Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2019 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on July 31, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
Matt Patricia had a problem last season.
Patricia was going to do things a certain way with the Detroit Lions, a way that was going to bother many on and around the team, and he didn’t have enough time to surround himself with people who were going to buy in. It’s hard to turn over an NFL roster in one offseason.
That’s why 2018 was filled with headlines of strife, and the first part of 2019 was filled with headlines on how Patricia can fix it.
Patricia’s tenure didn’t get off to a great start, with the story of a 1996 sexual assault allegation. Through offseason practices, players didn’t seem to like having to run all the time like they were on a high school team. Detroit’s training camp was more physical than most NFL teams run. Late in the season, a big deal was made of Patricia making players practice in the snow and cold. Patricia had a “tendency to launch into a curse-laden tirades on the practice field,” the Detroit News said. Patricia was routinely late for scheduled news conferences, which isn’t something most fans should or will care about, but a former Lions player told the Detroit Free Press that Patricia would run late to team meetings too. That doesn’t fly in the detail-oriented world of pro football. The most memorable non-football moment of Patricia’s first season might have come when he scolded a reporter for slouching, as if he didn’t realize the irony of him yelling at someone for his appearance. And it all looked even worse because the Lions went 6-10.
It’s only Year Two for Patricia, but it seems like a fork in the road already. He had a full offseason to weed out the players and assistants who didn’t like his approach. He’s implementing the style of physical football he wants, in a pass-happy NFL world. Either we’ll look back and celebrate Patricia’s old-school, admittedly harsh style as a successful throwback in a world gone soft, or he’ll be derided as yet another Bill Belichick assistant who thought a franchise should abide by whatever he did because he had some rings from New England.
For this to be a success story, there needs to be a more copacetic feeling within the locker room about Patricia’s style. Having cornerback Darius Slay and defensive tackle Damon Harrison skip minicamps as they look for new deals wasn’t a great sign.
Culture change is an entirely overused buzzword with new NFL coaches. In Patricia’s case, it seems vital to his survival in Detroit.
“More so than buy-in, it’s about, OK, who are the guys that want to work hard, who are the guys that want to do it the right way, who are the guys that are trying to help us build long-standing success? Who are the guys that want to study the game, work hard at it?” Patricia said, according to the Free Press. “There’s just a different level of work ethic that some of the guys have that are going to come in and that we’re developing of the fine line of what the NFL really is.
“It may be an hour extra here, or just a little bit of conversation here between players, or being a little bit smarter in these situations. It’s really about that more than the buy-in factor. It’s about just the right types of guys that you put together as a team.”
As is the case with other former Belichick assistants, Patricia’s answer seems to be acquiring players who once played for the Patriots. The jewel of the offseason was defensive end Trey Flowers, a young, standout player signed from New England for a massive five-year, $90 million deal. And, perhaps best of all for Patricia, Flowers is fully on board with the notion of being coached hard.
"Obviously it's a tough league, and in order to be successful, you got to be tough," Flowers said, according to the Detroit News. "It can't be comfortable.”
Year One didn’t go well. The offense sputtered as Patricia seemed to want a different scheme than offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter preferred, though the revelation that quarterback Matthew Stafford played through broken bones in his back needs to be factored in. Cooter was replaced as offensive coordinator by Darrell Bevell, who promises to run the ball more. Patricia’s defense was middle of the road, though got better late as players grasped a complex scheme and midseason acquisition Harrison helped stop the run. There were brief moments in which the Lions looked good, like a dominant 26-10 win over the eventual champion Patriots in Week 3, but it was mostly a season of discord and losses as Patricia tried to change the organization.
Patricia was hired for a reason. It’s not like he doesn’t understand X’s and O’s. The Lions seem to be improving the roster, especially on defense. Detroit’s preferred style is a throwback, but the Seahawks played that way last year and made the playoffs.
The most important factor in Patricia turning around the Lions seems to be what happens within the locker room. He needs the culture change to take hold, and some wins would help too. And he might need those things to happen pretty fast.
Three of the most notable free-agent acquisitions were defensive end Trey Flowers (a former Patriot), cornerback Justin Coleman (hey, another ex-Patriot!) and receiver Danny Amendola (more Patriots ties, yay!). Tight end Jesse James was also signed from the Steelers. Presumably James buys into The Patriot Way, because if not he’d be elsewhere. Flowers is obviously a huge key to the offseason, after getting $90 million. The draft was a curious one. Tight end T.J. Hockenson went with the eighth pick, and it’s rare for a tight end to be picked that high. Linebacker Jahlani Tavai was such a surprise in the second round, the Detroit Free Press had a banner headline asking “Jahlani Who?” the next day. The Lions are going full Patriots, ignoring conventional wisdom to get players who fit their type, even if it’s a few rounds early.
By the time last season ended, the Lions’ receivers were depleted by injuries and the Golden Tate trade, running back Kerryon Johnson was done with a knee injury and the tight end situation was one of the worst in the NFL. This season, Kenny Golladay is back (and could have a true breakout as a No. 1 receiver), Marvin Jones and Johnson return from injury, Danny Amendola should help when he’s healthy and the tight end position is fortified by T.J. Hockenson and Jesse James. There is a lot more for Matthew Stafford to work with, as he tries to rebound from a down season.
