Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. This time, we turn our attention to the Lions, who must deal with not only the potential loss of their megastar receiver Megatron to retirement, but a variety of issues on both their lines as well. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
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Key free agents
S Isa Abdul-Quddus, S James Ihedigbo, DE Jason Jones, WR Lance Moore, DT Haloti Ngata, C/G Manny Ramirez, DE Daryl Tapp, DT Tyrunn Walker, OLB Tahir Whitehead
Player(s) that must be re-signed
Abdul-Quddus, Walker, Whitehead: Walker, at one year and a paltry $1.75 million, was on track to become one of the savvier pickups of last off-season until he suffered a gnarly leg injury in Week 4. He is a different, ultimately less impactful type of player than Ngata, but he’s also younger and should be cheaper. How hard the Lions press on their two free-agent DTs will give us an early indication for how new GM Bob Quinn plans to operate.
The other two defenders on the “must” list, Abdul-Quddus and Whitehead, had to wait until the second half of 2015 to claim full-time starting gigs. Once they did, they were far more effective than the players they replaced—James Ihedigbo in Abdul-Quddus’s case, Travis Lewis in Whitehead’s.
With the Lions’ plans to cut MLB Stephen Tulloch once the new league year opens, Whitehead’s presence only increases in value. He could return as the starting strong-side linebacker; he could slide over and attempt to replace Tulloch in the middle. Aside from weak-side starter DeAndre Levy (who played just one game in 2015), disappointment-to-date Kyle Van Noy and Josh Bynes, the Lions are shy on linebackers. Losing Whitehead as he continues to assert himself as a relatively capable starter would be a setback.
Abdul-Quddus’s move into the starting lineup after a Week 9 bye just happened to be followed by Detroit’s 6–2 close. One change alone did not make the difference, but Abdul-Quddus proved far more effective than Ihedigbo and the defense responded in kind. Regardless of whether or not the Lions seek out another safety to pair with Glover Quin, Abdul-Quddus earned a longer look.
An honorable mention in this section: Jones. The veteran defensive end has started all but one game over the past two seasons, and he does a nice job in all situations—he finished 2015 with 4.5 sacks and 31 tackles. Would Jones stick around as a backup if Devin Taylor leapfrogs him into the starting lineup? Detroit will have almost no depth at DE if Jones, Tapp and Corey Wootton all bolt via free agency.
Most important position to improve
Defensive tackle: Don’t rule out the possibility that Detroit retains both Ngata and Walker, in which case the outlook here changes in a heartbeat. With those two back in the fold plus Caraun Reid and Gabe Wright developing behind them, the Lions would have the DT grouping they planned on featuring last season.
Of course, there are no guarantees in that case. The Lions would be banking on Walker coming all the way back from his devastating leg fracture/ankle dislocation and that the 32-year-old Ngata could shake off a so-so 2015 season. Wright also played in just seven games, so his upside remains in question. Best-case scenario, it all works out. Odds are the Lions will need to look for a DT come free agency or the draft. Not a bad year to hit up the latter.
Other positions to improve
Backup QB, center/guard depth, cornerback, linebacker, offensive tackle, wide receiver: Hey, so about that offense ...
The Lions remain in Calvin Johnson purgatory, unsure if their megastar receiver Megatron will return for another season. Even if he does, there’s no way they can count on him for 2017, so finding another receiver will be key this off-season. But that’s easier said than done, given Detroit’s other needs and the middling free-agent class. The good news is that Golden Tate is still around and Theo Riddick has become a dazzling receiver out of the backfield/slot.
The passing game also would be more dangerous, with or without Johnson, if the line could run block or keep pass rushers off Matthew Stafford. There is enough youth in left tackle Riley Reiff, center Travis Swanson and guards Laken Tomlinson and Larry Warford to bank on continued improvement, but right tackle has been a black hole. Waiver claim Michael Ola was the only option who even so much as held serve there last season.
Swanson isn’t quite a sure thing himself. Assuming the Lions stick with their 2014 third-rounder—selected by the old regime—they still have to find backups inside. Steady veteran Manny Ramirez reportedly will not be re-signed, one year after Detroit acquired him in a draft trade with Denver.
How the linebacking corps shapes up hinges on a trio of variables: Levy’s health, Whitehead’s contract and Kyle Van Noy’s progression. Can’t imagine Quinn feels totally confident all three will work out, so count on an addition or two.
The same scenario plays out at cornerback, where Darius Slay needs a complement. Quandre Diggs was a surprise standout in the slot, but Nevin Lawson (who missed all of 2014 with an injury) and Alex Carter (who missed all of ’15 with an injury) hardly look like replacements for the recently retired Rashean Mathis.
Finally, backup QB: Dan Orlovsky is about to be a free agent and the Lions ought to let him walk. They should have long ago added a developmental QB behind Stafford.
Overall priority this off-season
Patch up the lines: Johnson’s looming retirement decision will steal most of the headlines, but with or without him the Lions aren’t getting back to the playoffs unless they repair their fronts.
The defensive line could lose two season-long starters in Jones and Ngata, plus a third of starting caliber in Walker. As much as the Lions must like their youngsters, they don’t want to head into 2015 with a starting front four of Ziggy Ansah, Taylor, Reid and Wright. They won’t, but there is a lot of ground to cover in the meantime.
Quinn and coach Jim Caldwell need answers along the offensive line, too. Is Swanson capable of anchoring the middle? Does Riley Reiff stay at left tackle or can an upgrade be found so he can swap over to the right side? Is any current RT other than Ola worth keeping around as depth?
The Lions’ O-line was manhandled all year, hence the team’s dead-last finish in rushing yards. Its defensive line generated pressure (mainly from Ansah and Taylor) but wasn’t good enough between the tackles or against the run.
How much can Quinn fix in his first off-season at the helm?