2018 Season Recap: Detroit Lions

2018 SEASON RECAP: DETROIT LIONS

Thanks to u/TheRealDoctorKay for all his work on putting this series together! It is entirely my fault that this post is a few days late, he did everything he could to give me the right information and I managed to screw it up!

Division: NFC North

Record: 6-10 (2-4 in Division), 4th placed in the NFC North

Playoffs: 2-0 vs Green Bay, 1-0 vs New England

New head coach, new culture, Same Old Lions? While 2018 was not the season anyone in Detroit expected – except for Mike Valenti, who would predict this team will go 6-10 if they were coming off a Superbowl win – the disappointment everyone felt at how it ended was not quite the same as Lions failures of the past. Although the team found new ways to disappoint its fans, there are reasons for optimism hidden in the fog that was the 2018 season.

Statistics: Offense

Stats Per-Game Stats NFL Rank
Total Offense 327.2yds 24
Passing Offense 223.5yds 20
Rushing Offense 103.8yds 23
Scoring 20.2pts 25
Time of Possession 31:24 7

Statistics: Defense

Stats Per-Game Stats NFL Rank
Total Defense 335yds 10
Passing Defense 224.9yds 9
Rushing Defense 110.1yds 10
Scoring 22.5pts 16
Time of Possession 28:36 4

Observations

By any reasonable measure, the Lions were a much better defensive team than offensive team in 2018. That feels strange to write, as in the Matthew Stafford era, that has only been true one other year: in 2014, when the Lions rode an excellent defense with Ndomakung Suh, Nick Fairley, Ziggy Ansah, Glover Quin, and DeAndre Levy at the peak of their powers to a wild card berth and a controversial loss in Dallas. In every other year since 2009, this has been an offensive team let down by a defense that couldn’t get off this field.

Which is why 2018 was such a frustrating season for Lions fans. The blueprint for what Matt Patricia wants this offense to look like is clear from these numbers: a ball control rushing team capable of letting a stout defense give it plenty of opportunities to score. Yet despite the fact the Lions ranked seventh in the NFL in time of possession on offense, they only finished 25th in scoring and 24th in total offense. Lots of useless yards in the middle of the field and no red zone threat whenever they finally did manage to get down the field.

The Matt Patricia defense held up its end of the bargain, however, as it proved stout against the run and the pass over the season despite beginning the year as one of the worst rushing defenses in NFL history. A mid-season trade for Damon Harrison helped plug that leak and allowed the Lions to finish as a top ten defense against the run and the pass.

2018 Offseason Review

I wrote the formal offseason review for the Lions back in August, so feel free to check that out if you are looking for an unrealistically optimistic take on how things were going to go last season. For now, I will restrict my analysis to recapping what the Lions hoped would happen with their various moves.

Coaching Changes

Head Coach: Matt Patricia

(replaced Jim Caldwell, spent 2018 out of football, now with the Dolphins as a senior assistant)

Matt Patricia was a multiple-Superbowl winning defensive coordinator for the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever seen. He had a track record of coaching up defenses with talent deficiencies to play beyond their ability. Best of all, he was a good friend of the general manager, Bob Quinn, and shared his views on player evaluation and development. The marriage between Quinn and Patricia promised to offer the Lions something they had not had in a long time: a GM and head coach who were on the same page.

Unfortunately, Patricia’s tenure was marred almost immediately by the revelation that he had been indicted for aggravated sexual battery while a college player at Rensselaer Polytechnic, which had previously not been reported despite his prominence as defensive coordinator for the Patriots for five years. A month-long effort by the Detroit media to speak to his accuser and unearth more about the scandal came up with nothing to add, leaving everyone with more questions than answers and only Patricia’s impassioned defense of his innocence to go on.

Patricia’s first season was also beset by much more minor controversies that ranged from a manufactured story about the players being upset that they had to run wind sprints in training camp, to the Detroit media guffawing that Patricia had the players practice outside in the snow when they were facing four indoor games in a row, to the now infamous argument he had with ESPN’s Michael Rothstein (side note: I have long thought Rothstein is by far the worst Lions beat guy. He covers this team with all the enthusiasm and editorial insight of a high school newspaper) in which Patricia responded to his hostile question by telling him to “sit up straight and have a little respect for the process.” Not a great look for the famously unkempt coach.

On the field, there were reasons to believe Patricia knew what he was doing, at least on defense. He got career years out of castoff guys like Eli Harold and unlocked the potential of a mid-round rookie who even Nick Saban had never figured out how to use. But the narrative on the guy after his first year is that he is a Belichick clone who badly mishandled his first year.

Defensive Coordinator: Paul Pasqualoni

(replaced Teryl Austin, began 2018 as Bengals DC, fired after eight games, now the Steelers DB coach)

This is Patricia’s defense, so Pasqualoni was never more than a reliable voice in the meeting room and the guy trusted to call the actual plays on defense. He had a really good year.

