Jets Know Your Foe Podcast Preview – Scouting the Detroit Lions’ Offseason

Michael Nania continues his “Know Your Foe” podcast with a look at the Detroit Lions offseason..

Coming this regular season, I will be hosting a weekly podcast centered around the dissection of the New York Jets’ opponent each week; featuring guests from the opposing perspective, in-depth looks into opposing teams’ strengths and weaknesses on film, compelling statistical nuggets, matchups to watch out for, and plenty more! To preview the show, each week leading up to the season I’ll recap the offseason of one of the Jets’ opponents; this week, we look at the Houston Texans.

DETROIT LIONS:

Franchise Outlook:

Who are the Detroit Lions? What are the Detroit Lions? Most importantly, where are the Detroit Lions going? 

The answers to those questions are anyone’s guess. At the moment, the Lions are perhaps the greatest poster child for mediocrity in the NFL. After failing to post a winning record for an entire decade from 2001-2010, the Lions have lived comfortably around the median since 2011. Over the past 7 seasons, they have a nearly even 57-55 regular season record with 3 playoff appearances and 6 seasons placed either second or third in the NFC North. Detroit has won 9 games in each of the past two seasons and a total of either 9 or 7 wins in 4 of the past 5 seasons. Yet, they still are looking for their first playoff win since 1991.

Detroit has hitched its wagon to Matt Stafford. While still not a bona fide perennial MVP candidate, Stafford himself has trended away from the average level he was known for and closer to a consistent elite level. He placed third in passing yards and sixth in passer rating last season, while hitting a career high in yards per attempt (7.9) and finishing with an interception rate below 2.0% for the second straight season. Stafford is proving to be the classic “very good if not great” franchise quarterback, but the Lions are potentially wasting his prime with their volatility. During this span of decency since 2011, the Lions have ranked as high as 3rd in scoring defense and as low as 27th. They’ve ranked as high as 4th in scoring offense and as low as 22nd.

Mediocrity can be a dream for the fans of franchises trapped in the basement, much like the Lions were. While nice at first and able to be pitched as “progress,” the longer mediocrity drags out, the more of a negative it becomes as the hunger for consistent contender status grows. Will the Lions be able to escape 9-win purgatory without a full-on rebuild?

2017 Strengths and Weaknesses –

Positives:

Offensive:

  • 7th in scoring (25.6 PPG)
  • 13th in total yards (337.8 YPG)
  • 8th in net passing yards per attempt (6.8)
  • 5th in quarterback rating (98.4)
  • 11th in red zone touchdown rate (57%)
  • 1st in yards per punt return (14.0) and punt return TDs (2)

Defensive:

  • 3rd in takeaways (32)

Negatives:

Offensive:

  • 32nd in rushing yards (76.3 YPG)
  • 32nd in rushing yards per attempt (3.4)
  • 32nd in fourth down conversion rate (11%)

Defensive:

  • 21st in points allowed (23.5 PPG)
  • 27th in yards allowed (355.8 YPG)
  • 22nd in net passing yards per attempt allowed (6.4)
  • 21st in rushing yards per attempt allowed (4.2)
  • 31st in rushing touchdowns allowed (18)
  • 29th in red zone touchdown rate allowed (62%)
  • 22nd in fourth down conversion rate allowed (53%)

Draft –

R1, #20: Frank Ragnow, C, Arkansas: Going into the draft, Ragnow was a beloved mid-round underdog among draft junkies, especially among center-hungry Jets fans. It turned out that love was shared by the NFL, as the Lions made Ragnow their first round selection.

I love this pick. You read the stats section above that clearly demonstrates the Lions’ complete lack of a run game. You hear phrases like “tough” and “gritty” thrown around like oxygen in scouting reports, especially among offensive linemen, but Ragnow truly deserves those tags. For the Lions, getting a guy like him will go a long way towards making the rush attack a legitimate part of the game again in Michigan.

In the first round, center is historically among the very likeliest positions to yield a future Pro Bowler.

R2, #43: Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn: You need to fix your running game? OK, well you got your young cornerstone center. How about a guy to carry the ball?

If you follow me or anybody at Turn on the Jets, you’re aware of our love affair with mid-round RBs. In recent years, the middle rounds have been an absolute gold mine for ball carriers. The Lions take their turn as they pick up the versatile and productive Johnson out of Auburn. You can clearly see with these two picks that the Lions are committed to correcting their greatest weakness.

R3, #82: Tracy Walker, S, Louisiana-Lafayette: A tools-based prospect who played safety in college but might project better as a physical, press outside corner. He was pegged as a Day 3 pick by some, so this was potentially a reach for the Lions, but you have to like Walker’s physical tools with his combination of explosion and length.

Day 3 selections: Da’Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama, Tyrell Crosby, OT, Oregon, Nick Bawden, FB, San Diego State.

Biggest instant threat to the Jets? – Ragnow. Yep, a center will be the most threatening rookie to take the field against the Jets on a Monday night in September. Ragnow is a physical monster at the center position, possessing  96th percentile height and 87th percentile weight at the position coupled with a 98th percentile broad jump and 90th percentile forty. The run game was absent for the Lions last year, but with Ragnow, perhaps it will make a return and help to balance the Detroit offense. As a fan of Ragnow going into the draft, I’ll be intrigued to watch him go at it with this overhauled Jets defensive front.

