The one advantage the Lions had when Calvin Johnson retired that they lacked when Barry Sanders called it quits was time. Sanders stunned the franchise by walking away just before training camp, leaving Detroit in scramble mode. Against the odds, that 1999 squad made the playoffs, with Greg Hill as its leading rusher, but the Lions would not make a return postseason trip until 2011.
This time around, first-year GM Bob Quinn knew well in advance of free agency and the draft that Johnson was done. He spent March and April retooling the roster, first by signing several key free agents at skill positions (Marvin Jones, Jeremy Kerley and Stevan Ridley) and later by stockpiling along the line (Taylor Decker, Joe Dahl, Graham Glasgow). The result, Quinn hopes, is a offense that may lack a dominant Megatron-like player but can counter with an army of multi-functional options. A boatload of pressure to make it all work will fall on quarterback Matthew Stafford, who heard more than his share of criticism during Johnson’s tenure and figures to wear an even bigger bull’s-eye now that his No. 1 receiver is gone.
The Rookie: The Lions handed Taylor Decker extensive reps at left tackle during OTAs and minicamp, a strong early indication that the first-round pick could bump Riley Reiff over to the right side. Detroit’s run blocking was abysmal last season, and the pass protection was not much better.
Position Battle Spoilers: Several players are in the mix for Detroit’s starting strong safety job, including likely fan favorite—and huge hitter—rookie Miles Killebrew. He will have to climb past Tavon Wilson and Rafael Bush to win the gig. Don’t be surprised if Wilson ends up atop the depth chart, despite spending most of his time on special teams in New England.
The Stat: 110.1, Matthew Stafford’s QB rating over the second half of last season, once Jim Bob Cooter began calling plays as interim offensive coordinator. The Lions went 6–2 in that stretch to earn Cooter, who replaced Joe Lombardi after Week 7 last year, the full-time gig.
Preseason Watchability Guide: The Lions draw three straight AFC North foes to open the preseason in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore—all featuring defenses that finished top 12 against the run last season. A good test for Lions as they try to find their legs.