, Stafford was the lowest-graded quarterback in the NFL. From Week 8 through the end of the season, he earned the eighth-highest overall grade and the highest in the NFC North. He also jumped from 20th to seventh in adjusted completion percentage over those same spans. Still, he will have to adjust to no longer having Johnson, which may make things more difficult initially. Stafford graded at or below-average in all three games Johnson missed in 2014.
A guy who underwhelmed as a rookie will be the No. 1
Running backs: 26th
The Lions running backs undoubtedly had a difficult task of running behind a poor offensive line that ranked 26th in run-blocking. Ameer Abdullah had some impressive runs as a rookie, but he just didn’t get more than the offensive line provided often enough. As a runner, he forced just 12 missed tackles and ranked 59th out of 68 qualifiers in both attempts per missed tackle forced and elusive rating — metrics he excelled in as a senior in college. Still, Abdullah would have finished the season with a slightly positive rushing grade, but his four fumbles (and one of the highest fumble rates at the position) brought it down to a slight negative grade. He’s shown the potential, so hopefully the line improves and he can work better with a little more space to run. Theo Riddick is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. Last season, he earned the highest receiving grade for a running back in the PFF era and on average forced a missed tackle for every other reception.
(PFF Fantasy Insight: If Riddick can repeat his receiving prowess from 2015, he'll be a fantasy value even without the No. 1 RB job. Meanwhile, if Abdullah can't improve, Zach Zenner or even Stevan Ridley could see their roles increase. As it stands, Abdullah is the No. 32 RB in our staff consensus rankings, while Riddick is No. 39.)
Jones the best available Johnson replacement
Receiving corps: 23rd
Replacing a future Hall of Famer is always going to be difficult — if not impossible in the case of Johnson — and it was made even more difficult with very few options available to the Lions this offseason. The team signed the best free agent available in Marvin Jones to go along with Golden Tate. Jones was a solid No. 2 wide receiver behind A.J. Green in Cincinnati and Tate is one of the best after the catch, having led all receivers with 30 missed tackles forced last year. But is either a true No. 1 receiver, and do the Lions even need one? Detroit doesn’t have anything special for receivers after the duo, but the main reason they are not ranked higher is due to their tight ends. Eric Ebron has not lived up to the first-round draft pick yet. He has earned an above-average receiving grade (+1.0 or higher) in just two games over his first two seasons. Brandon Pettigrew has never finished a season with a positive receiving grade while his run-blocking grades have decreased for five consecutive seasons.
An underwhelming unit needs rookie help
Offensive line: 22nd
The Lions used their first-round draft pick on an offensive lineman for the second consecutive year, this time on Taylor Decker to start at left tackle. Decker’s specialty is run-blocking and he has a lot of potential, but he may also not solve the protection issues at the position either. He’s still raw and there’s no guarantee he will be an immediate upgrade. Over the past two seasons, just two of 13 rookie tackles with significant playing time have graded above average.
Along the rest of the line, last year’s first-round pick Laken Tomlinson was a decent pass protector but had some issues run-blocking. Larry Warford fared better later in the season; however, he had his first below-average season and still hasn’t matched his rookie season that won him our Rookie of the Year award. Center still looks like the weakest position for the Lions’ O-line. Travis Swanson ranked 21st in pass-blocking efficiency and performed no better as a run-blocker. Overall he ranked 33rd out of 39 qualifying centers in overall player rating in 2015.
Levy’s return key for the unit
The return of DeAndre Levy, who was one of the best linebackers in 2014, should give the defense a boost and a solid linebacker corps. Tahir Whitehead and last year’s addition Josh Bynes both graded among the top 15 linebackers in 2015 and played particularly well against the run. Up front, Ezekiel Ansah is the cornerstone of the defensive line and has become a solid edge defender who is effective as both a pass-rusher and a run-defender. Haloti Ngata is not quite the caliber of player he used to be, but he’s been a valuable addition to help Detroit continue getting pressure from the interior of the defensive line. Still, they could use a better pass-rush beyond Ansah, who alone accounted for one-quarter of the team’s total pressures. Second-round draft pick A’Shawn Robinson should see plenty of snaps even if he’s not a starter.
Slay is strong, but there isn’t much around him
Darius Slay has progressed nicely over his three-year career and looks to be the cornerstone of the secondary. He is coming off one of the best seasons we saw from a cornerback last year, ranking second in overall player rating and seventh in coverage. Quandre Diggs played well in the slot over the second half of the season aside from a poor Week 17. The secondary’s biggest question mark is their No. 2 corner position. It will likely be Nevin Lawson, who graded 101st out of 111 corners last year and allowed as many touchdowns (three) as he had interceptions and pass defenses combined. At safety, Glover Quin had an average performance last year after his best season in 2014. It sounds like Rafael Bush has the edge on the other safety spot, but he missed most of 2015 and his last year with a positive overall grade was 2013 on just 599 snaps.