The NFL season is approaching and Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams, counting down our power rankings with one team a day until No. 1 is unveiled on Aug. 4, when the preseason kicks off with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton. Go to our Facebook page after you read the preview for all airing of grievances; we’ll have a daily discussion there to go with each preview.
In 2011, Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew engineered the best four-year comeback from obscurity since the 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers came one game away from the Super Bowl. Like the 1976 Bucs, the 2008 Lions didn't win a single game, through the Bucs had the "expansion team" excuse, while the Lions were in the last year of the Matt Millen ... um ... "era." The 2011 Lions went 10-6, and won a trip to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Things seemed to be on a serious uptick -- the Lions went into the 2012 season seemingly stacked at many of the game's most important positions -- but a 4-12 season in 2012 left everyone wondering what the heck happened.
The standard narrative seems to be that Schwartz's team lacks the discipline to win consistently, despite its estimable talent. Schwartz doesn't inspire the same "fall in line" ethos some other coaches do, but we've seen train-wreck teams win a lot of games before. The Lions' real troubles were in game management, and a lack of fundamentals across the board. Schwartz seemed to be caught short when managing in-game situations, and despite having Matthew Stafford at quarterback, Calvin Johnson at receiver, and Ndamukong Suh at defensive tackle (three fairly estimable roster foundations for any team), there were few actual victories to show.
There is encouraging news for Lions fans, though not enough to overcome what should be a pretty tough division in 2013. By all advanced metrics, this was a better team than the won-lost record would indicate. Detroit actually finished 16th overall in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, and ranked firmly in the middle of the pack in Estimated Wins based on efficiency. They were also better late in the season, based on opponent-adjusted efficiency ratings, but will that transfer to more actual victories in 2013?
Is the roster better, worse or about the same? Better in some places, but not quite enough in one critical area. In 2012, the secondary was Detroit's primary concern, and that's still the case. Reggie Bush may be what the Lions hoped Jahvid Best would be before concussions curtailed his career. First-round pick Ziggy Ansah is raw, but very athletic. The Lions have shifted their offensive line around (which was a necessity), but overall, there are still a lot of questions beyond the big names and major talents. The absence of Titus Young is certainly a net gain.
Best offseason acquisition: Cornerback Chris Houston and safety Glover Quin. Neither player is elite, per se, but both pass defenders still have estimable range and will bolster what was a very weak secondary, especially if safety Louis Delmas can stay healthy.
Biggest hole on the roster: Offensive line. Jeff Backus retired after a long career, and 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff will take his spot. Reiff moved around a lot in his rookie season, playing a lot of 6th-OL looks, and there are questions about his ability to take on speed rushers. The Lions are hoping that 2013 rookie Larry Warford can fit in at right guard, and the combination of left guard Rob Sims and Dominic Raiola is decent enough, but the team's primary problem is one of scheme. There aren't a lot of prototype pass-blockers on this roster, and no team passed more last season than this one (740 attempts).
Position in flux: Tight end. Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler are each in contract years, and each has struggled to stay productive through injuries. This was less an issue in 2012 because Calvin Johnson was playing the receiver position like it's never been played before, but any drop-off at all will put a microscope elsewhere.
Player you may not have heard of yet, but will soon: WR Ryan Broyles. The 2012 second-round pick out of Oklahoma started just three games in his rookie season and suffered a torn right ACL last December. But he was making cuts and running well in minicamps, and as much as the Lions throw the ball, Broyles could catch many more passes than the 22 he grabbed last year.
Stat fact: The Lions recovered just four of 17 fumbles on offense and just five of 16 fumbles on defense last season. as fumble luck tends to swing pretty heavily from year to year, we see this as another sign of a better record for the Lions in 2013.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: Matthew Stafford overcomes the mechanical issues that have bedeviled him, Megatron has another historic season, the offense finds some level of balance with a run game, and the defense survives against the pass.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: Stafford continues to regress, Johnson "falls back" to mere Future Hall-of-Fame level, the Lions are forced to pass far too often, and the defense can't hold up. If this happens, Schwartz, Mayhew, and several other people with Detroit-area addresses could be looking for work early next year.
The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Without question, it's Stafford. The Lions see him as one of the NFL's best young quarterbacks, and there are a lot of times when he looks like exactly that. But there are also enough times when he looks very much like a work in progress, and as much as this team relies on the passing game, the quarterback must drive the ball to multiple targets consistently, and this quarterback must do so more consistently in the red zone.
The Shutdown Countdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Dallas Cowboys