Offensive Line Coach: Jeff Davidson

(replaced Ron Prince, fired into the sun)

The Lions invested heavily in reviving their moribund run game last offseason, and replacing the clueless Prince with Davidson was at the heart of that effort. Prince was savaged by players after his firing in a way MLive.com beat writer Kyle Meinke said he had never heard before. Davidson, as a former offensive lineman himself, was the team’s bet to get the talented offensive line synergized and to restore some respectability to the run game. Given that Detroit had two different players go for over 100yds this year, after five years without a single one, it is fair to say Davidson did his job well. The quarterback took too many sacks, however, and cleaning up his protection needs to be a priority in 2019.

Quarterbacks Coach: George Godsey

(replaced Brian Callahan, was the Raiders QB coach in 2018, now the Bengals OC; Godsey has since been fired and replaced with Sean Ryan)

In a move that surprised many people, Bob Quinn let Callahan walk and replaced him with the former Texans OC (and Tom Brady’s former QB coach). Godsey then oversaw the worst statistical 16-game season of Matthew Stafford’s career, and was allowed to leave to become the Dolphins tight ends coach after only a season in the role. The team is turning to former Houston and New York Giants QB coach Sean Ryan to help Stafford going forward.

Notable Losses

TE | Eric Ebron (Indianapolis Colts)

The most infuriating part of the 2018 season had nothing to do with the 2018 Lions. It was watching r/nfl and the wider NFL media go gaga over Eric Ebron, a first-round bust in Detroit who lost the confidence of his quarterback and GM over four underwhelming years, as he piled up touchdowns in Indianapolis. Despite the fact that Ebron’s catch rate and yards-per-catch were roughly equivalent to his time in Detroit, the narrative became that the Lions and Stafford never maximized this obviously talented player. I stand by what I said all season about Ebron: that we didn’t miss him. He was never more than the fourth target in the Lions offense because he couldn’t be trusted to catch the ball consistently, and because he offered almost nothing as a blocker or pass protector. I am glad he has found success in Indy but at the end of the day, the Lions had to choose between Kenny Golladay and Eric Ebron as their WR3 (since Ebron can’t run block, pass protect, or play h-back, he is not a true tight end) and it is already clear after the 2018 season that they chose the better player.

DT | Halotia Ngata (Philadelphia Eagles)

The loss of Ngata was keenly felt throughout the first half of the season, when the Lions were gashed constantly on the ground by such feared rushing attacks as the Jets and 49ers. Although he didn’t do a whole lot in Philadelphia, the Lions didn’t become a real run defense until they traded for Snacks Harrison after Week 6 (and then promptly became the best run defense in the league. Snacks is that good).

TE | Darren Fells (Cleveland Browns)

Included here not for what he did in Cleveland but for what Detroit missed without him. Losing Ebron was understandable and defensible, but the loss of Fells nuked our tight end group from orbit. The Lions were Chernobyled at the position all season until a late surge by Levine Toilolo rescued their overall numbers.

WR | Golden Tate (traded to the Eagles for a 2019 3rd round pick)

This one still hurts. A fan favorite, Golden Tate was also the engine that powered Cooterball and the underneath passing game that Matthew Stafford had come to rely on. Part of me still thinks Quinn traded Tate to find out if Cooter could adapt to losing his best weapon (he could not) but at the very least, getting a third round pick for a 31yo WR on an expiring contract was great value, even if the Lions cratered without him. Come back bby.

Notable Additions

DE | Ziggy Ansah (1yr, $17.1million fully guaranteed)

One of the worst contracts in the NFL last year. Ansah started only two games and played in just a handful of others as a shoulder injury reduced his season to rubble. The worst part is that he made an impact when he was on the field and able to go, including generating four sacks and three tackles for loss. Ziggy is now a free agent. Buyer beware.

OLB | Devon Kennard (3yrs, $17.25mil, $8.5mil gtd)

Kennard was a relatively unheralded signing from the New York Giants, who Matt Patricia admitted to scouting intensely before his interview for their position. Yet his ended up being one of the best contracts handed out last year to any player in the NFL. Kennard generated seven sacks and nine tackles for loss playing a position that often required him to set the edge against not only running backs, but also scrambling quarterbacks. His off-ball impact was immense as well as he proved to be a reliable coverage LB for a team that had been unable to guard tight ends for years.

DB | Nevin Lawson (2yrs, $9.2mil, $4.5mil gtd)

Lawson has started 63 career games in the NFL, all for the Detroit Lions, and he has never recorded a single interception (he has forced a fumble, which he recovered). His value to the Lions has always been his steady coverage skills and his sure tackling ability. Even if you beat him, you won’t get any extra yards. Yet Lawson was also the most penalized Lion by far in 2018, with a staggering seven holding penalties assessed on him. He is a backup playing starter snaps.

