The Lions finished 2014 with their best regular-season record (11–5) since 1991, when the run-and-shoot was still in vogue, Rodney Peete was an NFL quarterback and Barry Sanders was running wild. GM Martin Mayhew has filled out a roster that was almost totally wrecked by Matt Millen in the years before, but the real surprise of 2014 was the secondary, along with first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's coaching.
Austin's ability to draw the best out of the secondary guided Detroit to finishing third in points allowed and second in yards allowed last season after decades in double digits. And while significant credit should be given to guys like Ndamukong Suh and D'Andre Levy, it was the cornerbacks—Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay—and the safeties—Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo—who did much of the heavy lifting.
“He has all of the qualities that you’re looking for [in a future NFL head coach]," coach Jim Caldwell said in January. "I think without question, he has two of the things I think for dynamic leadership that you’re looking at are precepts and percepts. One, the precepts being the technical knowledge and being able to understand exactly what you’re doing in your chosen profession. He’s excellent at that. The percepts are, does he have the emotional sort of connection with his players to sort of get them to do what he wants to? Does he have it when he needs it? He has that. I think, not only that, he does a great job in terms of handling the media which is very important in this particular job. I fail at that quite often, he excels at it.”
Good news for the Lions is that they'll have Austin for at least one more year, and the starters in that secondary will also return. Along the defensive line, things are far less stable.
Ndamukong Suh departed for Miami and signed an enormous six-year, $114 million contract with $60 million guaranteed. Nick Fairley took his mammoth physical potential and wildly inconsistent play to the Rams, and C.J. Mosley—who willed in very well for Fairley when he was hurt halfway through the season—followed Suh to the Sunshine State. The Lions traded for Baltimore's Haloti Ngata and drafted Auburn's Gabe Wright to help the transition, but it's still unknown how it will be without a player of Suh's talent in the middle of that defense.
On offense, everything should be clicking. An offense line that used to be a disaster has been shored up in recent years, and was further strengthened by the selection of Duke guard Laken Tomlinson in the first round. With Tomlinson and Larry Warford, the Lions can now boast one of the better young guard combos in the league, Travis Swanson should be able to move to full-time center from his swing position in 2014, left tackle Riley Reiff is relatively consistent if unspectacular, and right tackle L'Adrian Waddle is hoping to improve over his 2014 season, which ended with a knee injury in Week 15.
All the marquee guys are back on offense—quarterback Matthew Stafford, and receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. The hope is that there will be more consistency out of second-year tight end Eric Ebron, but overall, the Lions look to be in a quality position to head back to the postseason, despite their residence in perhaps the NFL's toughest division.
Best acquisition: Haloti Ngata, DT
Knowing full well that they were losing Suh and Fairley, the Lions traded fourth- and fifth-round picks to the Ravens for Ngata, the 31-year-old tackle whose athleticism has always been shocking for his size. At 340 pounds, Ngata has played effectively everywhere from the nose tackle position to base end, which makes any consternation over how he'll switch from a hybrid front to Detroit's 4–3 base a bit silly. Hgata has played in the one-gap attacking style the Lions prefer at times throughout his career, and the adaptation won't be a major one. In addition, if the Lions want to get a bit more versatile with their fronts, Ngata can certainly oblige. That's why the team is already talking about a contract extension with Ngata, who's in the last year of his current deal.
Biggest loss: Ndamukong Suh, DT
Suh has been the Lions' best defensive player since he was taken second overall in the 2010 draft, and he's absolutely on a Hall of Fame track. That said, the Lions didn't see Suh's contract demands as in line with his place on a full roster, and the Dolphins swept in with the aforementioned contract. And per OverTheCap.com, there are some fairly heavy roadblocks in that deal—in 2016, Suh will present a salary cap hit of $28.6 million. There's no way the team can cut him until 2018 at the absolute earliest, where he'd leave $5.1 million in dead cap dollars as a post-June 1 cut versus his $22.1 million overall cap hit.
The Dolphins got their man, and they paid through the nose for him. We'll see how practical that turns out to be through the years, but there's no question that 2016 will put him in a very elevated stratosphere—and he'll have to put up a J.J. Watt-style season to earn it. Not that he can't, but the pressure is certainly on, and if the Lions are able to reasonably replicate Suh's impact with a rotation of players, they'll be the wise ones.
Underrated draft pick: Gabe Wright, DT, Auburn (113th overall pick)
To add to their new tackle rotation, the Lions picked Wright in the fourth round, and that could prove to be a fortuitous selection. The 6'3", 300-pound Wright starred at the Senior Bowl after amassing six sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss throughout his collegiate career. There are concerns about Wright's motor, and his ability to back off the pass rush to stop the run, but he should be able to make a dent on passing downs right away, and there's the potential for more.
"We really like Gabe," said Austin after Wright was drafted. "He is a really hard competitor. He played a lot of football from the SEC. He falls in the mold in what we like our defensive tackles to do and that is to penetrate, attack, get off blocks and make plays. He did a really good job of those things. He is a good player, a good kid and we are really glad to have him.”
The Lions were considering taking Wright in the third round, which adds to the possible steal aspect of this particular selection.
Looming question for training camp: Can Ameer Abdullah complete Detroit's offense?
In 2014, per Pro Football Focus, no team targeted their backs more than the Lions, with 28.3% of all passes going to players out of the backfield. And when you attempt 602 passes in a season like Matthew Stafford did, that's a lot of targets. On the rushing side, however, it wasn't quite as effective. Joique Bell led the team with 860 yards and seven touchdowns on 223 carries, while Reggie Bush (since released) was far more a sustainer out of the passing game. The selection of Abdullah in the second round out of Nebraska was an attempt by Detroit to move the goalposts a little bit—and hopefully, reach them more often.
In 2014, Abdullah carried the rock 41 more times than Bell did, and he gained a total of 1,611 yards, with 19 rushing touchdowns thrown in. He's averaged six yards per carry or more in each of his last two seasons, and at 5-9 and 195 pounds, he has an intriguing combination of agility and power that should make him Detroit's main man in the running game right away. He also caught 73 passes for 690 yards and seven touchdowns in his collegiate career in a very limited passing offense, so the mind reels regarding what he can do with this system.
"He’s a quality guy," Caldwell said of Abdullah after he was selected. "One of the things that you’ll notice about him is that he’s a real determined individual. He’s one of those guys, it just doesn’t just take you very long to get a sense of what this game means to him. He’s really committed to what he does at every single phase, so we’re excited to get him in. Obviously, his talent speaks for itself. He’s a talented guy that’s multi-dimensional. Not only a threat out of the backfield, but in terms of running the ball and also as a receiver as well.”
Abdullah will platoon with Bell and Theo Riddick, but don't be surprised if he takes the lead spot very quickly, and elevates Detroit's offense.