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Detroit Lions: 2021 Preseason Predictions and Preview

Jared Goff, Detroit Lions

Jared Goff looks to write a new chapter with the Lions, who are embarking on another rebuilding effort

The stay of execution lasted until Thanksgiving, but Lions ownership finally severed ties with the ex-Patriots they’d hired to build a winner. Bob Quinn was fired near the end of his fifth season as general manager, while head coach Matt Patricia was out after a 13–29–1 record. Yet it was more than the failures on the field that irked new owner Sheila Ford Hamp, who took the reins from her mother, Martha Firestone Ford, last summer. It was also the insular way Quinn and Patricia went about their business, which explains the 180-degree turn the Lions are now making with a charismatic young GM in Brad Holmes, a vibrant head coach in Dan Campbell and the word “collaboration” at the core of what is clearly a multi-year rebuilding effort now.

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OFFENSE

Matthew Stafford had seen enough after a dozen years in Detroit, with only three postseason berths and zero playoff wins. So along with the regime change comes a change at the quarterback position, the one constant in Detroit since the Lions made Stafford the No. 1 overall pick in 2009. Stafford approached ownership in January and asked for a trade, and the Lions got the NFL QB carousel spinning by dealing Stafford to the Rams for Jared Goff, two first-round picks (2022, ’23) and a 2021 third-rounder.

For Goff, who led Los Angeles to a Super Bowl berth in 2018, the move to Detroit offers a fresh start after his relationship with head coach Sean McVay deteriorated — along with his play. Holmes was a big proponent of the Rams’ draft-day trade to acquire Goff with the No. 1 pick back in 2016, and a contract restructuring after his arrival in Detroit suggests he’s likely to stick around for at least a couple years. So did the fact that the Lions passed on Justin Fields with their top-10 draft choice in April.

Only Tom Brady has more wins than Goff among NFL quarterbacks since 2017. But he’ll have to prove that the turnover problems that plagued him in Los Angeles — he threw 29 INTs and just 42 TDs the last two seasons — are behind him. Working with new coordinator Anthony Lynn may help, as the Lions tailor the offense to fit Goff’s strengths, with more shotgun snaps and less play-action than he ran under McVay.

But he’ll have his work cut out for him with a revamped receiving corps that lacks a bona fide No. 1 option and really has very little proven, consistent production. The Lions balked at Kenny Golladay’s contract demands and let him walk in free agency, along with productive veteran Marvin Jones Jr. They signed downfield threats Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman to one-year deals, welcome back last year’s rookie, Quintez Cephus, and have added some depth with Kalif Raymond, Damion Ratley and fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown. But all that likely means a featured role for third-year tight end T.J. Hockenson, a 2019 top-10 pick coming off a breakout season.

The Lions also expect a big jump from second-year back D’Andre Swift, a dynamic runner and receiving threat whose 10 TDs ranked fourth among all NFL rookies. He’ll have a versatile, reliable backup in Jamaal Williams, who spent the last four seasons as Aaron Jones’ running mate in Green Bay. Seventh-round pick Jermar Jefferson, who fits a zone scheme, will get a long look as the No. 3 back.

They’ll be running behind the strength of the Lions’ roster, a young offensive line that now boasts a trio of first-round picks. Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow signed a contract extension; left tackle Taylor Decker begins his new deal coming off his best season; and the Lions spent the No. 7 overall pick on Oregon’s Penei Sewell, a 6'6", 325-pound tackle with rare athleticism who figures to start immediately on the right side. With last year’s high-priced free agent, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, shifting to right guard, and left guard Jonah Jackson, who started all 16 games as a rookie, it’s a group with serious upside.

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DEFENSE

Patricia built his reputation as a defensive whiz in New England. But it was a big part of his undoing in Detroit, where the Lions last season set franchise records for most points (519) and yards (6,716) allowed.

And as Campbell and his coordinator, Aaron Glenn, who joined him from New Orleans, set about fixing that defense, they’re starting with a philosophical shift. They’re replacing Patricia’s conservative, two-gap approach at the line with one that’ll emphasize more one-gap penetration.

Some of the high-priced holdovers can still thrive in that scheme, including Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara, who cashed in with a free agent deal after posting a career-high 10 sacks last season. The Lions also made another trade with the Rams in March to acquire defensive tackle Michael Brockers, who’ll add a veteran presence inside along with Nick Williams. But the Lions invested a pair of Day Two draft picks on Levi Onwuzurike, a disruptive tackle who projects as a 3-technique, and Alim McNeill, a powerful nose tackle with some pass-rush ability as well.

The Lions ranked last in quarterback pressures with one of the lowest blitz percentages in the league. But what stood out to Campbell most was how “slow” the defense looked, with players looking indecisive and lacking confidence. That should change under Glenn, who also brought in 70-year-old defensive guru Dom Capers as a senior assistant.

But how well the linebacker corps can hold up is another question. Jamie Collins Sr., a freakish athlete who still can create havoc at 31, is back as an off-ball linebacker. He’s joined by Alex Anzalone, a free-agent addition from the Saints who knows the defense well, with rookie fourth-round pick Derrick Barnes being groomed as a successor. The rest is an underwhelming group of special-teamers.

On the back end, Campbell is banking on Glenn, a three-time Pro Bowler who played 15 years in the NFL at cornerback, developing a young group in Detroit the way he did in New Orleans and turning one of the league’s worst secondaries into one of the best.

The Lions remain bullish on last year’s No. 3 overall pick, Jeff Okudah, who played just nine games before a core muscle injury ended his season, and third-year pro Amani Oruwariye. They also added depth by signing Quinton Dunbar and nickel corner Corn Elder in free agency after releasing starters Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman. Third-round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu was one of the most athletic corners in the draft, but he’ll take some time to develop into a starter. At 6'3", 212, he may eventually project as a safety.

Tracy Walker is due for a bounce-back year, assuming Glenn utilizes him in a free safety role where he seems to thrive. Will Harris looks more comfortable as a box safety, but the Lions added the Bills’ Dean Marlowe in free agency to compete for the job there.

SPECIALISTS

The new coaching staff means a fourth special-teams coordinator in four years. There’s also a new kicker in Randy Bullock, who replaces Matt Prater and was known more for his accuracy than a big leg in Cincinnati. The return duties are up for grabs as well. Raymond, who handled kicks and punts for the Titans last season, may get the first shot. The punting duties are in good hands, though, after rookie Jack Fox ranked second in the NFL in net average to earn a Pro Bowl nod last season. Long snapper Don Muhlbach is expected back for his 18th season.

FINAL ANALYSIS

There’s a reason Campbell negotiated a six-year contract in Detroit. After 33 losses the last three seasons, and a roster overhaul that’s just beginning, this isn’t a quick turnaround. But the new coach, who actually was on the Lions’ 2008 roster that finished 0–16, has made a strong first impression with the fans already. And with an energetic staff full of former NFL players, there’s reason for optimism about what could develop in time. More important, ownership is on board with that, promising patience.

Prediction: 4th in NFC North