The Lions hoped to compete in 2017. They invested heavily in new offensive linemen and found some good talent in the draft, and yet the same old problems hampered them all year. The defense had too many holes and the offense was one-dimensional.
The result was a 9-7 record and a ticket on the sofa to watch the playoffs from home. With that the Jim Caldwell era came to an end in Detroit. His successor was former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who general manager Bob Quinn is very familiar with. Their similar philosophies when it comes to team building bode well for a harmonious offseason, but the Lions need more than a new head coach, they need new players too.
With $30 million in cap space and just six draft picks this year their options are limited, so where should they focus their efforts?
The era of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley is well and truly over. The Lions finished the year ranked 28th in run defense DVOA as they allowed 112.5 yards per game on the ground and a staggering 18 touchdowns. It is that last mark, 31st in the league, that is particularly tough to swallow.
Patricia’s Patriots were an incredibly tough nut to crack in the red zone, giving up just six rushing touchdowns all year (2nd in NFL) mostly because they had a deep stable of run-stuffing defensive tackles.
While Detroit’s investment in A’Shawn Robinson last year means they are unlikely to spend a lot of draft capital on the position again, they should at least add some more bodies to their rotation. The likes of Dontari Poe and Bennie Logan headline the defensive tackle free agent class, and their shaky 2017 campaigns will have certainly lowered their price. Pairing Logan and Robinson would certainly solidify the middle of the defense, but adding players like Tom Johnson, Phil Taylor, or Pat Sims to their rotation will also go a long way to helping fix their red zone problems as well.
The Lions running attack has long been a sore point. They haven’t had a 100-yard rusher since Thanksgiving 2013, and while a player hitting triple-digits is not the only way to classify a good running game it is the league-standard benchmark, one the Lions have fallen woefully short of. They have only had five 80-yard performances by a back since the start of the 2014 season.
To try to fix this Bob Quinn invested in TJ Lang and Rick Wagner last offseason, completely rebuilding the right side of the offensive line. For a short while it worked. In Week 2 the team picked up 138 yards on the ground against the New York Giants, but teams soon cottoned on and stacked their defense against the new RG/RT combo and things returned to the norm.
The running back talent has taken a lot of flak for the struggles of the ground game, but that is rarely the sole issue. An injury-hit year for Taylor Decker didn’t help matters, and both Graham Glasgow and Travis Swanson were far from good in 2017.
If Detroit are really serious about improving their running game then pursuing Weston Richburg as an upgrade at center would be a good place to start. They lack the ammunition in the draft to go and chase Saquon Barkley or Quenton Nelson, but the second round is littered with potential both at interior offensive line and running back. Players like Nick Chubb, Bo Scarbrough, Rashaad Penny, or Ronald Jones could all be improvements for the Lions and help bring balance to the offense.
The last place the Lions will look to address their roster is the pass defense. Darius Slay had a magnificent 2017, and they have put the franchise tag on Ezekiel Ansah to keep him in town for one more year, but they need more than just those two if they want to continue to compete against improving pass offenses both in their division and the wider NFL.
Adding depth in both the edge rush and secondary areas is a must for the Lions, though they may struggle to do so given their relative lack of draft picks.
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