The 2015 version of the Cardiac Cats have the look again of an NFC North title contender
Detroit was one of the final teams to commence training camp, as veterans reported on Sunday. The Lions are looking to improve upon an 11-5 season that ended in despair following a crushing 24-20 loss to the Cowboys in the Wild Card round.
Optimism is brimming in Allen Park following the team’s first trip to the playoffs since 2011, but there are plenty of detractors outside the organization that wonder if the success is sustainable with some key personal losses on defense.
Let’s take a look at five key questions surrounding the Detroit Lions as they enter the 2015 season:
How Do You Replace Ndamukong Suh?
The front office acted quickly once word came out that Suh would be signing with Miami by securing a trade for five-time Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata minutes after the free agency period opened. Ngata will not provide the pass-rushing presence Suh brought to the line, but will more than hold his own in stopping the run — the No. 1 point of emphasis in defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s defense.
Alongside Ngata will either be second-year man Caraun Reid, who spent the offseason training with Suh in Florida, or free-agent signee Tyrunn Walker, who was heavily sought after by other teams. Fourth-round draft pick Gabe Wright also will factor into the rotation, and starting defensive end Jason Jones will kick inside on passing downs.
Matching last season’s 42 sacks will be difficult without Suh attracting double teams on a consistent basis, but the Lions should still remain among the league’s best at stopping the run with the addition of Ngata to the group.
Will Matthew Stafford Take the Next Step?
Seems like we have been wondering this very thing the past few seasons now with Stafford, but here we are again in 2015 with the same questions lingering around the Lions’ franchise quarterback. In his first season under the direction of new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, Stafford made necessary strides by improving his completion percentage while also lowering his interception totals. With that, though, came a peeled-back offense that did not take enough shots down the field — leading to a 22nd ranking in scoring.
With a restocked offensive line, two Pro Bowl targets on the outside and a full season under his belt in the Lombardi offense, excuses should be out the window at this point. If Detroit wants to reach its immediate goal of a division title, Stafford has to be better in all facets of the position.
Does Eric Ebron Live Up to His Draft Status in 2015?
To put it bluntly, the Ebron selection was not a popular choice in Detroit. The Lions had already re-signed starting tight end Brandon Pettigrew to a new four-year deal. Undrafted free agent Joseph Fauria just caught seven touchdown passes the year prior. Three of the team’s key defensive tackles were all impending free agents with soon-to-be Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald still sitting on the board. And to make matters worse, Odell Beckham Jr. and Zack Martin were chosen within the next six picks following the Ebron selection — both of which have the look of potential superstars after just one season.
Despite the trepidations amongst the fan base that Ebron can live up to his draft status, confidence within the team has not wavered. Wide receiver Golden Tate has expressed on multiple occasions this offseason they expect the young tight end to thrive in his second year as he gains a better understanding of the offense.
While these types of fluff quotes are a standard during the offseason, it is evident that Ebron will be given every opportunity to become that third target the team needs behind Tate and Calvin Johnson .
Has the Offensive Line Improved?
General manager Martin Mayhew certainly did his part in attempting to improve an offensive front that gave up 45 sacks a season ago, using the draft to not only select guard Laken Tomlinson with the team’s first-round pick, but also landing the versatile Manny Ramirez in a trade with the Broncos. Tomlinson, an All-ACC selection out of Duke, did not allow a single sack last season with the Blue Devils, and should immediately step in at left guard to fortify that side of the line along with Riley Reiff.
Ramirez was brought over from Denver as insurance in case Tomlinson or second-year center Travis Swanson are not ready for starting duties right out of the gate. The eight-year veteran has the ability to play both center and guard, but the hope is that the younger options are prepared to play immediately.
The remaining concern on the line is at right tackle where LaAdrian Waddle is still on the mend from a torn ACL suffered last season and will start training camp on the PUP list. Second-year undrafted free agent Cornelius Lucas filled in well in Waddle’s place, including a start in the playoffs against the Cowboys, but the expectation is for Waddle to regain his starting spot when he is back to full strength.
Can the Lions Win a Division Title in 2015?
Possible, yes. If that is to happen, a few things need to occur.
Navigating through the early portion of the schedule is job No. 1. The Lions are on the road in three of their first four games, including matchups against the Broncos and a Monday night tilt with Seattle. Step two is trying to find a way to win at Lambeau — a feat that has not taken place in 24 long, painful years.
Even with the loss of Suh, the Lions are not devoid of talent. Emerging stars like Ziggy Ansah, Darius Slay and DeAndre Levy will help keep the defense ranked near the top of the league, while the offense will undoubtedly improve in the second year of Joe Lombardi’s system.
A return to the playoffs is not the only objective for this team any more. If Detroit is to reach its ultimate goals, overcoming the Packers will largely determine if the Lions can become kings of the North and achieve a home playoff game for the first time since 1993.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois and also currently writes for CollegeFootballGeek.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2.