G | Kenny Wiggins (2yrs, $5mil, $2.5mil gtd)

Listed here because Wiggins was signed as a depth guard to back up T.J. Lang, and then ended up starting 10 games in his stead while Lang recovered from brain injuries. Wiggins was the definition of “meh” and much of the protection issues the Lions struggled with can be laid at his feet. He is a decent run blocker and his style suits the north-south ground game the Lions want to generate, but he is another backup who played too many starter snaps.

RB | LeGarrette Blount (1yr, $2mil, fully gtd)

Blount was only the second Lion to go over 100yds in a single game (at Miami) but he was otherwise a waste of his very cheap contract. He did almost nothing when thrust into a lead role after Kerryon Johnson got hurt, and was outplayed by career special teamer (and Certified Albino Rhino) Zach Zenner late in the year.

DT | Damon Harrison (traded for a 2019 5th round pick)

Harrison was maybe the steal of the season. He joined the underwhelming Lions from an even more underwhelming Giants team and instantly turned the defensive line into a strength of the team. He is the best nose in the league and his presence allows Patricia to build his defensive fronts around stopping the run in the same way he once enjoyed with Vince Wilfork. A+ trade.

The 2018 NFL Draft

After free agency had concluded, GM Bob Quinn went into the draft with some clear needs on his team. Listed in order of importance, they were: EDGE, RB, DT, TE, OG

Pick Player Position/School
1.23 Frank Ragnow OG Arkansas
2.43 Kerryon Johnson RB Auburn
3.82 Tracy Walker FS Lousiana-Lafayette
4.114 Da’Shawn Hand DL Alabama
5.153 Tyrell Crosby OT Oregon
7.237 Nick Bawden FB San Diego State
Undrafted Brandon Powell WR Florida
Undrafted Mike Ford CB Southeast Missouri State
Undrafted Ryan Santoso P Minnesota

FIRST ROUND

Given the team’s needs, the selection of a mauling guard out of the SEC was something of a surprise for many Lions fans and draft pundits on the night. Frank Ragnow had flown under the radar throughout the draft process, to the point that NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah added him to his Top 50 list late in the season in response to glowing reviews he was hearing from team scouts. When he went back and watched the tape, he concluded Ragnow was worthy of being a first round pick. But nobody really expected the Lions to be the team that selected him. The fact that they were drafting before two OL-needy teams in Cincinnati and New England was perhaps the deciding factor that made Ragnow the guy at 23 over an EDGE player like Harold Landry. Ragnow played ok for a rookie. In the grand tradition of Bob Quinn first-rounders, he started all sixteen games and had his ups and downs. There were games where he looked unstoppable, such as when he single-handedly blew open massive holes in the Miami defensive line to allow LeGarette Blount of all people to go for a hundred yards on the day. But there were also games where he was ragdolled by the player he was assigned to block, including Aaron Donald who made mincemeat of him in a winnable game and forced the fumble that saved the Rams by blowing past Ragnow like he wasn’t there. He has a lot of upside and the team hopes his best years are ahead of him.

[Just a note here that local beat writer Dave Birkett Carlos Monarrez hated this pick so much he gave the Lions immediate F for their draft, before they had taken another player. Just another way in which the Detroit Free Press became a clown show last season.]

SECOND ROUND

Bob Quinn went back to the SEC well to shore up his second biggest need by taking Kerryon Johnson. Full disclosure: KJ was my RB2 in the 2018 draft class (after Saquon Barkley) before he was ever taken by the Lions, so I was ecstatic when we selected him. A powerful upright runner with rare balance and the vision to hit even the tiniest crease with pace and power, Johnson immediately upgraded the Lions run game from anemic to dangerous. The amazing thing about Johnson is that he never loses yards. At worst, he is stopped at the line of scrimmage, but every run play is a positive play, and often of the four-five yards variety. The one knock on him coming out of Auburn was injuries and his tendency to lose games late in the year as his licks piled up. Unfortunately, a knee injury suffered in the Panthers game cut short his promising rookie season and ended any watchability the Lions offense had left. Johnson finished with the second best yards-per-carry average among this excellent rookie RB class behind only Barkley. If Kerryon can stay healthy, he can be the RB1 of this team for a long time. He is a true three down back with the potential to one of the best in the NFL.

THIRD ROUND

The Tracy Walker pick was yet another stunner for Lions fans who hadn’t even heard of him until the image of Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn fist-pumping in the draft room after making this pick was beamed all over local news. Taking a small school safety when the Lions had so many other needs on the defensive line seemed like a crazy move. Quinn had shown his willingness to look beyond the Power 5 for top picks the year before when he drafted rookie sensation Kenny Golladay out of Northern Illinois, but that pick at least filled a need. Walker seemed like a developmental pick at a time the Lions really needed immediate starters. The news since then has offered an explanation. Glover Quin, the starting FS, reportedly asked to be released from his contract before the 2018 season but was denied due to the $7mil cap hit this would have charged the Lions. Taking Walker – a high IQ player who was clearly the best player for the Ragin’ Cajuns all three seasons he was there – for Quin to help develop in his last year with the team makes much more sense in hindsight. Walker was not a starter but he became a PFF darling down the stretch and seems primed to make the move to free safety next season, a critical position in the Patricia defense, now that Quin has been cut. His selection was probably a reach but Walker has a lot of untapped potential, and I can’t fault a GM for getting ahead of a looming roster hole.