While the defense was better late in the season, it was devoid of many big plays. Defensive end Trey Flowers is a very good player, but his career high in sacks is 7.5, which he got last season. Nobody on the 2018 Lions had more than 7.5 sacks. Detroit had just 14 takeaways last season, and failed to force even one turnover in seven of 16 games. Maybe that was bad luck. Or, perhaps the Lions have some sound defenders but not enough playmakers.
If the Lions want to be a run-first team and turn Matthew Stafford into a game manager, what’s the point in having his $29.5 million salary-cap hit this year? Stafford has one of the strongest arms in football, yet had the 38th ranked average depth of throw (aDOT) among 39 qualified quarterbacks last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Only Cody Kessler ranked behind Stafford. The Lions turned him into a checkdown artist. Maybe that was due to the Lions not having enough healthy targets, or Stafford’s various injuries including a broken back. But it doesn’t make much sense to pay Stafford, and then take away his strength by not passing deep. They could employ a mediocre game manager to throw 3-yard outs at a fraction of the price, if that’s what they desire.
In the grand scheme, Trey Flowers’ contract probably makes him the most important Lions player other than Stafford going forward. But given how the Lions want to play, running back Kerryon Johnson is way up there too.
“We’ll always be about running the football,” new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said, according to the Detroit Free Press. “We want to be a tough, hard-nosed, physical football team. We want to be able to exert our will on our opponents.”
While newly acquired C.J. Anderson will get carries too, Johnson has to be the focal point of the running game. Johnson averaged 5.4 yards per carry as a rookie, but the Lions strangely kept giving carries to an obviously ineffective LeGarrette Blount. That must be an important part of The Patriot Way that we can’t understand. If the Lions let Johnson have a bigger share of the work (and there have also been positive reports about his receiving ability this offseason), he could have a huge season.
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Putting it bluntly, there’s not much in the Lions offense that sparks my fantasy interest. But I could see Marvin Jones being a nifty value. He was the WR5 two years ago, showcasing his ability to make contested catches, and his first season in Detroit was a credible 55-930-4. And it’s not like he was allergic to the end zone last year, scoring five times in nine games (a knee problem cost him about half the season).
“Assuming Jones will be healthy through his age-29 season is no sure thing, and obviously Matthew Stafford (off an injury-riddled year himself) needs to be hale. But with an ADP just outside the Top 100, fantasy owners can slot Jones into a lesser depth chart position. This is the perfect type of middle-round pick, a combination of reasonable floor and plausible upside. No one expects Jones to outscore the team’s featured target, Kenny Golladay, and I won’t fight you if you want to snag Golladay in the third or fourth round. But Jones, about five rounds cheaper than Golladay, has appeal as well.”
T.J. Hockenson became the 13th tight end since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to go in the top 10 of the draft. He’s just the ninth tight end to go in the top eight. It wasn’t a reach; Hockenson was considered a top-10 prospect in this draft. It’s just funny that he went to a Lions team that in 2014 drafted Eric Ebron 10th overall, ahead of Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald among others. Hockenson plays a position that generally has been tough on rookies, but the Lions have veteran Jesse James to split the load. Also, expect to see a lot of two-tight end sets from the Lions as they try to establish themselves as a run-heavy team. Hockenson might not make a huge impact as a rookie — though he might, because he has rare talent as a receiver and blocker — but he’s a fantastic prospect and should prove to be a good pick.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN WITH DAMON HARRISON AND DARIUS SLAY?
Harrison and Slay are arguably Detroit’s two best defensive players, and both gave up $250,000 workout bonuses and incurred fines (up to $88,650 each) for skipping a mandatory minicamp as they expressed dissatisfaction with their current contracts. Both have two years left on their deals, with Slay set to make $12.55 million this year and Harrison slated to make $6.75 million. It’s a tough spot for the Lions. They don’t want to start negotiating with players who have multiple years left on their contracts, or invite others to hold out. But they do need Harrison and Slay in camp. And if those two have already given up more than a quarter-million each, what’s a little more in training camp fines? It’s hard to figure out how the Lions make their two defensive stars happy while also not setting a precedent for future holdouts.
The Lions are in a tough division, and it’s hard to predict a team that hasn’t won a playoff game in more than 10,000 days to have a random magical season. Still, if a healthier Matthew Stafford is allowed to play to his strengths and that revives the offense, the defense should be improved assuming Darius Slay and Damon Harrison are happy and productive. It’s hard to see the Lions jumping over the Bears, Vikings and Packers in the NFC North but staying in wild-card contention isn’t too crazy.
Lions owner Martha Ford is getting a reputation as someone who won’t be patient with mediocrity. Jim Caldwell’s back-to-back 9-7 seasons weren’t considered good enough; he was fired. Given all the negative vibes around Matt Patricia’s first season, would Detroit give him a third season if the Lions have double-digit losses again? If there’s as much grumbling about his style this season and the team doesn’t show any progress, the Lions might be starting over again.
It’s hard to imagine Matt Patricia having a tougher second season. He presumably knew who was on his side and who wasn’t, and adjusted his 2019 roster accordingly. But that doesn’t guarantee a much better record this season. The Lions still have a tough division to deal with and it’s not a roster that is brimming with blue-chip talent. The Lions will probably have a similar record, albeit with less griping from the locker room, and then Detroit will have to decide if it still believes in Patricia.
– – – – – – –