It’s been longer than I would care to mention since the Detroit Lions last won their division (1993) but that doesn’t mean general manager Bob Quinn and new head coach Matt Patricia have any less pressure on them to take home the NFC North crown in 2018.
For Quinn, it’s his third season as Detroit’s architect and he needs to get over the 9-7 hump which has plagued this Lions team over the past two years and has kept them hovering around high-end mediocrity.
Matthew Stafford, now entering his tenth season, has shown the ability to be a consistently above-average quarterback both statistically and in late-game scenarios. This season is perhaps the best shot he’s had at a complementary running game since 2013 at the very least.
After a quality first-round pick in offensive tackle Taylor Decker in 2016, and another good one with inside linebacker Jarrad Davis in 2017, Quinn went back to the offensive line in April’s draft — selecting Arkansas OL Frank Ragnow.
Ragnow has reportedly been practicing at left guard during OTAs, taking more and more reps despite some thinking he’d assume the center position in Detroit, which he most recently played in college.
Ragnow At Left Guard Watch continues https://t.co/fNAzQrXSnO
— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurkeNFL) May 22, 2018
T.J. Lang would be staying on the right side in this scenario, with a healthy Rick Wagner having nowhere to go but up at right tackle in the second year of his lucrative free-agent deal. It also means the team is prepared to roll with their 2016 third-round pick, Michigan’s Graham Glasgow, as the starting center.
Whichever way it all shakes out for the big guys up front, the Lions ought to have an open battle for the top running back spot behind them, as I wrote about last week, and give each RB a fair shot with their revamped, presumably healthier offensive line.
Despite trading up in the second round for RB Kerryon Johnson and signing RB LeGarrette Blount, the Lions have no reason to get rid of Ameer Abdullah or Theo Riddick just because they have some new blood at the running back position.
The team also made the controversial decision to cut tight end Eric Ebron and instead signed free agents Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo, to go along with second-year tight end Michael Roberts.
Second-year receiver Kenny Golladay, if he can stay healthy, showed some real promise, particularly early on during his rookie year before getting hurt. It helps that he is getting to play next to Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, each still in their prime and coming off of 1,000-yard seasons in 2017.
Offensively, the Lions should be better, but it’s on the defensive side of the ball where things should really be interesting under Patricia. He went out and signed Devon Kennard, an edge-rushing outside linebacker that could end up being one of the team’s most impactful additions.
Devon Kennard posted good numbers for #RAS coming out of USC, but his explosion numbers were very poor. On a granular level, he's a H/W/S guy with no standout explosion or agility. #Lions pic.twitter.com/RhpM0B3vsY
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) March 14, 2018
Detroit also added linebacker Christian Jones, re-signed corner Nevin Lawson and added DB DeShawn Shead in free agency. They drafted safety Tracy Walker in the third round which gives them some depth in the secondary and possibly some added punch on special teams as well.
Up front, third-year defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson is coming into his own and could thrive if the team runs more of a 3-4 base, as it’s been speculated. Versatile defensive lineman Kerry Hyder returns after a devastating preseason injury kept him out for the entirety of the 2017 season after a highly productive 2016.
At the defensive end spot, Anthony Zettel tailed off after a good start to the year, but was promising, nonetheless. Meanwhile, Ziggy Ansah, the Lions’ best defensive lineman, signed his franchise tag, assuring fans he’ll be in Detroit for at least this upcoming season.
Overall, the Lions didn’t lose much and added plenty of immediate help in the draft and free agency. However, they have a first-time head coach entering his first year, with pretty high expectations after firing Jim Caldwell.
With the Vikings coming back seemingly even stronger after adding Kirk Cousins, they look to be the early favorites in the NFC North on paper.
The Bears are still rebuilding despite a promising rookie campaign from young Mitch Trubisky at quarterback. They’ve added speedster Taylor Gabriel at wide receiver, have a dangerous ground game and a young, but talented defense which will make them a tough out.
Green Bay cut former All-Pro receiver Jordy Nelson and signed formerly-explosive tight end Jimmy Graham. It appears to be another underwhelming offseason for the Packers, as they seem content to put it all on quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ back until he breaks down year after year from carrying them.
So, while it’s been 25 years, and it’s hard to say Detroit should be the favorite, it looks like they have a real shot at contending for the division in 2018. One thing is for sure, though, another nine-win season isn’t going to cut it for this football team as they look to take the next step.