Despite a winning season and a brief postseason appearance, the Detroit Lions go into free agency and the draft knowing they have a lot of holes to fill.
Here are five areas that general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Jim Caldwell have to improve if the Lions want to go back to the playoffs in 2017.
This isn’t a new problem – the Lions have been 28th or worse in rushing yards in all three of Caldwell’s seasons – and they’ve overcome it well enough to make the playoffs twice. Matthew Stafford is used to carrying the offense – he’s the NFL career leader in passing attempts per game – but he’s also never won a playoff game.
Last season, the backfield was ravaged by injuries, but even if everyone is healthy this season, the team doesn’t have a proven No. 1 back. Ameer Abdullah got off to a promising start, but broke his foot in the second game of the season and never returned. He’s shown the raw talent to be a big-play back, but his rookie season was ruined by fumbles and he only carried the ball 18 times last season.
Theo Riddick is one of the league’s best pass-catching backs, but he hasn’t been able to establish himself as a runner, and Zach Zenner isn’t experienced enough to become an impact player. Don’t be surprised if the Lions grab a veteran runner in free agency.
At the end of last season, the Lions had finally pieced together a decent offensive line, but they’ve only got two league-average starters under contract for 2017. If Quinn can re-sign right tackle Riley Reiff and right guard Larry Warford, he would only need to find a left guard. That would leave 2016 rookie Graham Glasgow to be a versatile backup and move Laken Tomlinson out of the team’s plans.
However, if Reiff and/or Warford leave, and they will have plenty of suitors, Detroit will be looking at yet another rebuilding job in front of Stafford and the running backs.
Ziggy Ansah’s ankle injury saw him drop from 14.5 sacks in 2015 to two in 2016, and no one else stepped forward to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Preseason sensation Kerry Hyder got off to a great start, but teams were able to adjust to his limited repertoire, and the end of the season saw quarterbacks having all the time they needed to throw.
Ansah will be healthy in 2017, but the Lions need to develop a pass rush from their defensive tackles and linebackers. Rookie A’Shawn Robinson had two sacks to lead the tackles, and no linebacker recorded a sack all season. Adding pass-rushers will be huge for Quinn both in free agency and the draft.
If Detroit’s linebackers made up for their lack of pass rush by being outstanding against the run and in coverage, it wouldn’t be a major problem. However, the Lions were 20th against the run last season and were constantly being burned by running backs and tight ends isolated on Tahir Whitehead and Josh Bynes. Kyle Van Noy struggled so badly that he went from starting to being traded away in order to move up a few spots late in April’s draft. That worked out for Van Noy, who reinvented himself and won a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots but won’t help Detroit much.
The hope is that DeAndre Levy will return to health. He was one of the league’s best linebackers against the run and pass in 2014, but has only played six games in the last two seasons. Whitehead is a serviceable middle linebacker, but there’s nothing else on the roster.
Darius Slay gives the Lions a Pro Bowl-caliber No. 1 cornerback, but he can’t guard everyone. Everything is interrelated – the cornerbacks would be helped by a better pass rush and more support from the linebackers – but Nevin Lawson struggled as the No. 2 cornerback and Quandre Diggs took a step backward against slot receivers.
Quinn brought cornerbacks off the practice squad and street all season, but the Lions ended up allowing 31 touchdown passes, the second-highest total in the league. It will be a focus for Quinn, Caldwell and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin this spring.