Major trades:

  • The Lions dumped Akeem Spence, an eleven-game starter at defensive tackle in 2017, on the Dolphins for a conditional seventh rounder in 2019.

Notable losses:

  • The Lions fired head coach Jim Caldwell after four seasons in which he led the Lions to a 36-28 regular season record with two playoff appearances, both ending in wild card losses. They hired former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, and also made a change at defensive coordinator replacing Teryl Austin with Paul Pasqualoni.
  • The Lions cut their 2014 first round pick, tight end Eric Ebron, a favorite draft target among Jets fans that year. He compiled 2,070 yards (37.0 per game) and 11 touchdowns over 56 games for the Lions, but was ultimately a disappointment.
  • Starting middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead signed with the Raiders. Whitehead had been with the Lions since 2012 and was a starter since 2014. In 2017, he compiled 110 tackles, 4 fumble recoveries, and an interception.
  • Center Travis Swanon signed with the Jets. Swanson battled injuries and rotated in and out of the lineup. He had one blip of a solid season in 2016, but for the most part really struggled as a Lion.

Notable additions:

  • Signed LB Devon Kennard from the Giants for 3 years, $18.75 million: A solid edge defender that should find a starting role outside quickly in the Lions’ 4-3 defense.
  • Signed RB LeGarrette Blount from the Eagles for 1 year, $4.5 million: The Lions play chess while everyone else plays checkers, as they sign the 31-year old running back who was won the last two Super Bowls with two different teams. Smart! More seriously, the Lions add more grit and depth to the run game with Blount, who averaged 4.4 yards per carry in the regular season and 4.5 yards per carry in the playoffs for the Eagles in 2017.
  • Signed TE Luke Willson from the Seahawks for 1 year, $2.5 million & TE Levine Toilolo from the Falcons for 1 year, $1.5 million: To replace Eric Ebron, the Lions brought in two unheralded, in-their-prime, primarily blocking tight ends on the cheap to see what they could bring.

Most damaging loss?

On the field, I would probably choose Tahir Whitehead. He was a solid if not spectacular linebacker that made his share of plays and was consistent for the Lions over the past few seasons. However, overall, I would actually go with Jim Caldwell. I praise the Lions for not settling and understanding they needed to go in a new direction to maximize their potential, but the bottom line is that Caldwell was leading a consistent winning football team. As a team without a hardened winning reputation, when you move on from a head coach, there’s no guarantee you’ll exceed what he accomplished for your team. The Lions may have raised their ceiling with the change, but they also may have lowered their floor. Let’s see how they adjust to the pencil-wielding first-time head coach.

Most threatening free agency/trade addition to the Jets? 

Devon Kennard has the best chance to make an impact. The Lions also added a new guard in former Charger Kenny Wiggins and a new cornerback in former Seahawk DeShawn Shead, but Kennard still has the best chance to make an impact out of the free agent additions. I chose Whitehead as my biggest loss, so in turn, Kennard is the biggest gain. It wasn’t a jackpot free agent pool for Detroit by any means, but they did pick up a few intriguing names with upside at positions of need.

Jets Connections –

  • The iconic Hoodie disciple Matt Patricia, perhaps most famous for his iconic pencil-above-the-ear, moves on to Detroit and kicks off his head coaching career against the team he has faced as a coach more than any other.

  • The Jets have owned LeGarrette Blount in his career to date (you’re welcome in advance for jinxing it now.) Blount’s 2.93 yards per attempt is his third lowest against any team, and his 21.5 yards per game is his second lowest. To boot, he doesn’t have one catch in his six games against them, either.
  • Matthew Stafford has a 105.2 quarterback rating in his two career games against the Jets, his fourth best against any opponent.
  • You read above that the Jets signed former Lions center Travis Swanson. The Lions completed the great New Jersey-Detroit center swap by signing the much-maligned Wesley Johnson, who had a very poor year taking over for Nick Mangold.
  • After signing him prior to 2017, the Lions re-signed Nick Bellore for another season. The former Jets special teams ace from 2011-14 has carved out a nice career between New York, San Francisco, and Detroit after going undrafted out of Central Michigan. He even picked up his first career touchdown last year, coming as a receiver.

Synopsis –

The Lions have a very good franchise quarterback who only just turned 30 and is locked in at least through 2019, likely longer. They have quietly maintained a respectable level of success over the past half-decade plus, straddling the cusp of consistent greatness. To boot, they have a multitude of other talented stars, such as Golden Tate, Glover Quinn, Darius Slay, and Taylor Decker. Stuck in the middle, the Lions could choose to blow it up or go in a new direction to maximize the timeline of their anointed signal-caller; they’ve smartly chosen the latter.

Detroit needs to be better in the trenches on both sides, as they must legitimatize their run game and find a way to build a defensive core that can withhold the unit to above-average levels year after year rather than alternate between greatness and lethargy. If Matt Patricia can carry over the consistency he was a part of for over a decade in New England and give the Lions stabilization in units outside of the passing game, then Detroit could finally break through and become a consistent threat.

Author: Michael Nania

You can follow me on Twitter @Michael_Nania. I'll be hosting the weekly Jets opponent preview podcast, Know Your Foe, starting with the 2018 regular season. I've been writing for Turn On The Jets since January 2018, and you can also check out more of my work on the Jets over at Gang Green Nation.