Until 2018, the last time Lions head coach Matt Patricia suffered through a losing season as a football coach, he was a grad assistant at Syracuse in 2002. For general manager Bob Quinn, you had to go back to 2000, his first year in New England as a lowly personnel assistant under new Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. So the 6–10 finish in their first year together in Detroit — Quinn hired his longtime colleague after firing Jim Caldwell following back-to-back 9–7 seasons — was a system shock. But so was the culture shift that coincided with it as Patricia’s version of the Patriot Way rubbed some veteran players the wrong way and a poor start — as well as some poor personnel fits — left many fans in Detroit wondering if they’d climbed out on another flimsy branch of Belichick’s coaching tree.
But a few signature wins, including one against his former boss, gave Patricia something to build on. And after making a much bigger splash in free agency this winter, the roster seems better aligned with his vision.
Matthew Stafford endured one of his worst seasons in 2018, passing for fewer than 4,000 yards — a career low for a full season — and taking some lumps in the process. He was sacked 40 times and played through a back injury the final month of the season. But Stafford, who has started 128 consecutive games (third among active quarterbacks), also played without some key offensive weapons, after the Lions dealt his favorite target, Golden Tate, at the trade deadline, and rookie running back Kerryon Johnson and veteran wideout Marvin Jones Jr. both went down with injuries.
Last season’s struggles ratcheted up the pressure on Stafford, who’ll carry a nearly $30 million cap hit this season. They ultimately cost coordinator Jim Bob Cooter his job, too. But his replacement, Darrell Bevell, seems to be a better fit, sharing the same run-first, ball-control philosophy Patricia is trying to hammer home in Detroit.
The pieces are there for a more efficient run game, starting with Johnson, who averaged 5.4 yards per carry as a rookie and racked up the first two 100-yard rushing games for the Lions since 2013. Johnson also showed more ability as a receiver than expected. The power-back role this year belongs to C.J. Anderson, who parlayed his late-season success with the Rams into a free agent deal. Anderson’s best NFL season was in 2017 in Denver, and the line coach there, Jeff Davidson, is now in his second year designing the Lions’ blocking scheme. The Lions also kept dependable backup Zach Zenner, while Theo Riddick, whose production as a third-down specialist dropped off last fall, is entering a contract year.
The offensive line will have to replace Pro Bowl right guard T.J. Lang, who retired in March. But the rest of the starters return, including left guard Frank Ragnow, a run-game mauler who impressed as a rookie first-round pick. Just as important, the Lions invested a top-10 pick in Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson, whose sure hands and elite blocking ability should create mismatches up front and immediately help the play-action game. Quinn also signed former Steelers tight end Jesse James, another solid in-line blocker with a huge catch radius at 6'7".
At receiver, Jones returns opposite Kenny Golladay, a big-play threat who is poised to claim the No. 1 role after earning Stafford’s trust. Tate’s slot role will be filled by veteran Danny Amendola, a tough, precise route runner and one of several ex-Patriots on the Lions’ roster.
Patricia’s effort to overhaul the defensive scheme got off to a rough start in 2018, much like the team as a whole. But a midseason trade with the Giants to acquire former All-Pro nose tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison was a huge step in the right direction on that side of the ball. The Lions went from the NFL’s worst run defense statistically to one of the best with Harrison controlling the gaps inside and making others around him better. A’Shawn Robinson had a bounce-back season, and rookie Da’Shawn Hand looked like a fourth-round find as well, two former Alabama players thriving after being reunited with Bo Davis, their collegiate position coach. Another Giants castoff, long-armed defensive end Romeo Okwara, proved to be Detroit’s most effective pass rusher with 7.5 sacks. After claiming Okwara off waivers last September, the Lions locked him up with a two-year extension in February.
Then the Lions went out and landed the top edge rusher in free agency, Trey Flowers, a 25-year-old who started his career with Patricia in New England and is just entering his prime. That addition came at a steep price — Flowers’ five-year, $90 million deal is the richest the Lions have ever paid in free agency — but it gives Patricia and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni the kind of tough, versatile playmaker they have desperately sought in the front seven. His arrival should free up last year’s big addition, Devon Kennard, and middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, who has struggled in coverage but excelled as a downhill tackler and blitzer. Davis was the only NFL player to record 100 tackles and six sacks last season, and the surprise second-round draft selection of Hawaii’s Jahlani Tavai — a smart, big-bodied thumper at linebacker — gives Patricia another chess piece to move around.
The secondary will have a different look, with second-year safety Tracy Walker poised to fill Glover Quin’s old starting role alongside Quandre Diggs, who quickly became a Patricia favorite with his hard-hitting play last season. The Lions traded up in the third round to draft another safety in Will Harris, who fits as a “big nickel” third safety and played for Pasqualoni at Boston College. Two-time Pro Bowler Darius Slay remains one of the NFL’s top cover men, but the Lions moved aggressively in free agency to add Seattle’s Justin Coleman, a slot corner who spent his first two years in the league as a backup in New England. They also added veteran Rashaan Melvin, then drafted a big, rangy press corner in Penn State’s Amani Oruwariye to groom as a future starter.
The special teams units remain unchanged, except at the top, where a familiar face is back as coordinator. John Bonamego, who coached the Lions’ special teams in 2013-14, was hired to fill a vacancy created when Patricia fired Joe Marciano last November. He returns to a unit that excelled again in the kicking game in 2018. Matt Prater posted his eighth career 100-point season, and in addition to a big leg, he’s perfect from inside 40 yards over the last two years.
Punter Sam Martin returned to form as well, pinning opponents inside the 20 and helping the Lions lead the NFL in opponents’ starting field position. And long snapper Don Muhlbach, who earned his second Pro Bowl nod, is back for his 16th season.
Still, undisciplined play by the punt coverage units early last season — the Lions finished with 22 penalties on special teams — sealed Marciano’s fate. Losing Jamal Agnew to injury for much of the season also hurt the return game. He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2017 when he led the NFL in punt return yardage. Rookie sixth-round pick Ty Johnson was one of the nation’s top kick returners last season, so he’ll get a shot to earn a roster spot in the preseason.
The key figures — the GM, the head coach, and the franchise quarterback — are all under contract through 2022. But double-digit losses won’t cut it. That makes this a pivotal year, particularly for Stafford, who remains a lightning rod for criticism after a decade in Detroit with no playoff success to show for it. The early-season schedule won’t be easy, but if Patricia can build on the defensive strides made late last season, there should be enough juice in the run game to gain some traction.