After a dismal 3-12-1 finish in his second season as head coach, Matt Patricia got a reprieve from ownership last winter. So did general manager Bob Quinn, who now finds himself on the hot seat along with the man he hired in 2018 with the promise of building a consistent winner. That hasn't happened, obviously. And while a roster overhaul and some key injuries are partly to blame — quarterback Matthew Stafford's back problems helped derail the Lions' hopes in 2019 — patience is running thin, fueled by fan unrest and declining attendance at Ford Field.
The Lions got off to a fast start in 2019, yet their season effectively ended in early November when Stafford was sidelined after suffering fractures in his back in a loss at Oakland. It's the second back injury in as many years for Stafford, 32, who watched the Lions go 0-8 without him after he played at a Pro Bowl level early in the season. He was on pace to throw for 5,000 yards and was thriving under new coordinator Darrell Bevell, whose scheme emphasized Stafford's play-action ability and a downfield passing attack.
After Stafford went down, the Lions' backup carousel — 11 different quarterbacks spent time on the roster in 2019 — struggled to do the job. Third-stringer David Blough, who started five games as an undrafted rookie, remains with the team on the roster as a member of the practice squad and a developmental option. But the Lions went out and signed veteran Chase Daniel to fill the No. 2 role for now.
The turnover was even more problematic in the run game, where six different backs started a game last season and the production suffered as a result. Kerryon Johnson, whose impressive rookie debut in 2018 raised hopes, needs to shake the injury-prone label after stints on injured reserve his first two seasons. The Lions added insurance by taking Georgia's D'Andre Swift with the 35th overall pick in the draft, a move that gives Bevell two young, versatile backs to use in tandem. Swift broke Todd Gurley's school record by averaging 6.6 yards per carry in college, and the Lions are enamored with his big-play ability as a runner and receiver. Detroit also signed future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson after his somewhat surprising release by Washington in early September. Peterson gives the Lions an established safety net should Swift or Johnson struggle. Ty Johnson, a 2019 draft pick with plenty of speed to burn, and Bo Scarbrough, who showed some promise as a power back late last season, round out the backfield options.
The Lions let starting right guard Graham Glasgow walk in free agency, then spent a chunk of draft capital to replace him. Rookies Jonah Jackson (Ohio State) and Logan Stenberg (Kentucky) are both run-blocking maulers who play with a nasty streak, and they'll compete for starting roles at guard. The new right tackle is Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who signed a five-year, $50 million deal after spending most of his first four NFL seasons as the swing tackle behind Pro Bowlers in Philadelphia. Left tackle Taylor Decker signed a six-year, $85 million contract extension ($37.5 million fully guaranteed) at the beginning of September.
Kenny Golladay is in line for his own payday after he posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and led the NFL with 11 TD catches in 2019. With Stafford taking more shots downfield, the Lions have two sure-handed weapons on the outside in Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr., though the latter is entering a contract year at age 30 and has finished the last two seasons on IR. Stafford also found a reliable target underneath in veteran Danny Amendola, who returns on another one-year deal and shows no signs of slowing down. Detroit is counting on a big leap forward from last year's first-round pick, T.J. Hockenson, at tight end. His season ended at Thanksgiving due to an ankle injury, while backup Jesse James looked like a free-agent bust for the Lions last season.
Detroit's defense was a disaster, allowing a whopping 6,406 yards — just shy of the franchise record set during the team's winless 2008 season. The Lions also finished 26th in scoring defense, tied for 29th in sacks, and tied for the fewest interceptions in the league (seven). Then came the acrimonious departures nose tackle Damon Harrison and Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay, who blasted Patricia as "disrespectful" on his way out the door to Philadelphia via trade.
The Lions signed ex-Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant to replace Slay as the No. 1 cornerback. The other starter should be rookie Jeff Okudah, the Ohio State star the Lions tabbed with the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. Okudah, a technician and willing tackler, looks like an ideal fit for the Lions, who play more man coverage than any other NFL team. His arrival allows Justin Coleman to stick to the slot corner role where he's most comfortable, while last year's rookie, Amani Oruwariye, adds solid depth.
The Lions believe they have a cornerstone piece in third-year safety Tracy Walker, who led the team in tackles in his first year as a full-time starter. He'll be joined by free-agent pickup Duron Harmon, who spent his first five NFL seasons playing for Patricia in New England. Will Harris, forced into an expanded role as a rookie, is back at safety.
Only two NFL teams blitzed less than the Lions last season, and the lack of a consistent pass rush left the secondary hung out to dry. Trey Flowers, last year's prize free agent, averaged five quarterback pressures a game the second half of the season and remains the anchor. But he'll be surrounded by a different cast, with Danny Shelton replacing Harrison in the middle and another ex-Patriot, Jamie Collins Sr., filling the role opened by Devon Kennard's release. Collins adds more versatility and coverage ability in that stand-up role, while Shelton is coming off a career-best year in tackles and sacks. The Lions signed Nick Williams off a career year in Chicago to replace A'Shawn Robinson at the other tackle spot, along with Da'Shawn Hand, a promising third-year tackle beset by injuries. Romeo Okwara's sack production tailed off last season, but the Lions doubled up on Okwaras by drafting his brother, Julian, in the third round. A team captain at Notre Dame, the younger Okwara adds another long, explosive rusher off the edge at the Jack linebacker position, joining Austin Bryant, who spent most of his rookie season in 2019 rehabbing an injury.
This feels like a make-or-break year for Jarrad Davis, a strong leader who has excelled as a blitzer but struggled in coverage. The Lions waited until after the draft to make the decision to decline his fifth-year option; meanwhile, Jahlani Tavai ate into his playing time last year as a rookie, making some splash plays as he grew more comfortable. The Lions also signed Reggie Ragland, who started seven games for Kansas City last year, while outside backer Christian Jones had already signed a two-year extension in November 2019.
For the second straight year, there's a new special-teams coordinator in Brayden Coombs. GM Quinn also made several moves targeting return and coverage units, re-signing Miles Killebrew and adding core special-teamers in defensive backs Jayron Kearse and Tony McRae.
Veteran Matt Prater returns as one of the league's most reliable kickers. But the Lions will have a new punter after letting Sam Martin go in free agency, leaving practice-squad addition Jack Fox and Australian Arryn Siposs, an undrafted rookie out of Auburn, to battle it out initially. The return jobs also are up in the air, as Jamal Agnew couldn't repeat his Pro Bowl rookie season.
The GM, the head coach and the franchise quarterback all are under contract through 2022. But Stafford's hefty contract won't prohibit a trade after this season, and the Ford family is getting antsy. As Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford put it last December in announcing Quinn and Patricia would return, "We expect to be a playoff contender (in 2020) ... which we've expressed to both Bob and to Matt." Even though the elder Ford stepped down as principal owner in late June, that mandate remains in place. So if the Lions don't improve on the field, major changes could be in store.