FOURTH ROUND

If not for Philip Lindsay, the undrafted rookie sensation for the Broncos, I would feel comfortable calling Da’Shawn Hand the steal of the 2018 NFL draft. A five-star high school recruit who never lived up to his potential for the Crimson Tide, Hand became an instant difference for the Lions. Patricia and Quinn liked him as a prospect because he had shown he could master the technical side of Nick Saban’s complicated pro-style front, even if it didn’t always translate into production for Hand. He hit the ground running in Detroit and was getting love from PFF as an interior disruptor early in the season, but the mid-season trade for Snacks Harrison really put Hand over the top as a disruptive run stuffer and pressure creator. There has been some murmuring that the Lions want to move him to EDGE full time where his discipline and power would allow him to become a premier edge-setter and potentially a great power rusher over the next few years. Not bad for a fourth round pick.

FIFTH ROUND

Tyrell Crosby was another surprise pick, but a welcome one for a GM committed to offensive line depth wherever possible. A draft day slider, Crosby’s solid tape from Oregon showed him to be a natural pass protector with some things to work on in the run game. As a developmental tackle, he was a solid pick, but he also flashed the ability to play well in the NFL when he deputized for Rick Wagner late in the year. Wagner has not lived up to his big contract, which could clear a path to starter snaps soon for Crosby.

SEVENTH ROUND

Nick Bawden was taken as part of the Lions’ new commitment to the run game and because he had served as the lead blocker for the 2017 NCAA leading rusher, Rashaad Penny, at San Diego State. But he tore his ACL during OTAs and didn’t play a single down all season.

UNDRAFTED FREE AGENTS

As far as the undrafted guys, Brandon Powell made the most impact on the field late in the year as a shifty slot guy who tried to fill the Golden Tate role in the offense. He doesn’t have Tate’s speed or elusiveness but he is a really competitive player and has a chance to stick around as the WR4 or WR5 in Detroit. Mike Ford played a lot of snaps at outside CB down the stretch and looked comfortable, but he has some developing to do before he can be called a reliable NFL starter. A real nice contributor for an undrafted guy. Ryan Santoso is going to have a real chance to unseat starting P Sam Martin this year, due to Martin’s large contract and declining production since a freak foot injury in 2017.

Weekly Game Recaps

New coach, new scheme, new set of expectations after firing a 9-7 coach because that wasn’t good enough. The Lions are here and they are here to stay, right?

Wrong. This is maybe the most crushing game of any sport I have ever watched one of my teams compete in. The Lions collapsed across the board to a Jets team that would go on to pretty much nothing all season outside of running for 900yds on the Broncos. AND YET. This game was tied at 17-17 after the first drive of the third quarter resulted in a Lions touchdown. Not only would the Lions fail to score again, they gave up a pick-six, a punt return touchdown, and then a 62yd rushing touchdown before the end of the third quarter. Just a brutal start to the season and about as painful a debut for Matt Patricia as you can imagine.

Week Two at San Francisco was a much more creditable showing from the Lions, who played pretty great defense for most of this contest and had Jimmy Garroppolo confused and forced to hold on to the ball for far longer than he would like throughout the contest. This was the first glimmer that Matt Patricia was a great defensive game planner, as he found success by forcing Garroppolo to win the game for his team rather than relying on schemed up plays by Kyle Shanahan. Unfortunately for Patricia, his quarterback had a serious off day and failed to connect on several designed deep bombs to Marvin Jones that would have put this game away by the third quarter and given the Lions a morale-boosting road win. Despite that, the game came down to a Garroppolo interception by rookie safety Tracy Walker that was called back for my least favorite reason: an off-ball penalty on the other side of the field. This was a quick snap play, Garroppolo threw to his first read and never once glanced at Quandre Diggs holding his WR on the other side of the field, yet the refs called it and a potential game winning pick six was nullified. Refball kills the Lions again (well, their offense killed them, but the refs helped)

In the space of three weeks, I got to watch the worst Lions performance I have seen in a long, long time, and then the best Lions performance I have seen in a long, long time. This game will stick in my memory for a long time, not least because my wife’s entire family are Patriots fans and watched in disbelief as their team were dismantled by the lowly Lions. Here at last was the blueprint we had been promised: a strong running game that opened up the passing game, combined with a stingy defense that forced opponents into low percentage third down situations. Stafford had a great game, including one excellent designed pass to a wide open Marvin Jones for a touchdown on maybe the only play that burned Stephon Gilmore all season. But the real star of the show was Kerryon Johnson, who – at long fucking last – broke the Lions’ record drought by going for over 100yds on the night. The Lions ran for more rushing yards as a team (149yds) than Tom Brady threw (133yds). Just a great fucking win of the kind this team rarely gets to enjoy.

