Plenty has changed in Detroit, thanks to some serious house-cleaning in the front office and another high-profile roster subtraction. But the problem remains the same for the Lions: They’ve yet to find the recipe for building a consistent winner.
New general manager Bob Quinn, hired in January after spending the last 16 years working with Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots, is promising to fix that. He replaces Martin Mayhew, who was dismissed last October — along with team president Tom Lewand, both of them holdovers from the failed Matt Millen era of a decade ago — following the Lions’ disastrous 1-7 start in 2015.
Quinn’s first move was his own choice — retaining head coach Jim Caldwell and most of his staff after the Lions rallied for a 7-9 finish — but the second was out of his hands. Calvin Johnson, still one of the league’s elite receivers, announced his retirement at the age of 30 after nine NFL seasons. So the game plan in Detroit has no choice but to evolve now.
Much like Barry Sanders a generation earlier, Johnson, the Lions’ all-time receiving leader, retired with plenty left to give. That leaves quarterback Matthew Stafford, an eighth-year pro, shouldering even more of the load as the team’s longest-tenured starter and lone remaining star with an eight-figure salary cap number.
Stafford was under siege early last season and reverted to some of his turnover-prone ways, even getting benched briefly for the first time in Detroit. But much of that was blamed on the elaborate scheme former coordinator Joe Lombardi was trying to run. After Lombardi’s midseason firing, Stafford thrived with Jim Bob Cooter — promoted from quarterbacks coach to coordinator — calling the plays. He threw 19 touchdowns against only two interceptions in Detroit’s final eight games — going 6-2 against an easier schedule — to finish with the highest completion percentage (67.2) of his career.
That’s part of the reason Caldwell and his staff were retained. But with Megatron gone, everyone’s job gets a bit harder. Marvin Jones, the Lions’ big free-agent signing, will try to fill that playmaking void along with Golden Tate, another sure-handed receiver who has caught 189 passes the last two seasons, and tight end Eric Ebron, who remains a lightning rod for fan criticism due to drops and inconsistent play. Jones was a third option in Cincinnati behind A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert but insists he’s not worried about where he fits in this offense. “Just throw the ball at me,” he says, “and I’ll catch it.”
Stafford will throw it if he has time. But he was sacked 44 times last season behind an offensive line that has undergone another makeover. Quinn brought in veteran Geoff Schwartz in free agency as insurance, then spent heavily on the line in the draft with three of his first five picks. First-rounder Taylor Decker should push for a starting job at one of the tackle spots, and Riley Reiff’s officially on notice in his option year. Graham Glasgow adds competition for center Travis Swanson, who struggled in his first year as a starter. Right guard Larry Warford is due for a rebound in his walk year, while last year’s first-round pick, Laken Tomlinson, needs to take a big step forward.
So does rookie running back Ameer Abdullah, who gets his chance as the lead back after the Lions cut loose Joique Bell. Abdullah will have to prove his ball-security issues are behind him, though. He also had surgery in January to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. It caused him to miss OTAs, but he is expected to be ready for the start of training camp. Theo Riddick enjoyed a breakout season as a receiver out of the backfield (80 receptions) and should see even more action now that he has Stafford’s trust.
The Lions knew they’d struggle last season to replace All-Pro Ndamukong Suh, who bolted in free agency. An early-season injury to Haloti Ngata — the veteran they’d traded for to plug that hole — certainly didn’t help matters. But the hip injury that sidelined DeAndre Levy, one of the NFL’s most productive and versatile linebackers, for the season proved even more crippling, as opponents controlled the line of scrimmage and exploited the Lions’ lack of speed in the middle of their defense. It’s a problem that eventually led coordinator Teryl Austin to bench favored veterans Stephen Tulloch and James Ihedigbo.
This offseason, it meant adding reinforcements such as rookie defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson. The second-round pick will add a run-stopping presence with Ngata, who still can be a difference-maker on the field while mentoring off it. Holdovers Tyrunn Walker, back from a broken leg, and Caraun Reid give the Lions a solid interior rotation. The pass rush is another story, however. The Lions are expecting another Pro Bowl year from end Ezekiel Ansah, one of the league’s rising stars, but they’re counting on Devin Taylor being ready for a starter’s role at left end after a strong second-half showing last season. If he can, it’ll take pressure off a less-experienced back seven.
Tulloch, who was in limbo to start the offseason, was released on July 5 as the Lions made it clear they were ready to move on with speedy Tahir Whitehead as their middle linebacker. He’ll be flanked by Levy and backed by a young secondary that gained confidence despite giving up too many big plays. Glover Quin’s still the all-purpose anchor at safety, and the Lions have added depth behind him — free agents Rafael Bush and Tavon Wilson and a hard-hitting rookie hybrid in Miles Killebrew. They also have a Pro Bowl-caliber talent at one corner in Darius Slay — he allowed just five receptions in a five-game late-season stretch — with feisty, hard-nosed complements in Nevin Lawson outside and Quandre Diggs in the slot. Alex Carter, a 2015 third-round pick, never saw the field as a rookie but should contribute now that he’s healthy.
Placekicker Matt Prater turned in a solid season after signing a three-year, $9 million contract. A year after the Lions’ field-goal follies probably cost them a division title, Prater made 22-of-24 attempts, including a franchise-record 59-yarder outdoors in Chicago in Week 17. Punter Sam Martin, a 2013 fifth-round pick, also bounced back from a disappointing end to 2014 by breaking his own team record with a 42.0-yard net average last season.
And while Abdullah led the league in total return yardage — he was No. 2 with a 29.1-yard average, highlighted by a 104-yarder in the win at Green Bay — the Lions did have an inordinate number of communication issues under new coordinator Joe Marciano. And Quinn clearly made it a point to shore up the coverage units with some of his offseason moves.
Caldwell finds himself squarely on the hot seat entering his third season in Detroit. Last year’s fall from grace in a 1-7 start got his bosses fired, but a strong finish earned the well-liked head coach a reprieve. Another slow start could doom him, though. Because the new GM — and a less-patient approach from ownership with Martha Firestone Ford now in charge of her late husband’s team — probably won’t stand for another losing season after that playoff peek in 2014.