Coach Jim Caldwell didn’t do exactly what he promised in his first year in Detroit. The new boss was supposed to unlock the Lions’ offensive potential, but instead he unleashed arguably the NFL’s most ferocious defense. He forged better team chemistry, but couldn’t keep his best player from bolting in free agency. He returned the Lions to the playoffs with an 11-win season — the franchise’s best record since 1991 — but he also watched as his team blew a fourth-quarter lead and, after the refs picked up a flag, handed a wild-card playoff game to the Dallas Cowboys.
Still, there was something to build on, even with one of the cornerstone pieces of the Lions’ massive rebuilding effort — Ndamukong Suh — taking his talents to South Beach. Caldwell’s steady, straightforward approach has made a difference with a once-reckless bunch, on and off the field. And there’s plenty of playmaking talent returning on both sides of the ball. But the next step is where the Lions — 20 years removed from their last back-to-back playoff berths — have historically stumbled.
The Matthew Stafford 2.0 reboot wasn’t an unqualified success. But with the arrival of a quarterback whisperer in Caldwell, new coordinator Joe Lombardi and position coach Jim Bob Cooter, the changes were evident. Stafford, who has started every game the last four seasons, improved his footwork and his completion percentage, cut down on interceptions (from 19 to 12) and still led five game-winning, fourth-quarter drives.
But he clearly struggled with a more conservative mandate in a new offense that borrowed heavily from Lombardi’s voluminous Saints playbook. “I thought that he played smart football,” Lombardi says, “and sometimes to a fault.” This season, Lombardi says he’ll encourage Stafford to take more risks, and more shots down the field.
He has to, with one of the best pass-catching tandems in the league in Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. The Lions were one of five NFL teams with multiple 1,000-yard receivers last season. And after a disappointing rookie season, tight end Eric Ebron — the 10th overall pick in 2014 — is expected to play a much bigger role in the passing game this fall.
But all that’s dependent on an overhauled offensive line that allowed 45 sacks — a career-high for Stafford — and a running game that ranked 28th in the NFL a year ago. In the backfield, rookie second-round pick Ameer Abdullah, a hard-working, productive runner at Nebraska, replaces oft-injured Reggie Bush in a tandem with Joique Bell. Theo Riddick, a pass-catching threat, figures to get more snaps as well.
The Lions invested a first-round pick in Duke’s Laken Tomlinson, a massive run-blocking guard who draws favorable comparisons to the Lions’ Larry Warford. Tomlinson will replace departed vet Rob Sims at left guard, while a healthy Warford returns on the right, flanking second-year pro Travis Swanson, who steps in for Dominic Raiola, the Lions’ starting center for the last 14 seasons. Manny Ramirez, a former Lions draft pick acquired during the draft from Denver, is back as veteran insurance on the interior. And Riley Reiff remains the left tackle for now, with LaAdrian Waddle (coming off ACL surgery) and Cornelius Lucas on the right.
Suh is gone, and though the Lions replaced him with five-time Pro Bowl tackle Haloti Ngata in a trade with Baltimore, they’ll be hard-pressed to match last season’s dominance up front. With Suh commanding double teams on every play, the Lions led the league in run defense. They also recorded 42 sacks, with 34 coming from the defensive line.
But it’s not just Suh who left. The Lions also let Nick Fairley, who missed half the season with a knee injury, walk in free agency, along with primary backup C.J. Mosley and end George Johnson. Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones are the returning starters at end. In Ansah the Lions believe they have a Pro Bowl-caliber right end who’ll post double-digit sack totals, provided he can stay healthy. Jones offers inside-out versatility, and rookie Gabe Wright, a high-motor player from Auburn, will get thrown into the tackle rotation immediately with Ngata and Tyrunn Walker, an under-the-radar free-agent pickup from New Orleans.
The one key contributor the Lions did keep last winter, though, was coordinator Teryl Austin, a rising star who interviewed for multiple head-coaching vacancies. His aggressive, blitzing schemes brought the best out of a back seven that used to be the Lions’ Achilles heel.
DeAndre Levy emerged as one of the NFL’s best outside linebackers, and sure-tackling Stephen Tulloch returns in the middle after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. The Lions had big plans for 2014 second-rounder Kyle Van Noy as a hybrid pass rusher, but a sports hernia derailed his season. Expect to see more of that role this fall, with Tahir Whitehead also factoring in.
The safeties — led by All-Pro Glover Quin — led the NFL with 11 interceptions. And though James Ihedigbo was absent at the start of offseason workouts over a contract dispute, the secondary returns largely intact. Rashean Mathis returns as a steady, savvy vet opposite Darius Slay, who enjoyed a breakout sophomore season. Injuries proved costly at nickel back, and both Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson remain question marks this fall. But the Lions have added depth there, signing Josh Wilson and drafting Alex Carter and Quandre Diggs. And they often went with three-safety looks last year thanks to the versatility of backups Isa Abdul-Quddus and Don Carey.
The Lions’ kicking game might’ve cost them a division title. They missed eight of their first nine field-goal attempts from 40-plus yards last season, and all three kicks in a 17–14 home loss to Buffalo. They shuffled through two kickers — first rookie draft pick Nate Freese, then Alex Henery — before signing free agent Matt Prater coming off an alcohol suspension. Only then did things settle down, which is why re-signing Prater was an offseason priority. Punter Sam Martin was a goat in the playoff loss at Dallas — his fourth-quarter shank set up the Cowboys’ winning drive — but he ranked among the league’s best in net punting and kickoffs. The coverage units struggled all year, though, and the Lions lacked explosiveness in the return game, so in comes a fiery new coordinator in Joe Marciano. And in Abdullah, the Lions believe they’ve drafted a player who’ll contribute as a kick returner as well, possibly supplanting Jeremy Ross.
When the Lions made the playoffs in 2011, they acted like they’d arrived, only to discover they hadn’t with a 4–12 record after a disastrous offseason full of risky draft picks and off-field trouble. This time, they’re not standing pat, with major changes in the trenches. And in Caldwell, they’ve got a well-respected coach who GM Martin Mayhew insists “makes a difference.” With a brutal early-season schedule, it may not take long to find out if he’s right.