Back to Earth with a bang. The Lions lost a classic “Have the Ball Last” game in Dallas after some excellent offensive play from both teams in the fourth quarter. Stafford led a great drive down the field to score with just over two minutes on the clock, only for Dak Prescott to find Ezekiel Elliott on a wheel route that just fooled Jarrad Davis enough to secure the yards needed for Dan Bailey Brett Maher to kick the game winning field goal. It always hurts to lose to the Cowboys but this was an even game that for once did not come down to the Lions screwing themselves over.

Don’t let the box score fool you: this was as enjoyable a beat-down of a major franchise as the previous home game against the Patriots. Aaron Rodgers threw for a lot of yards, but he was downright useless on third down and had to throw the ball away or take a long developing sack multiple times in the first three quarters. His sack-fumble in the third quarter was an unforgiveable play that hinted at the offensive disconnect between Rodgers and McCarthy that would lead to the latter getting fired. People will point to the fact that Mason Crosby missed four kicks in this game, but the reason he had to make those kicks is that Rodgers couldn’t get anything done against the Lions in the red zone. Another complete team performance and things sure seemed like they were trending up in Detroit heading into the bye week.

The Lions carried their good form out of the bye week and down to Miami, where their division rival Chicago Bears had just been upset. The Lions made sure no such upset was on the cards in their game by running for a staggering 270yds, with 158 going to Kerryon Johnson alone and even LeGarette Blount going for a century. Brock Osweiler had some good throws late in this game, but it was a dominant Lions performance that seemed to herald a real division challenge was in the making. I even heard Robert Mays on Bill Barnwell’s podcast after this game describe the Lions offense as “scary.” I am sure he wasn’t disappointed to be wrong.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say the Lions season ended after the first drive of this game. Having just traded for Snacks Harrison, and coming off a dominant win down in south Florida, the Lions started this home game with a wild card rival by running all over them for a quick score. And then… they turtled. Seattle turned the tables on Detroit by running all over them and taking advantage of the fact that Snacks was on a pitch count. By the end of the game, the Lions were punch drunk and had no idea how they let this game get away from them. Pete Carroll likes to win games by overwhelming and breaking the spirit of the opponent. He succeeded here.

Oh, what’s that? You thought things couldn’t get any lower than the Jets debacle to open the season? Well, what if I told that you immediately after having his WR1 traded away, Matthew Stafford would be sacked 10 times and hit a total of 15 times on the road against a division rival? What if I told you that on defense, the Lions ended Adam Thielen’s 100yd games streak, held high-priced QB Kirk Cousins to a paltry 164yds, and forced two turnovers, yet were completely let down by an offense that self-destructed without an underneath receiver to throw to? This was just about the worst offensive performance from top to bottom you can imagine in the NFL. Jim Bob Cooter could have been fired for this game alone.

My game recaps are all about to sound very familiar, but it bears repeating just how badly the loss of Golden Tate undermined this offense. The Bears played very well on offense and Mitch Trubisky made me eat crow by throwing on time, with anticipation, and showing off excellent pocket movement throughout the game (this was his best game of a very mediocre year overall) but the Lions defense got next to no help from an offense that seemed incapable of doing anything without a reliable underneath receiver. The loss of one player should not hold back a unit this badly, especially one with a veteran quarterback and a WR in Kenny Golladay capable of going off for 78yds and a TD in a tough game like this. Yet you get the impression Cooter had no idea what to do once Golden Tate was no longer on his team. This impression would get stronger as the year went on.

I went back and watched this game to try to figure out how exactly the Lions managed to beat a good Carolina team, and discovered the answer is: a healthy dose of luck and some electric performances from their young stars. Kerryon Johnson was insane this game until he went down late with a knee injury that would ultimately end his season, and the watchability of the Lions in their entirety. Kenny Golladay had such a good year, it was almost routine watching him go for 113yds and a TD by this point. And yet, the game came down to a failed 2pt conversion by Cam Newton when he flat out missed an open receiver. A healthy Cam wins this game 9/10 times.

This was a Same Old Lions loss. Not every defeat qualifies for that special label. It takes a rare combination of (a) facing a backup quarterback (b) constant ineptitude throughout the game (c) a chance to win it at the end despite that, and (d) a self-destruction with the game on the line. The score was 16-16 when Matthew Stafford got the ball late in the fourth quarter with a chance to go and win a home game on Thanksgiving for his team. Instead, Bears safety Eddie Jackson made one of the plays of the season by streaking towards his coverage assignment so that he could pick off a telegraphed Stafford pass and take it back for six. Fantastic play, but that wasn’t end the end of the game. That game about four minutes later, when, with a chance to tie it up in the red zone, Stafford threw a pass to the back corner of the end zone intended for Michael Roberts, who had cut his route short and was nowhere near where the ball was heading. He later admitted to a blown assignment. An easy interception and an easy win for the Bears. People start affixing Jim Bob Cooter pictures to their dartboards.

