So maybe the Detroit Lions haven’t arrived, after all. A year after making the playoffs for the first time since 1999, they found themselves back in the NFC North cellar again, wondering what happened to all the momentum they’d built in the three years since that infamous 0–16 season. Injuries and off-field distractions, including several player arrests, helped derail a team that overestimated its talent level and underestimated the effects of complacency. That, coupled with a salary-cap crunch, prompted major changes heading into 2013, with general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz — a year after signing a contract extension — both on the hot seat. The team brought in a new front office voice in former Denver Broncos GM Brian Xanders, revamped the coaching staff with a half-dozen new assistants, and made a big splash early in free agency, adding three new starters, including running back Reggie Bush. “Anytime you only win four games, you better have a sense of urgency that you better get it turned around,” Mayhew says. “You better get it going in the right direction quickly.”
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 15th
Related: 2013 Detroit Lions Schedule Analysis
Matthew Stafford signed a three-year, $53 million contract extension in July, locking up the 2009 No. 1 overall pick through 2017. With this big payday now secure, the team hopes that a bounce-back year on the field will follow. Stafford followed a record-breaking 2011 with some more eye-popping statistics in 2012. But a new NFL record for pass attempts in a season (727, surpassing Drew Bledsoe’s 1994 total of 691) only highlighted the Lions’ offensive struggles, as injuries — and insubordination, in Titus Young’s case — decimated the receiving corps, and the running game lacked any explosiveness behind an aging offensive line.
Mayhew says counting on Jahvid Best to return from his concussions was “probably my biggest mistake,” a sentiment that was cemented with the oft-injured running back's release in July. Before that, however, the GM moved quickly to address his backfield by making the Bush signing the top priority in March. The dynamic back provides a big-play threat out of the backfield, and someone who’ll have defensive coordinators “sitting there scratching their heads and wondering where he’s going to be, where he’s going to line up,” says Stafford. At the very least, he’ll give offensive coordinator Scott Linehan more flexibility in his play-calling as he tries to free up Calvin Johnson, who still somehow managed to break Jerry Rice’s receiving yardage record last season despite being double- and triple-teamed.
There should be opportunities for Mikel Leshoure, a bigger back two years removed from a torn Achilles, and Joique Bell, a pleasant surprise in his first significant NFL action last year.
Finding another wideout to replace Young, whose erratic behavior finally got him released in February, remained on Mayhew’s to-do list, particularly with Nate Burleson coming off a broken leg and Ryan Broyles rehabbing another torn ACL this offseason. And the Lions need better production and fewer drops from tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler.
The biggest question mark, though, is on the offensive line. After three years with a static starting five, the Lions must replace both tackles and the right guard. Riley Reiff, last year’s first-round choice who was used mostly in jumbo packages as a rookie, should get the nod at left tackle. Unproven backups Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox get first crack on the right side. Rookie Larry Warford could start immediately at right guard ahead of Rodney Austin and Bill Nagy. Nagy, claimed off injury waivers from Dallas last summer, also could push undersized veteran center Dominic Raiola, one of the few remaining holdovers from the Matt Millen era.
For the Lions’ defense, it’s time to bring the noise. And that’ll start up front, where rookie end Ziggy Ansah now gives the Lions three top-15 picks on the defensive line from the last four draft classes. Alongside tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, Ansah will be asked to make an immediate impact this fall, and he won’t be asked kindly. Veteran line coach Jim Washburn, one of the NFL’s more vocal and intense characters, was brought in by Schwartz to help get more out of the wide-nine technique both men swear by. Jason Jones arrives from Seattle as a free agent to help replace the departed Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch. With Jones, Ansah, fourth-round pick Devin Taylor, fourth-year pro Willie Young and 10-year veteran Israel Idonije, the Lions will have five pass rushers who stand 6'5" or taller.
Inside is where the Lions boast a pair of potential Pro Bowlers. Suh bounced back in a big way last season, and Fairley, after a pair of offseason arrests, showed more of the talent he’d flashed in an injury-plagued rookie season.
The defense as a whole simply didn’t make many big plays. Some of the blame falls on the linebackers, who had one interception all season. Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy are back, with Ashlee Palmer and Tahir Whitehead likely fighting for the other starting job outside.
But most of the breakdowns came from a secondary that again got stuck in an injury-generated revolving door. Safety Louis Delmas, plagued by knee tendinitis, played in only eight games, but he remains one of the team’s emotional leaders. For the first time in his five-year career, he’ll also have a first-rate partner, as the Lions made Houston’s Glover Quin — a versatile and durable former cornerback the Texans wanted to keep — their other top priority in free agency. Chris Houston returns to man one corner spot, while rookie second-round pick Darius Slay, the fastest cornerback in this year’s draft, should challenge Bill Bentley for the other starting job.
There’s a new special teams coordinator (John Bonamego) and a completely new look. For the first time since 1992, the Lions will have a new kicker. Jason Hanson opted for retirement rather than a new contract for the veteran minimum, and the Lions signed a relative youngster in 38-year-old David Akers to replace him. Akers, a six-time Pro Bowler, has something prove after lingering issues from hernia surgery contributed to inconsistent results last season in San Francisco. Hanson’s longtime holder, punter Nick Harris, is gone, too, after the Lions ranked last in the NFL in net punting average in 2012. His replacement looks to be rookie Sam Martin. The return game will be in new hands, too, with several options on the roster — Mike Thomas, Bell and Bush, among others — and a likely free agent fix to come.
Final Analysis: 4th in NFC North
No more excuses. That’s the bottom line in Detroit, where the decision-makers have had plenty of time to retrofit their roster, and the premium talent has had enough time to develop. But after last year’s pratfall, and the veteran departures that followed, the big question might be whether the young stars are ready to lead, and not just perform.
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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:
Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)
NY Jets (8/15)
San Diego (8/20)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)
Tampa Bay (8/15)