Some people see the Detroit Lions 2016 campaign as a failure. Some people see it as a success. Regardless of whether you think the team needed to win the division or that Wild Card game in Seattle in order to say that the season was a success, you have to admit that they surpassed most everyone’s preseason expectations. Nine wins and a trip to the playoffs is nothing to scoff at, but the 26-6 thrashing that the Lions took at the hands of the Seahawks proved that there is still a way to go before this team is contending for titles.
The team has a few very solid pieces in place and has the luxury of some nice depth on the roster, but there are some big holes still. With a few good moves this team could be a dangerous. General Manager Bob Quinn and head coach Jim Caldwell have a chance to solidify this roster and make the Lions legit. Defense wins championships so we will focus on that unit for this first installment about the Lions offseason.
The Detroit Lions defense was historically bad in 2016, especially against the pass. Though opposing quarterbacks carved them up through the air, I actually believe that the Lions’ secondary is the most solid unit on the defense. Darius Slay will be a solid number one cornerback for years. Glover Quin is in his prime and has a year left on his contract. Guys like Nevin Lawson, Quandre Diggs, Tavon Wilson, and Miles Killebrew have a ton of potential and provide solid depth. They could certainly use a solid number two cornerback who can turn and run with faster receivers (Logan Ryan from New England?), but I place most of the blame for the unit’s pass defense woes on the front end, especially the defensive line.
The team gambled on returning Haloti Ngata, Tyrunn Walker, and Devin Taylor back to start at defensive tackle and defensive end along rising star DE, Ziggy Ansah. And they lost big time. With Ziggy battling injury for most of the year, the defensive line was not able to get consistent pressure. Kerry Hyder, a guy I had never heard of before 2016, lead the team in sacks (8) and the team only had 26 overall. They must upgrade here if they want to turn this defense around, and though Hyder certainly earned a spot in the rotation with his efforts this year, everyone except Ansah should be on the chopping block.
The team may be interested in a guy like Jason Pierre Paul to start at defensive end across from Ziggy, but he may come at a price tag that is far beyond what GM Bob Quinn is willing to pay. JPP would make the Lions’ starting DEs absolutely terrifying but it seems like a pipe dream at this point. There are too many holes to be filled to spend the likely $11-13 million/year that JPP will command. Other guys like Andre Branch out of Miami or William Gholston from Tampa Bay could be more cost effective options in free agency. Defensive ends Taco Charlton out of Michigan or Daeshon Hall out of Texas A&M could be available when the Lions pick in the draft and they have the size and skills to develop into the type of player they like.
As far as defensive tackle, it seems likely that the team will release Haloti Ngata unless he takes a pay cut and Tyrunn Walker should allowed to walk out the door. The Lions already have one replacement starter in A’Shawn Robinson, who was drafted in the second round last year and led the line in passes defended with seven. Robinson needs to develop into a force in the interior if the Lions defense is going to get back on track because I don’t see the team spending big money on a free agent stud, if that even exists this year. I think the focus will be on defensive end and they will allow Robinson to develop while finding a band-aid type player in free agency and a more developmental prospect in the draft.
Linebacker needs some major help too. When he signed a lucrative contract two offseasons ago, DeAndre Levy looked like the future stud playmaker on the Lions defense. Injuries have derailed his career since then and he has played in only 6 of 32 possible games. He may be healthy, but then again he could get injured again. Or he could retire after showing obvious displeasure with the league and the way it conducts business regarding its players and their health. Hopefully he will still be able to contribute and make plays but the team can’t count on it and even if he does, there are other major holes.
Tahir Whitehead has been the starting middle linebacker for two years now and it’s clear that it isn’t working. Three years ago, when he was the third best linebacker on the team and was playing on the strong side, he thrived. The team needs to do everything in their power to make that happen again because when he is the best option at LB, the team is in trouble. That makes finding a new starting middle linebacker priority one. In free agency, the two names that are being floated around are Zach Brown from Buffalo or Dont’a Hightower from New England. The two will definitely come at a high price, but if the team wants to spend the money then Zach Brown is the guy for this team. With Reggie Ragland returning from injury, it seems likely that the Bills will let him walk following his 147 tackle effort in 2016. If the Lions can put him in alongside Tahir Whitehead and (hopefully) DeAndre Levy then this unit can be very solid, but it’s going to cost them. I think it would be money well spent.
Should the Lions choose to address the need at linebacker in the draft the big name that has been floated is Zach Cunningham out of Vanderbilt. Reuben Foster from Alabama would be amazing but there is very little chance he drops low enough in the first round for the Lions to snag him. Cunningham has the athleticism, size and speed to step into the role in the middle immediately but is a bit of a problem in the missed tackle department. He would definitely have some learning to do and if the Lions are really in win now mode with head coach Jim Caldwell potentially on the hot seat, then they may opt for a more expensive solution in free agency.
These are just some of the moves that the team needs to make this offseason. In the NFL you can never rest easy and you always need to be looking for upgrades at all positions. Expect the team to make some moves that don’t correspond to anything I’ve listed here. Stay tuned for the list of offensive needs for the coming offseason.