Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.
Three years ago, the Detroit Lions were on the rise. Everyone knew it.
The talent was there. High draft picks from many bad seasons produced elite talent like quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The 2011 team started 5-0 and got a wild-card spot. Stafford threw for more than 5,000 yards. That season, which ended in a mostly uncompetitive wild-card playoff loss at New Orleans, was just the beginning for the Lions.
And then, nothing.
Detroit went 4-12 in 2012 with Stafford having a bad year propped up by the volume of 727 passing attempts. Last year was a massive disappointment. The Lions were 6-3 with a season sweep of the Bears and a game lead on Chicago and Green Bay after Week 10. Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler were injured. The Lions had an amazingly easy road to their first division championship since 1993. And they blew it. They were eliminated from playoff contention before Week 17. Unbelievable.
Jim Schwartz did a poor job with the Lions, and he was fired as coach. He was replaced by Jim Caldwell. Caldwell's challenges are to get the Lions believing they can win, while prodding stars like Stafford and Suh to become great.
Talent isn't an issue for the Lions. But after last year, it's tough to trust they'll actually do anything with it.
2013 review in less than 25 words: After a Week 10 win against Chicago, the Lions remaining games went loss, loss, win, loss, loss, loss, loss. Wow.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: The Lions made two key additions that will them better. Former Seahawks receiver Golden Tate was added via free agency. Tight end Eric Ebron was selected with the 10th overall draft pick. The Lions realize they have a talented quarterback and need to support him (a concept that Carolina has criminally ignored), and they also need to take some pressure off Johnson.
Best offseason acquisition: Let's go off the board a bit, because Tate and Ebron are obvious picks. I liked the Lions' move to trade up to draft BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy in the second round. Maybe I'm blinded by Van Noy dominating the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl, one of the great college performances I've seen. But Van Noy can be a playmaker for a defense that needs to make more happen. Van Noy should take the strong-side linebacker job from Ashlee Palmer soon enough. He'll make an impact.
Achilles heel: Like Minnesota, having a bad secondary in the NFC North is not ideal. The Lions will try to pass the Packers and Bears by covering Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall with a secondary nobody is impressed with. Maybe 2013 second-round pick Darius Slay will improve at corner and former Ravens safety James Ihedigbo will be an upgrade, but it's hard to see this secondary being any better than average even if everything comes together.
Position in flux: The Lions know who their top two tailbacks will be, but we'll see how they're used. Reggie Bush had a very good first season in Detroit, with more than 1,000 rushing yards and more than 500 receiving yards. But Joique Bell is a good player too, who had three games with at least 19 carries late last season. Bush had 223 carries last year and Bell had 166, but it'll be interesting to see if that gap shrinks significantly.
Ready to break out: It won't be a shock when defensive end Ziggy Ansah has a big year. He was the fifth overall pick last year and had eight sacks as a rookie. But what's impressive is he had a good rookie season dealing with injuries the whole time. He had a concussion, high ankle sprain and a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. If Ansah stays healthy, he should put up numbers at a Pro Bowl level.
Stat fact: Calvin Johnson has never won an NFL playoff game. He has played in just one (and had 211 yards and two touchdowns). He has taken the third spot behind Jerry Rice and Don Hutson on the list of greatest receivers ever, but the Lions have practically wasted his career so far. If football fans don't get to see the great Megatron shine more on football's postseason stage, everyone involved with the Lions franchise during his career should be embarrassed.
Schedule degree of difficulty: The Lions' schedule is fairly neutral. The last five games are interesting. Starting on Thanksgiving, Detroit has three straight home games against Chicago, Tampa Bay and Minnesota before finishing with two potentially enormous games at Chicago and Green Bay.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: The Lions were a good team through nine games last year. Schwartz was a bad coach for the team, promoting a faux tough atmosphere that never paid off. If Caldwell is the right fit – and if you ignore his low-key personality and just look at his résumé, he has had a lot of success – the Lions could finally break through. A lot depends on Caldwell, an offensive-minded coach, getting through to Stafford and cleaning up his game so he can become a top quarterback instead of just a physically talented one.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: Do you trust the Lions? Why would you? This is a team that has regularly struggled when adversity hits. Maybe a new coaching staff changes that. But the secondary isn't good, and Stafford still needs to turn a corner. Until the Lions show they can win regularly, it's tough to believe they will.
The crystal ball says: Despite top-end skill position talent, they still seem like the third-best team in the NFC North. When you consider the intense competition for the wild-card spots, due to the South and West being deep, the Lions face a tough path to get in the playoffs. You can't count it out because the Lions have so many exciting players, but this likely won't be the year that pays off with a postseason berth.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
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