In contrast to the Bears loss, this loss to the Rams was ultimately very frustrating. Coming off a bye week that followed their record-setting 54-51 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week Eleven, everyone expected the Rams to blow through the Lions on their way to the playoffs. Instead, the Lions made it interesting by essentially daring the Rams to run on them. They forced Jared Goff to make decisions at the line about what play to run based on the coverages he was seeing, and exposed the young signal caller to an element of the game he didn’t have much experience with. It was fascinating to watch the Lions corners play a brand of zone coverage designed to force Goff to test their athleticism, after a season defined by playing a lot of press man on the back end. Bill Belichick would later point to Patricia’s plan as the basis for his heavy zone defense in the Superbowl. In this game, however, the Lions ultimately lost due to the ever present anemic offense, including a costly fumble from the quarterback on an Aaron Donald strip-sack that took away their chance to take a lead in the fourth quarter. The run defense, which had been dealing with Todd Gurley all game, eventually crumbled under repeated assault and two late touchdowns put the game away for the Rams. Cooter effigies began to spring up all over metro Detroit.

This game is memorable for exactly three things. The first was the return of the Albino Rhino, Zach Zenner, who injected some life into the running game after two weeks of watching LeGarette Blount run it 12 times for -4yds. The north-south style favored by Jeff Davidson and Patricia (and now Bevell) is much better suited for his game than the Caldwell/Prince style. The second was the horrible conditions of the surface, and the fact that several Lions players pointed to the snow practice they completed in November (for which the head coach was much maligned) as helping them learn to run, stop, and use their momentum on a slippery surface. The third is that the Lions leading receiver on the day was a running back, Theo Riddick, who went for 30yds in a win. A pitchfork mob begins to form near Allen Park that calls for Cooter to be fired.

A throwback game with a lot of defense and rushing, this game came down a blown coverage that allowed Robert Foster to catch a long touchdown from Josh Allen. Kenny Golladay had 146yds receiving in this game, but it all came down to a fourth-and-one play which Josh Allen converted with his legs. Stafford threw for exactly four more yards than Allen. Cooter’s family have been placed into witness protection, so angry is the state of Michigan with him.

I am not ashamed to say I did not watch this game when it aired live. I just watched the highlights, and I wish I did not. Stafford threw for 166yds, and even poor Golladay could only muster 58 of them. Kyle Rudolph had more yards receiving than Stafford had passing. Jim Bob Cooter at this point is the only man in Michigan more hated than Urban Meyer.

If there was any hope left that this godforsaken season would not be a complete waste for Lions fans, it was the possibility that we might sweep the Packers. And not only did we sweep them, we shut them out at Lambeau Field. The last time the Lions lost at Lambeau Field, Barack Obama was still President. This is also the annual “Why Didn’t You Call Those Plays Earlier?” game for Jim Bob Cooter, who surely knew his time in Detroit was over by this point. About the only possible excuse for why Cooter waits until Week 17 to break out his bag of tricks is that he wants to save them for the playoffs, yet in his one playoff game as OC, we scored 6pts, so that doesn’t fly. Regardless, this was it for old Jim Bob, and I can’t say he will be missed.

LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019

New Coaches

Offensive Coordinator: Darrell Bevell was hired to replace Jim Bob Cooter after the best name in the business was finally exposed as the predictable, timid mess Lions fans had always feared he would become. Cooterball was a sensation in 2015 and early 2016, but even in the middle of a miraculous season fueled by the Stafford meme, Lions fans knew the offense was at its best once our quarterback started going off his own script rather than the one Cooter fed to him. Above all else, Cooter never truly figured out how to harness the run game or make it a featured part of the offense, even though the team finished a respectable 23rd in rushing DVOA this year, a massive improvement on the traditional 32nd place finish the Lions usually corner.

Darrell Bevell was the choice to replace him because he brings the experience and versatility that Matt Patricia desires in his coaches. The Patriot Way has long been to have an adaptable offense that can take advantage of the deficiencies of their opponents, and which avoids being one rigid thing that the other team can gameplan against. Bevell has schemed up both power running attacks that featured Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch, and elite passing games that propelled Brett Favre and Russell Wilson to career highs in yards and touchdowns. The theory behind his hire is that he can bring back the deep passing game that suits what Matthew Stafford can do while still taking the pressure off the quarterback with a solid run game.

Likely Cap Casualties

The Lions entered the 2019 offseason with around $29million in cap space, which has already jumped to $35million following the release of long-time starting FS Glover Quin last week. There are several other likely cap casualties on the roster that could free up as much as $22million more for the Lions to use in free agency, the draft, and re-signing their own.

