2016 NFL Preview: Lions try to regroup without Megatron

Shutdown Corner

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 of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

We gave up on the Detroit Lions early last season, and why not? They were 0-5, and they’re the Lions.

A funny thing happened in the second half after everyone stopped paying attention: The Lions played really good football.

Detroit was 6-2 in the second half. One of those losses was on a crazy Hail Mary against the Green Bay Packers, which was possible because of a bad call on a face-mask penalty and a truly awful coaching decision on the final play. If not for a once-in-forever miracle, the Lions would have won seven of their last eight. Also, the Lions almost had a quality win in the first half, but a terrible blown call cost them a victory at Seattle. The Lions didn’t play a murderer’s row schedule down the stretch, but it was still a fine finish. Take the second half, remember the circumstances of the Seattle loss, and it seemed like the Lions might have been a lot better than we remembered.

Then the Lions being the Lions, their Hall-of-Fame receiver retired in his prime.

The Lions had Calvin Johnson, who I believe is a top-five all-time receiver, for nine seasons. They never won a playoff game with him, and made it to the postseason only twice. Of course, Johnson’s career came shortly after the Lions got one playoff win in Barry Sanders’ 10 seasons, before Sanders retired in his prime.

To recap: 19 combined seasons from maybe the greatest running back ever and one of the greatest receivers ever. 1 playoff win.

It’s not fair. Johnson’s retirement was a punch to the gut to every Lions fan, and really everyone who enjoys NFL football. But is it possible the Lions maintain that late-season momentum even without Megatron?

It’s not unprecedented. The year after Sanders retired, the Lions improved by three wins and made the playoffs. The most optimistic example of a quarterback improving after losing his No. 1 receiver is Brett Favre. When Sterling Sharpe had to retire following the 1994 season, Favre evolved as a quarterback in part because he stopped locking in on Sharpe. Favre won his first MVP award in 1995. Maybe Matthew Stafford has a similar evolution.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Stafford played very well late in the season. It was easily his best stretch since 2011, which was the peak of his career. Stafford had 19 touchdowns and two interceptions in the second half of the season. That surge came shortly after Jim Bob Cooter was promoted to offensive coordinator. With Cooter running the offense, Stafford looked like a new quarterback. That can’t be a coincidence.

While the 6-2 finish inspires hope, you can’t ignore that the Lions were 1-7 in the first half. They were a bad football team for half of last season. Detroit’s second-half surge came against a much easier schedule than it played in the first half, and that’s a factor too. But you can talk yourself into the Lions being a sleeper this year, with their new offensive coordinator getting a full offseason to improve on that second half and Stafford finally showing signs he has turned a corner. Lions fans should have felt pretty good at the end of last season.

But this is still the Lions, and optimism usually gets dashed pretty quickly.

Matthew Stafford looks to build on his strong finish to last season (AP)
Matthew Stafford looks to build on his strong finish to last season (AP)

The Lions replaced Calvin Johnson, who should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, with former Bengals receiver Marvin Jones. Jones has 1,729 yards in his NFL career. Johnson had 1,964 yards in his record-setting 2012 season. It’s safe to say Johnson-to-Jones is a downgrade. The other free-agent pickups weren’t inspiring, though the draft class could pay off. New Lions general manager Bob Quinn clearly coveted toughness, drafting three offensive linemen, defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and hard-hitting strong safety Miles Killebrew in his first five picks. First-round pick Taylor Decker should start right away at left tackle, and other rookies should contribute too. But when the “players lost” column includes Johnson, well … Grade: D+

The entire team clicked in the second half. The defense was better. Matthew Stafford was obviously better. The run game wasn’t good but there’s room to grow there. When you go 6-2 in the second half and one of the losses was due to an Aaron Rodgers miracle, that’s a rock-solid reason for optimism.

You don’t have a 1-7 stretch in the NFL without good reason. Early in the season, the Lions couldn’t run the ball, Matthew Stafford made too many mistakes, the defense really missed injured linebacker DeAndre Levy and was porous … it was just a mess. And all of the issues the Lions had the first two months of last season could re-emerge this year.

Matthew Stafford is just 28, which is a bit surprising because it seems like he inherited the job from Eric Hipple. He has been Detroit’s quarterback for a while. Stafford’s age is a reason you can’t discount his sudden surge last season. Stafford wouldn’t be the first player to suddenly get it at 27 years old, especially if a new offensive coordinator was driving the change. Stafford had his highest completion percentage by far (67.2 percent, his only other time above 60.3 was a 63.5 mark in 2011), and limited his interceptions for a second straight season while throwing 10 more touchdowns than he did in 2014. It’s not the first time Stafford has shown he can be a top-tier NFL quarterback. His 2011 was very good. Nobody would be surprised if Stafford regressed and fell into old habits this season, but there are reasons to believe his 2015 improvement sticks, at least to some degree.

