Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
The Lions are a team in transition. Last year, they decided to buck tradition and try a new way. The Patriot Way, if you will, which involved hiring former New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as head coach.
The team won six games in 2018. Its lowest win total since 2012.
How the Lions got here
*Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018: *
Head coach: Matt Patricia. The Lions were looking to change the culture (or whatever the corporate buzz phrase is now) when they brought in Patricia from New England. Because, well, the Patriots have had a ton of success turning their assistants into winning NFL head coaches, which I say facetiously, because the Patriots spin-offs have failed worse than "Joey") ever did. All right, it's hard to be "Joey" bad. But for a coach who is so amazing, Bill Belichick's assistants, well, wow. (Fine, Bill O'Brien is all right.)
And here's the thing. I know it looks bad to go from Jim Caldwell, who won at least nine games in three of his four years as HC, to losing 10 under Patricia. But that's part of the point of making a move. Keeping Caldwell on was like watching "Friends" reruns every day. It's safe and predictable. It's comfortable. But it doesn't really move the needle. Patricia is like something new on Netflix. Sometimes you're going to sit through some awful shows, but sometimes you are going to nail it. I still believe Patricia could be really good for the Lions.
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford. He's entering his age-31 season, even though it seems like he's been in Detroit forever -- dating all the way back to the Barry Sanders era. Wait, did they play together? (Checks.) They did not.
Stafford has long boasted one of the strongest arms in the league. But last year, coordinator Jim Bob Cooter tempered that, as Stafford, who reportedly played through the season with a broken back, ranked next to last in the NFL with 7.0 air yards per attempt (trailing only Derek Carr and tied with Blake Bortles). Not the "Jeopardy" category you want to be placed in, though in fairness, he's just behind Cam Newton (7.1) and Drew Brees (7.1). So this stands out as crazy to me. It's like if you had Aaron Rodgers as your quarterback, and all you had him do was attempt to crush beers -- which he's obviously not great at. (Stafford, for the record, is excellent at it.)
But I bring this up because new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell told reporters that he is "going to ask Matthew to do things he hasn't done before ..."
Like what, win a playoff game?
I know, cheap shot. But Bevell was the offensive coordinator in Seattle for the last seven seasons. He was also the Vikings' offensive coordinator for five years before that. While Bevell was coy when pushed further about what he wanted Stafford to do, saying he would let you (us) decide what would be different, I believe we could see Stafford throw less. The Seahawks featured a pretty strong ground game, which the Seahawks used to set up play action.
Russell Wilson ranked 20th in pass attempts last year while playing under Bevell. His 427 attempts were the lowest of any quarterback who started 16 games. But Wilson was also tied for fourth in air yards per attempt (9.3), all according to Next Gen Stats. And Seattle was second in play-action offense, according to Football Outsiders.
Forgive me for spending so much time on this, but I keep seeing stuff about the Lions opening it up. What I expect instead is for them to run the ball more, throw it deeper and let Stafford go that way.
Projected 2019 MVP (outside of Stafford): Kenny Golladay, receiver.Marvin Jones led the Lions in air yards per reception last year (15.2), and he figures to be in the mix if the Lions take some deep shots. But Golladay had a breakout last year, with 70 receptions for 1,063 yards and five touchdowns. My hot take is that he goes for double-digit touchdowns this year.
2019 breakout star: Tracy Walker, safety. The former third-round pick really impressed his coaches last season, basically willing his way on to the field. He started as a special teamer and eventually took playing time away from Glover Quin. Which is always amusing to me. It's like when you're watching a movie and the best friend is always spending too much time with his buddy's girlfriend. You know that he's eventually going to woo her away. That's what Walker did, and he was one of Pro Football Focus's top-rated safeties.
A new face to know: Trey Flowers, defensive end. The Lions signed the former Patriots edge rusher to a huge deal. Detroit needed help in that position. Obviously, Patricia has a history with it. You can argue about the price, but if somebody is willing to pay it, what can you do? Flowers had 21 sacks from 2016 to '18 and also had 59 quarterback hits, ranking in the top 20 in that latter category. Still, though. It's weird that the Patriots never seem to miss these guys, but sometimes they fail to come through for their teams. Looking at you, Malcolm Butler.
The 2019 roadmap
Will the Lions be able to ...
Run the football? The Lions ranked 18th in rushing attempts last season. They were 23rd in rushing yards. As previously mentioned, this is the key to making this season a success. Kerryon Johnson was pretty good during his rookie season, as he averaged 5.4 yards per carry. He also was key in the passing game, as he snared 32 receptions for 213 yards. He did score just four total touchdowns, though, which has to be seen as a disappointment. The superlatives have already started flying, and sure, this has been the best offseason program of his life. But if the second-year back doesn't improve, there's a chance newly signed C.J. Anderson could take some carries. If anything, this could end up looking a lot like the Patriots' backfield situation, which no doubt would thrill fantasy enthusiasts.
Make use of T.J. Hockenson? I loved the pick. I mean, the Lions have drafted three other tight ends in the first round since 2005: Eric Ebron (No. 10, 2014), Brandon Pettigrew (No. 20, 2009) and Mike Williams (No. 10, 2005). And you might be saying, But Rank, Williams was a receiver. And to you, I would say, look again. I will die on this hill.
It had to be painful to watch Ebron finally fulfill his promise as a member of the Colts last year. So you not only signed Jesse James, but you drafted Hockenson (No. 8 overall), who really is one of the great talents in this draft class. I mean, his quarterback's passer rating when targeting him last year at Iowa was 139.1, which is just a small sample of what he can bring.
Three key dates:
One storyline people are overlooking:That defense is low-key good. I feel like I use "low-key" way too much. The Lions ranked 10th against the run last year and tied for fifth in rushing touchdowns allowed (11). Damon "Snacks" Harrison was an excellent pickup during the season, and I hope they can figure out his contract situation and all of that. There's a nice little foundation building. Now they just need to pressure the quarterback, and they are all set.
One storyline people are underthinking:The drafting of LB Jahlani Tavai. He was graded out as a fourth-rounder, so people lost their (stuff) when the Lions picked him in the second round. I don't know, he was a pretty good player at Hawaii. He might not be a workout warrior (pun intended), but he's going to be a productive football player.
Can we talk about Patricia's pencil? Oh, yeah. Patricia was on "Good Morning Football" to talk about this. After coaching out in the weather in New England, he made the astute point that a pencil never washes away, and it always works. That checks out.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Lions MUST ...
-- Be competitive.
-- Survive that early, brutal stretch through the first six weeks of the season.
-- Be in the playoff mix. I never want to be the guy who says a team shouldn't try to make the playoffs. The Lions could. But at the same time, if they are scrappy and end up at 8-8 or 9-7, I would consider that an improvement from last year and validation for the direction this team is headed.