Player Position Cap Savings
T.J. Lang OG $8.8million
Nevin Lawson CB $4.7million
Theo Riddick RB $3.7million
Tavon Wilson SS $2.9million
Sam Martin P $2million

Of this group, Tavon Wilson, Sam Martin, and T.J. Lang are in the most danger. Wilson is a special-teams guy and backup safety whose roster value rests on the fact Patricia likes to play the nickel defense a great deal. The decline in the value of safeties means that more are available than ever, however, which means upgrading from Wilson should not be hard. Martin has not been the same since he hurt his foot before the 2017 season, and paying $2million for a middle-of-the-road punter is unlikely to appeal to the Lions. Lang has been great when he has played, but he has hardly played. A renegotiation that ties more of his money to playing time incentives is possible, as Lang has expressed a desire to stay in Detroit to keep playing for his hometown team.

I put Lawson on here simply because if the Lions get their way, they will upgrade at CB2 this year from the ultra-milquetoast Lawson, which means paying him nearly $5mil to be a CB3 is a no-go. Riddick has declined in production and still commands decent scratch, and may have less of a role in the Bevell offense. I suspect the Lions will want to go younger at the position.

Contract Extensions on the Horizon

Player Position Contract Status
Ziggy Ansah EDGE 2019 UFA
Luke Wilson TE 2019 UFA
Levine Toilolo TE 2019 UFA
Zach Zenner RB 2019 UFA
Eli Harold OLB 2019 UFA
Romeo Okwara EDGE 2019 RFA
Taylor Decker LT Fifth-Year Option
A’Shawn Robinson DT 2020 UFA
Graham Glasgow C/OG 2020 UFA
Miles Killebrew SS 2020 UFA

Thanks in large part to the absolute disaster that was Martin Mayhew’s final draft in Detroit in 2015, the Lions have almost no major free agent decisions to make this offseason. The one diamond in the rough that Mayhew managed to find that year – Quandre Diggs, SS – has already been extended. The remainder of the 2019 decisions boil down to Ziggy Ansah and a handful of one-year contracts signed last season. Ansah is highly unlikely to return on anything more than a heavily incentive-laden one year deal. Both Luke Wilson and Levine Toilolo were underwhelming as TEs in Detroit last year, but Wilson has history with Bevell and may be brought back for that reason. Eli Harold was a cheap but productive acquisition from the 49ers and has earned a small extension. Romeo Okwara was a waiver pick-up who flashed in Patricia’s defense and is almost certainly coming back next year.

The remainder of the players listed here are from Bob Quinn’s first draft class in 2016, all of whom are heading into the last year of their current deals. Taylor Decker will almost certainly see his fifth-year option exercised, kicking that can down the road. I expect the team to make retaining Graham Glasgow a priority as well, given how well he has done and how durable he has been as the team’s starting center. A’Shawn Robinson may be allowed to play out his final year as he was underwhelming until the arrival of Snacks Harrison midway through 2018 helped him find an extra gear. He could be a candidate for the franchise tag in 2020 if he continues to play at a high level in 2019. Miles Killebrew is a special teams ace and no more at this point. He won’t be re-signed before the season and maybe not at all after 2019.

Team Needs in 2019

The Lions are still transitioning from the Caldwell/Cooter era to the Patricia/Bevell era, which means they have a lot of needs. The most glaring hole on the roster is at tight end, where only 2017 fourth-rounder Michael Roberts has any playing time at this level. Finding reliable starters at that spot is critical. Beyond tight end, the Lions need an EDGE defender, at least two cornerbacks who can play outside, a slot receiver, another guard, and both a veteran and rookie running back. A talented interior defender who can let them push Hand to EDGE full time would also be a nice addition.

Free Agency Targets

If there is one player who falls under the heading of “Pay Him Whatever He Wants to Bring Him To Detroit” this offseason, it is Patriots EDGE Trey Flowers. A graduate of the Patricia defense, Flowers brings all the gap discipline, technique, and unstoppable motor of Da’Shawn Hand in a larger, more productive, and proven frame. He hasn’t always been a double-digit sack guy, but he is the perfect specimen for the kind of gap control defense the Lions want to play. They will have serious competition from Brian Flores in Miami and the Patriots to get him.

Bob Quinn has shown a willingness to pay top of the market deals before, as with his record RT contract for Rick Wagner, but he does his best work at the middle of the market where he can sell guys on defined and expanded roles in Detroit they might have been denied elsewhere. With that in mind, some intriguing options to watch out for include:

Player Position Former Team
Preston Smith EDGE Washington
Brandon Graham EDGE Philadelphia
Za’Darius Smith EDGE Baltimore
Ronald Darby CB Philadelphia
Bryce Callahan CB Chicago
Mark Ingram RB New Orleans
Kareem Jackson CB Houston
Golden Tate WR Philadelphia
Jamison Crowder WR Washington
Adam Humphries WR Tampa Bay
Darqueze Dennard CB Cincinnati
Jason McCourty CB New England
D.J. Fluker OG Seattle
Markus Golden EDGE Arizona
Cole Beasley WR Dallas
Tyler Eifert TE Cincinnati
T.J. Yeldon RB Jacksonville

Some quick notes on their fit in Detroit. Brandon Graham is a Michigan guy, so he is on here for a potential homecoming more than anything else. Both Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith would slide in as the starting EDGE in Detroit opposite Hand, and it isn’t out of the question the team signs both. Markus Golden would be a rotational piece.