There are many possibilities. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah is Detroit’s best player. DeAndre Levy is severely underrated and coming off an injury-filled season. Golden Tate is going to be very important as the Lions replace Calvin Johnson. But I’ll go with second-year running back Ameer Abdullah.

Abdullah started last season so well. He looked good in the preseason. On his first regular-season carry, he blew away San Diego Chargers Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle in the open field and scored a 24-yard touchdown. He was a second-round pick, a lot of people loved him based on his college film and his combine numbers … and he didn’t do much after that first touchdown. Abdullah played all 16 games but had just 780 yards from scrimmage. Maybe he didn’t get enough carries — he had 10 or fewer in 11 of 16 games — but he wasn’t tremendously productive when he did get touches.

The Lions have struggled for years to find offensive balance. Reggie Bush had 1,006 yards in 2013, barely passing the 1,000-yard mark. He’s the Lions’ only 1,000-yard rusher since 2004. The Lions haven’t had a 1,200-yard rusher since Barry Sanders retired after the 1998 season, which is hard to believe. Abdullah has the talent to turn it around, and the offense would benefit tremendously if it had a reliable running game. It’s a big year for Abdullah.

Cosell: “Over the last part of last season when Matthew Stafford played really well, it was quick rhythm, the ball was coming out, there wasn’t a focus on one receiver, and ultimately I think that’s what the plan is. So does it always hurt to lose a Calvin Johnson? Of course, it would be silly to say otherwise. But I don’t think this is an offense now that is geared toward, ‘Hey, let’s call plays and if we get into trouble just throw it to Calvin.’ I think they want to have a much more diversified pass game that relies much more on timing and rhythm.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Lions and the rest of the NFC North.]

From Yahoo’s Andy Behrens: “It’s not reasonable to think Detroit can easily replace Megatron, one of the greatest receivers in NFL history and unrivaled leader of the Decepticons. Losing Calvin Johnson suddenly is a staggering loss. But new addition Marvin Jones is likely to see a huge share of the 150 pass targets that went Calvin’s way in 2015, which makes him an obvious sleeper for fantasy purposes. Ameer Abdullah ran well last season after the calendar flipped to December, averaging 5.3 yards per carry over his final five games, and he has a clear opportunity to claim the featured role in the Lions’ backfield. He’s a respectable draft target for those of you who prefer to avoid the early-round RBs.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Golden Tate had 189 receptions on 272 targets in his first two Lions seasons. That was with Calvin Johnson playing 29 of 32 games. It seems obvious that Tate will blow past 100 catches this season now that he’s inheriting some of Johnson’s workload, as long as he’s healthy. Over a five-game stretch in 2014 when Johnson was either out or limited with an injury, Tate had 39 catches for 599 yards and three touchdowns. Tate’s numbers are about to explode as Stafford’s new No. 1 receiver.

ARE THE LIONS’ OFFENSIVE LINE PROBLEMS FIXED?

Three of the Lions’ last five first-round picks have been on the offensive line (tight end Eric Ebron could technically count too, but he’s way more a receiver than a sixth lineman). The projected Lions’ starting line is three first-round picks and two third-round picks. With all that investment in the position, why has the Lions’ line been so underwhelming?

One reason Stafford was much more efficient last season is Detroit is the Lions relied heavily on short, quick passes. Justin Rogers of MLive.com said Stafford’s throws traveled a shorter distance in the air than any other NFL quarterback last season, on average. That’s crazy when you consider Stafford’s strength is clearly his cannon arm, but the coaches might have dialed up deep pass played because they didn’t trust the line to protect. And the Lions’ chronic problems in the run game are well known. Maybe 2016 first-round pick Taylor Decker plays well at left tackle, 2015 first-round pick Laken Tomlinson steps up at left guard and 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff adjusts well shifting from left tackle to the right side. The Lions need their offensive line investments to pay off.

The Lions’ fantastic finish makes them an intriguing team this season. What if the Lions — with a 27-year-old quarterback, new offensive coordinator and coach Jim Caldwell in his second Lions season — suddenly figured it out? The Lions have collected some highly touted players. They might have eight first-round picks and five second-round picks in the starting lineup this season. If we’re being honest, the reason Detroit isn’t getting more buzz as a possible breakout team is nobody really trusts the Lions.

If you buy that the Lions’ strong second half was the product of a weak schedule, then you probably discount Stafford’s second half too. He might regress with his all-time great No. 1 target in retirement. The Lions have never put a dependable running game together in the Stafford era, and that could be the case again. The defense was just OK last season and didn’t add too much, though getting DeAndre Levy back helps. The Lions play at Indianapolis, Green Bay and Chicago in the first four weeks, and doubt could creep in if there’s a slow start.

I want to buy into Detroit’s strong finish, but I have seen too many uneven Stafford games to believe what we saw late last season is his new norm. The Lions have consistently put too much on Stafford’s shoulders, and a bit of regression will have a big effect on the Lions. We’re probably looking at a record right about .500.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

– – – – – – –

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

What to Read Next