At corner, the Lions need some ballhawking or coverage skills opposite Darius Slay, which makes Ronald Darby and Kareem Jackson a pair of intriguing options would slot in as starters right away. Jason McCourty would also see a lot of snaps but has no ties to Patricia and will likely prefer to stay with the Patriots. Both Bryce Callahan and Darqueze Dennard would be starters in the Patricia nickel defense and will cost some serious scratch. I’d prefer Callahan to weaken a division rival in the process.

Golden Tate is the obvious fit at WR, but he left Seattle to get away from Darrell Bevell so it is unlikely he’d want to return. Jamison Crowder would be a lower budget version and offer more of a downfield threat, while Adam Humphries would be a true slot receiver and give Stafford the underneath option he sorely needs. Cole Beasley is the discount Humphries.

The running backs in free agency profile as either Blount or Riddick replacements. The Lions likely won’t join the Tevin Colman sweepstakes but T.J. Yeldon is a legitimate option. Mark Ingram would help spell Kerryon Johnson and has proven he can produce in a two-back situation. Finally, in a weak free-agent OL class, D.J. Fluker profiles as the one mauling run-stopper the Lions could target to shore up the position behind Lang (or without him).

Draft Targets

Round Pick Number Positions to Target
First #8 EDGE, TE, DL
Second #42 EDGE, CB, TE, WR
Third #88 WR, CB, TE, OG, RB
Fourth #111 OG, RB, CB, TE, WR, LB, QB
Fifth #146 OG, RB, LB, TE, WR, CB, QB
Sixth #184 OG, RB, LB, DL, S, CB, WR, TE, QB
Sixth #204 OG, RB, LB, DL, S, TE, QB
Seventh #224 RB, LB, DL, OG, OT, S, TE
Seventh #229 RB, LB, DL, OG, OT, S, TE

The only consistent position the Lions should be targeting throughout the draft is tight end. So great is the need at this position that the team probably needs to acquire at least three this offseason. Since the free agent class is so weak outside of Jared Cook, picking a tight end like T.J. Hockenson high has to be among the scenarios the Lions are preparing for.

In the first round, the Lions need to either take a high-ranked defensive line or EDGE prospect, or go all in on Hockenson at TE. If any of Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams, or Josh Allen falls to #8, the Lions should sprint to the podium. They should strongly consider either Ed Oliver or Rashan Gary in that spot as well, even though both guys profile as IDL. Oliver’s ability to line up from zero to seven-tech would make him a matchup nightmare Patricia would love to exploit, while Gary’s outrageous athleticism but raw skillset is exactly the kind of toolkit Patricia has a track record for refining (see Jones, Chandler, and Collins, Jamie). As for Hockenson, he is a complete tight end prospect who is a rock-solid fit for what the Lions want their offense to be in 2019. He has the highest floor of any prospect in the draft, is an elite blocker in both the run and pass game, runs crisp routes, can make big contested catches in tight coverage, and is sneaky good after the catch as well. He would be a 16-game starter in Detroit.

Clelin Ferrell is a popular mock to the Lions, and while I think he is going to be a great player, he falls into that second round of great EDGE guys who aren’t elite difference makers at the next level. Give me the game-changing TE in the top ten over a guy who will be a solid right EDGE at the next level (this is all assuming the Lions stay at their original pick)

Beyond the first round, the Lions need to target a second corner and a wide receiver early, and should be on the lookout for guard prospects and running backs in the middle rounds.

Final Thoughts

The 2018 season was not the season that anyone in Detroit was hoping for. GM Bob Quinn hoped the team would get better under a head coach more aligned with his vision for what the team should eventually look like. Matt Patricia hoped that his first year would allow him to build a solid foundation on which the team can build consistent playoff pushes over the next few years. In reality, the team faces a critical offseason where both men have to rebuild a team that was not as close as they thought in tandem with a new offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, whose hire is going to be the most important change they make this offseason.

Patricia has shown he can scheme up a great defense from spare parts during his tenure in New England and in his one year in Detroit. The question now is whether he can reboot an anemic offense and create the ball control monster he envisions this team becoming with a high-priced offensive line, a feature back in Kerryon Johnson, and a big play passing game headlined by Matthew Stafford and Kenny Golladay. Quinn needs to find some solid contributors at EDGE, CB, and OL in free agency, and make a splash with the #8 pick (which might mean trading back for more draft capital) as he does not envisage picking that high again and needs to take this opportunity to strengthen the franchise with a blue chip player to build around (TJ Hockenson please!) But he has also never been under more pressure in Detroit. It is no longer enough to be better than Martin Mayhew or Matt Millen. Now he needs to be better than the expectations he himself has set in Detroit.